Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Stream of political consciousness

Every now and then, a body can catch a quick chain of thought right as it wraps up -- and review the sequence with a bit more confidence than dream recollection usually allows. That happened today as I took one of my ADD workday breaks, sopped up a couple of stories on TNR and TPM, and sat outside in the sun for two minutes. A recap:  
  • Datum: Blue Dog Democrats do not want to vote on letting Bush tax cuts expire for top 2%, fear they'll be slammed for "raising taxes."
  • Trigger: TPM headline re scared Dems: Run for the Hills
  • Association: Obama in SOTU exhorting Dems not to "run for the hills" on health care reform in wake of Mass Senate election.
  • Memory:  my crie de coeur on Jan. 19, eve of Scott Brown's victory, as various Dems made various noises about giving up on health care: "We have one party that has not got the brains to govern. Will we now learn for certain that we have another party that hasn't got the guts?"
  • Thought: We didn't learn that, did we?
  • Thought: Those Dems who wanted to do something small and cosmetic on healthcare after Jan. 19 and focus on jobs jobs jobs had at least some short-term political logic on their side.  
  • Thought: Bernstein doctrine: have at least a measure of respect for elected officials' exquisite sensitivity to the perceived will of their constituents.  It's Darwinian, it's necessary.
  • Thought: nonetheless, passing healthcare reform was worth political risk, even loss of office for scattered few.  Putting the country on a path toward universal healthcare is what Democrats are for.
  • Thought: Still, politicians must be sparing with bet-your-seat votes. They do have a responsibility -- and all kinds of personal, visceral incentives that on balance serve the public interest -- to try their utmost to stay in office.
  • Thought: Political suicide in service of passing major legislation really is a bit like self-sacrifice to save the lives of others. [Later interpolation: Ezra Klein is right, of course, that in important ways it's not comparable -- politicians voted out of office have lots of remaining options and resources; we needn't cry for them.  Still, viewed in terms of incentives and the way we're wired for self-preservation, it has a similar dynamic: every instinct cries out against it, and in most cases,it is prudent and right to follow the instinct.
  • Thought: I am tired of people blaming Democrats for alleged lack of the courage to ram rational, moderate legislation past unanimous bad-faith Republican opposition.
  • Thought: Politicians are often not good at calculating their own political interest. What galls in this case is that the political logic in this case overwhelmingly favors Democrats holding a vote on extending Bush tax cuts for the lower 98%
  • Thought: Do you think Nancy Pelosi doesn't know that?
  • Thought: Here we go again...
  • Postscript: just as there is something natural, biological, evolutionary in the response of politicians to political pressure, so is there a kind of biological logic to the organism of a political party.  That it could be in the interests of the party as a whole to sunset the Bush cuts for the top 2%, but be against the interests of some Democrats -- and that the party can navigate those diverged interests by vote-counting and providing Papal dispensations to certain members to vote against, is from one perspective cause for cynicism but from another cause for celebration.  That is how interests balance and compete/cooperate productively, and how a diverse community of partially overlapping interests gets things done.
My guess is that the Democratic leadership will choreograph this kabuki dance adequately, and get their 2% sunset. Unless the floodgates opened by the Supreme Court in Citizens United overwhelms them...

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