Thursday, May 13, 2010

Polyanna alert: my 'trust in government' is high

Wow, am I ever out of step with the electorate.

The latest WSJ/NBC poll finds that lack of trust in government is off the charts. Incumbents are on the execution block.  The Democrats are going to get their clock cleaned. Republicans have a 20-point advantage among likely voters. 

I am aware of the iron law that trust in government varies inversely with the state of the economy, most specifically with the unemployment rate. I've studied Reagan's poll numbers, to which Obama's so far bear a close resemblance.  I accept that Democrats are caught holding the bag of the financial meltdown of 2008-09 -- and that they share responsibility for it, as many of the key deregulatory actions were taken under the Clinton Administration.

But I'm also grateful that the Democratic Congress, in concert with Obama, was there to clean up the mess.

Within the confines of our sclerotic and lobby-laden political system, the Democrats have done everything humanly possible to get this country out of the economic ditch it was in when Obama took office -- and to lay the foundations of needed structural reform.

They swiftly passed an essential stimulus -- too small, perhaps, too weighted toward tax cuts -- but still effective enough to save 2 million jobs and add 3-4 points to GDP as it was turning around.

They faced down perhaps the most concerted and extended demagogic campaign against a domestic policy initiative in U.S. history to pass a well-designed health reform bill that will provide coverage to the bulk of the uninsured and that to a greater extent than might have reasonably been expected -- again, within the confines of our political system -- deploys the best ideas out there for controlling health care costs.

Now, catching a rage wave at what may prove to have been its long crest (after many feared that peak had long passed), they are on the brink of passing far stronger financial regulatory reform than anyone dreamed possible a few months ago.

The House, of course, did much more, passing cap-and-trade and something like 180 bills languishing in the Senate. For Senate inaction, I blame the Constitution, Senate rules, the breakdown of Senate norms over the past 20 years, and unprincipled Republican obstructionism -- forces larger than 59 or 60 Democrats.

I am under no illusion that Democratic reps and Senators are not heavily influenced by lobbyists and other venal political pressures and calculations.  Other than finding structural ways to limit lobbyist influence, I would have it no other way. Democracy is a contest of interests, and the Darwinian pressure on elected officials is to get reelected. That's as it should and must be, as Jonathan Bernstein never tires of reminding us.

But in the long run and the aggregate, the results of implemented policies shape the mass of voter perception.  And Democrats, in aggregate, know the country's long-term needs: universal health care and health care cost control; a way to tax carbon emissions and stimulate development of new energy sources; higher taxes to pay for the services no one is willing to give up; reductions in military commitments and spending.  Those basic principles shape the party's policies for the most part.

And strangely enough, the fierce legislative battles of the last eighteen months have generated -- often as a byproduct of disingenuous attacks -- new standards of legislative probity (or at least its appearance). I keep coming back to the second part of this postmortem on the HCR battle by Andy Stern (to Ezra Klein):
First, the longer you wait, the harder it gets and the worse it gets. Time for deliberation is appropriate, but indecision and delay are counterproductive to getting something done. The choices don't get easier over time. They get harder.

Second, people have to decide whether people in the same party will use procedural tricks to trip up their teammates. Or whether parties, particularly the Democratic Party, appreciates that the special deals and earmarks that might traditionally have been part of the process no longer work. Politicians used to bring kickbacks home to their district, but now people think the system is corrupt.

Governing honestly and openly and voting based on what's good for the country rather than for your election actually means something right now. It's really dangerous right now to be seen being corrupt in a corrupt system. Ben Nelson used to look like an honorable person in a corrupt system. Then he flipped to looking like one of the corruptors.
Whether these new pressures ultimately turn out to be a good thing or a new impetus for gridlock and demagoguery remains to be seen. But they are very much in play as financial reform nears the endgame. New charges against the banks, fresh resolve from the Obama administration in the wake of the health care victory, and the instant outing of any provision that favors the financial industry seem likely to prevent a gutting of derivatives legislation, get some variant of the Volcker rule passed, and grant more rather than less power to the consumer protection agency.

I'm not dropping my core premise up there on the right (in "About me"), that the electorate is smarter than all of us. It is, but not always -- just in aggregate, in say 20-30-year sweeps, and discounting the distortions introduced by our undemocratic Constitution.   The main reason democracy works is that when things go badly, voters throw the bums out.  Sometimes the timing is a bit off, and we throw out the wrong bums.

If the Democrats suffer an historic loss in November, I will honor the 111th Congress forever for doing what needed to be done and paying the price for being there.


  1. "the Democrats have done everything humanly possible to get this country out of the economic ditch it was in when Obama took office"

    Therein lies the problem: the pervasive assumption that they can FIX the things that are caused by all those attempts at fixing to begin with.

  2. Um, then please do tell what Obama and Democrats in Congress should have done.

    Perhaps fiddle, as the GOP did?