Monday, January 03, 2011

Politics and principle, cont.

Seth Masket, parsing my critique of Jonathan Bernstein's approach to political ethics, seems to have missed (or discounted) a couple of key modifiers (emphasis added):
Sprung...questioned why we should accept crass political calculation by our elected officials:
Where Bernstein (judging from his blog's Comments section) does disturb many readers -- me included -- is in his suggestion that it is politicians' right, indeed their duty, to be guided entirely by such calculations [of political advantage]. He argues, in effect, that the law of political survival is a necessary, natural, sufficient and therefore desirable prime mover of politicians' words and actions.
I don't want to speak for Jon here (I'm sure he'll have a good post along these lines up shortly), but my response to this is as follows: I don't celebrate this system. But to complain that politicians will be guided by political calculation is like complaining that businesspeople will be guided by profit maximization or that athletes are too obsessed with winning. It's not a character flaw; it's their line of work. Indeed, hoping for politicians who are untethered from political calculations is not only naïve, but sometimes quite dangerous
The bone I picked with Bernstein was not that he illuminates the how and why of political combat. I'm delighted that he does; that's why I read him.  My question was simply whether we should assume, as I think Bernstein at least sometimes does, that the struggle for political advantage has no bottom -- and that it never conflicts with the struggle to craft good policy.

I don't think it's terribly controversial or clever -- or naive -- to posit that sometimes an elected official's understanding of good politics will conflict with her understanding of good policy; that sometimes a politician will have to choose between the two; and that sometimes -- including when the stakes are highest -- politicians choose against political advantage.  In Taylor Branch's The Clinton Tapes, Clinton asserts --credibly, I think -- that he acted against his short-term political interest in the Mexican bailout, the Aristide restoration, and the bombing of Serb targets in Bosnia; he also confesses that he was unwilling to expend the necessary political capital to reverse a policy he considered stupid, the Cuban embargo.  I think George W. Bush is also credible in asserting that he placed the national interest as he perceived it against the short-term interests of his party.  I think these points are so self-evident that I suspect Bernstein will claim that I've oversimplified or misrepresented his presentation of the relationship between politics and policy.  And it may be so -- but not in the posts I cited.

All this is not to claim that in the normal course of things politicians' calculations of politics and policy are not closely intertwined.  Again, it's pretty arresting when Bernstein suggests that sensitive antennae for political trouble will generally steer a politician right on the policy front. The calculation is complicated by the fact that elected executives have at least some basis (majority opinion) for believing that their own reelection is essential to the national interest.  Their supporters have a similar basis.

As a partisan Democrat, I (or Obama) might believe that as a matter of absolute policy, it would more in the national interest to let all the Bush tax cuts expire than to buy new stimulus by agreeing to extend them all temporarily. Short-term, sputtering and fragile economic growth might take a hit; long term, the structural deficit would be largely taken care of. Yet that calculation makes no sense isolated from political reality. If growth stalls again, the GOP's chance of taking House, Senate and presidency in 2012 soars -- which means that all Democratic economic priorities would be frustrated. Obama need not be a megalomaniac nor a pure Machiavellian to conclude that his reelection is the country's chief bulwark against economic catastrophe.  That is, assuming that he believes sincerely, as it's hard to imagine he does not, that further deep tax cuts, evisceration of the PPACA, refusal to further regulated greenhouse gas emissions, and restoration of lobbyists to the helms of key regulatory agencies would spell economic disaster for this country. 

It may be that an absolute disjunction between perceived political interest and determination of the right policy is as rare as the ticking time bomb scenario in the interrogation of terrorist subjects. The conflict will often be experienced as one between short-term and long-term gain, which for a president at least can make hewing to principle a matter of enlightened self-interest. Bush was aware that he would take a political hit for going with the surge in Iraq, but he was also doubtless convinced that turning the military tide would secure his place in history.

At the extreme margin, though, belief in one's own indispensability can essentially erase any distinction in the leader's own mind between political gain and good policy. That seems to have been the case with Nixon -- who believed, apparently a generation early, that the decline of U.S. primacy was inevitable, and that only he could feather the descent.

In the summer of 1970, as Rick Perlstein tells it, the Democrats in Congress granted the president the authority to impose wage and price controls as a stick to beat Nixon -- assuming he would never use that power, and that they could accordingly slam him for refusing to relieve the pain imposed by inflation. The strategy worked in the 1970 congressional elections. Perlstein recounts Nixon's reaction:

The president learned the lesson. In a meeting on his reelection campaign, he told Haldeman, "I really want the economy to boom beginning in July '72." He didn't really care how it was accomplished. On November 7 in Key Biscayne, he listed seven priorities for the coming year. The first was sprucing up his hermit image. The second was the economy -- "greater changes than the President has been willing to consider."....

He began seeing 1972 in apocalyptic terms: if he lost the presidency, America might end. Any imaginable Democratic nominee was "irresponsible domestically" and "extremely dangerous internationally." He had come to understand something profound in his two years as president, in all those lonely afternoons brooding alone in his hideaway office in the Executive Office Building--the kind of profundity too deep to share with the mere public: "America has only two more years as the number one power." America had either to "make the best deals we can between now and 1975 or increase our conventional strength. No Democrat can sell this to the country" (Nixonland, p. 537).

His solution was a radical economic package to goose the economy: impose wage and price controls, add a 10% tax on all imports, and take the dollar off the gold standard. Perlstein elaborates again on the foreign policy imperative:
Nixon had by then [August 1971] become convinced that one of the reasons he had to serve a full eight years was because he grasped what was true in the intimations of the apocalypticists on the bestseller lists: the imminence of America's decline as the world's number one power. He believed Nixon, and only Nixon, in a second term, safely removed from the requirement of ever winning another election, could cushion the blow by teaching Americans to live within limits. The conclusion he drew from this was paradoxical and astonishing: he would have to win the election by doing whatever he had to do to make the economy appear to boom in the run-up to the 1972 elections, no matter the longer-term consequences of the techniques it took to do it (p. 599).
Nixon's defenders would doubtless present his motives differently; Perlstein's sources for these passages are all secondary. What would seem to be indisputable -- and I'm not equipped to check Perlstein's sources here -- is Nixon's conviction that the U.S. was about to lose primacy;  the deep unease that his economic package

caused among his conservative economic advisers; and Nixon's delight in the pure political calculations of John Connolly, who was instrumental in devising the package. But as Bernstein is fond of reminding us, the mix of politicians' "real" motives is ultimately unknowable.

Nonetheless, we can make inferences. And those inferences should inform our judgment as voters.

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