Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On McConnell, Bush, good policy, good politics and the electoral contract according to Jonathan Bernstein

When I read Jonathan Chait's reaction to Josh Green's conversations with Kentucky Republicans (Green immediately below, followed by Chait)....
In my talks with voters on the campaign trail today and yesterday, the idea that the Republican Party is as complicit as the Democratic Party in what ails the country is something I heard again and again. I made a point of seeking out registered Republican voters, and the frustration with Mitch McConnell, Kentucky's senior senator and the Senate Minority Leader, seemed indistinguishable from--or perhaps better to say, "was a large part of"--the general frustration with Washington. "Republicans in Washington, D.C. are just playing 'follow the leader,' Janice Cox told me at a rally in Paducah earlier today, to which she'd brought her daughter, grandchildren, and a jumbo-sized American flag. "We need a true constitutional conservative."
McConnell must want to tear his hair out. What more could he possibly do to oppose Obama's agenda? He put intense pressure on his party to pull out of negotiations over health care reform. He maintained a united wall of opposition on virtually everything. He used every parliamentary trick at his disposal, slowing down Congress by filibustering even totally uncontroversial measures and low-level appointments. What more could he do? Do these people want him to use actual violence?

I thought of this, by Jonathan Bernstein:
Good representation, following Richard Fenno, is about having a strong representational relationship.  And (and here I'm on my own, I think) it is not for me, or Andrew, or Burke, or Pitkin to say what sorts of representation are best.  That's a matter for each individual elected official and his or her constituents to work out for themselves.  Moreover, I argue that the ability to do this, to make promises, interpret them, govern with those promises and future explanations in mind, to explain what one has done, and then campaign again, is the real skill of politicians.  Of course that takes judgment, and it certainly takes practical wisdom.  A particular kind of judgment, however -- political judgment that helps a pol know how public policy decisions are related to what they've promised. ...

as long as a politician fulfills her promises, and explains what she's doing in a way that strengthens her constituents' trust in her, then she's a good representative.  That's as much as we can say, at least as far as evaluation is concerned.

Bernstein's definition of a good representative presupposes an electorate that knows what it wants and wants things that are in its own self interest.  I think that tends to be true in the aggregate. But there are times when the elected leader needs to educate his or her voters -- perhaps gradually, incrementally, letting events do much of the work, but unmistakably -- not to mention times when an electorate may really go off its rocker.  Regarding the former, I often come back to Frederick Douglass' posthumous tribute to Lincoln:
Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.
A corollary of Bernstein's concept of the contract between rep and constituents that doesn't entirely jibe with his "please the voters" dictate is his assertion that in the long run, good policy is the only good politics, because voters will punish policy failure -- that is, real-world disaster.  Today, following that conviction, Bernstein comes up with an assessment of George W. Bush that manages at once to hew closely to conventional wisdom about Bush -- he was too incurious and so stuck in an information bubble, and he staffed government agencies with incompetents -- and to deliver a bracingly counterintuitive judgment: Bush failed because his political instincts were poor.  That is, he lacked the antennae and failed to set up the apparatus to anticipate and stave off looming policy failure:
We're still early in the building of the history of the Bush years, but here's my guess.  We'll find that what we saw was pretty much what was happening.  He didn't act aggressively when faced with potential policy disaster -- whether we're talking about the summer of 2001 and terrorism, or 2003-2005 in Iraq, or 2004-2008 and Afghanistan, or 2007-2008 and the economy, or Katrina, or anything else.  We're going to find that he strutted around a good deal, but was otherwise passive and indifferent, and easily manipulated by those around him.  And my guess is we're going to find the big things that went wrong (terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, torture, the economy) joined by dozens of smaller things that slipped through the cracks for eight years.  One last time: I'm not talking about ideology or policy, just the basic skills of the presidency.  Frankly, I think Republicans and conservatives should be more angry about it than Democrats and liberals.  Not because he deviated from pure conservative thought, but because his poor management of the office threatens to discredit their ideas just as Jimmy Carter's poor management of the office tended to discredit liberals and Democrats.
Again, though, I don't think that Bernstein fully squares his notion that good policy is good politics in the long run with his notion that a good elected official should essentially do what his or her constituents want.  What if they favor ruinous policies? Eventually, they will punish the policy failure of a leader who gives them what they want. But what's an elected official to do in the interim?  Sometimes you've got to take an unpopular stand, and do your utmost to educate voters, and put your head on the block if you can't.

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