Political Pragmatism

You want to make me dictator?  OK, here’s what I’ll do:

1) Slash US military spending, start an orderly but fast withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, leave the NATO alliance, and instead focus on enough military to defend the homeland, and a long range plan of intelligence sharing and operations to counter terrorism and other threats;

2) Abolish the current tax code and create a progressive fair tax that had marginal rates lower than the current ones, but wipes out almost all tax breaks and loopholes.   The new system would be a revenue generator, but would not place a greater burden on families earning less than $125,000 a year;

3) Restructure the health care system to guarantee care to every citizen through state run programs with federal benchmarks and requirements.   States will have considerable leeway how they do this, and we can learn from their different experiences.   Medicare as we know it will be subsumed in this new system.   Costly duplications and pharmaceuticals will not be covered unless absolutely necessary (and generics will be the only drugs covered where they’re available);

4) Social welfare programs would be restructured to be results-driven — not simply transfers of income but actual opportunity creators focused on jobs, education/apprenticeship, and community action.  This would be done with a focus of community organization rather than federal bureaucracy with the idea of building community solidarity;

5) A blue ribbon panel of economists will focus on economic investments that are designed to return the country to sustainable economic production to replace the hyper consumerism of the past thirty years (especially the 00’s).

Of course, I’m not about to be made dictator, and even if President Obama privately agreed with all that, he couldn’t do much to turn it into reality.

The US was founded on the core governing value of political pragmatism.   The founders knew that competing interests and ideals meant that conflict and disagreement would be at the core of the American political soul.   Moreover, they felt that such conflict and disagreement could be good — it could force people to have their beliefs critically challenged, and have to find common ground with people of different interests.   The only way the US can undertake major political initiatives is through compromise.

The right wing of the Republican party and the so called “tea partiers” (at least the radical ones) are the most virulent and dangerous wing of the current anti-pragmatists.  Using that old canard of “standing on principle” (which all too often means ‘calling my subjective beliefs principle and refusing to look at any evidence that might call them into question’) they enthusiastically and with the demeanor of a self-righteous crusader out to slay Satan’s hordes hoped to force the country into a crisis.   They lied to themselves that the US “wouldn’t really default” and that they could somehow bring back fiscal sanity.   They wanted to get their way completely.   If they couldn’t then they’d cause so much damage that the whole system would collapse.   One person equated it to an alcoholic whose life has to hit rock bottom before he changes.   The country needs default and a currency collapse before it will change its habits.

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner learned that if a large enough contingent of such radicals make it into Congress and refuse to play by the tradition of American pragmatism, they can make the entire government dysfunctional.   On the left, a lot of liberals want to reject the agreement for only slightly less insane reasons.   They’re mad that a radical cadre of Republicans could force this down their throat, and believe that they only way to respond is in kind.    The President should do what’s necessary to fight them — risk default, risk a constitutional crisis by invoking a 14th amendment not meant for this kind of case, and go the mattresses in partisan war!

In some ways this is typical for the House.  It’s always more partisan and rowdy than the stoic Senate.   The President, by comparison, is meant to be a unifying symbol and has to look out for the long term good of the country.   If the US didn’t raise the debt ceiling, and more importantly if the US didn’t show signs of making progress cutting the debt, our credit rating would have sunk.   That sounds bland, but the consequences would have been severe, perhaps catastrophic.   Pushed by their own core constituencies into a difficult situation, they realized they had to compromise.

The compromise is the essence of pragmatism.   No major decisions were set in stone — the cuts they agreed to were agreed upon early on in the process and were probably a minimum to avoid a downgrade.   A no-cut scenario was out of question, without progress on the debt a downgrade was virtually certain.  The bi-partisan commission who will report recommendations includes all the top players, assuring no one can get steamrolled by something like the “Gang of Six” Senate moderates who had true independence.   They rigged the deck further by making consequences for not acting on that bi-partisan committee report painful to both parties.     They had enough votes to allow the more partisan in both parties to complain loudly.  But they did what they had to do.

The left simply cannot get its way in this political environment.   Not only is there no chance for tax increases or a new stimulus, but not cutting deficits will lead to a downgrade with a further drag on the economy.   The right is simply out of touch with reality — they’ll never get entitlement reform and deeper cuts without tax increases and the closing of loopholes.  It cannot happen.

Little was decided with the debt ceiling compromise.  This was an opening skirmish in a political battle that will continue.   The 2012 election will be a war, followed by diplomacy to determine how the relative balance of power decides what kind of policy will prevail.  It’ll be slow, agonizing, and the advantage will shift from left to right quite often over coming years.  There will be emotion, anger, and new compromises and deals that will satisfy no one.

Leaders will be blamed for the political reality they inherit.   Populists will make it sound like an easy solution exists if only the politicians would grasp it.   I don’t know how the future will turn out, who will win in 2012, or where the economy is going.  I do know that if political pragmatism ever loses out partisan warfare of the kind we saw flashes of here, we may shift to a very destructive phase of America’s democratic experience.

The tradition of pragmatism is strong; it is the American way and has been for generations.   Tradition and political culture are resilient, especially in a country this stable and old (yes, in terms of functioning democracies we’re older than European states).   The spectacle was exciting, the anger on the left and right over a compromise neither like is palpable.   But pragmatism won the day, and assures that the battle over the future simply moves to another venue down the line.   That’s what the founders intended.

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  1. #1 by classicliberal2 on August 3, 2011 - 00:11

    Last week, Paul Krugman was writing about “balance” bias in press coverage, and, as he was attacked by the Media Research Center (who totally mischaracterized his position), I was, as well, in defending him. I think you often commit this same “balance” bias when you write here, Scott. You always try to stick it to both sides, whether doing so makes any sense or not.

    I’m about as far from my best, when it comes to my writing, as it gets, but I’ll try to make my case, here, as best I can.

    You did finally come around to the view that Obama should never have offered Republicans anything as a blackmail payment over the debt ceiling, and you do roast the House reactionaries for their profound anti-pragmatism, but your notion of “pragmatism” often seems, to me, to be shortsighted in many areas, a big way being that it ignores, rather than challenging, problems that are systemic, taking these things as a given and proceeding as if we should just all accept them. In practice, this is extremely anti-democratic (small “d” democratic). Above, for example, you again balance your criticism of the House reactionaries with criticism of the liberals, but you present them as the other side of the same coin, and fail to fairly address their underlying argument–the argument that would make it very clear they weren’t of the same coin at all.

    The reason the liberals are so angry is that the reactionaries are a minority, and a relatively small one, but time and time again, they use procedural gimmicks to short-circuit the workings of government, and impose their will on the rest of us. Democrats won the congress in 2006, took the White House and huge majorities in both bodies in 2008, and Republicans continued to run the government, as if those elections had never even happened. During the health care fiasco, to cite but one example, you characterized those who insisted on the public option as being anti-pragmatic, but the House passed the public option, the Senate had majority support for the public option, the public overwhelmingly supported the public option in every poll, and the only reason it wasn’t passed was because of the Senate Republican filibuster. And then, after it was stripped from the bill, the godawful remnant ended up having to be passed via reconciliation (regular majority) anyway.

    This debt-ceiling mess was more of the same. The reactionaries, who only hold a minority within a party that holds a majority of only one body of congress, can’t get what they want out of the budget via the budgeting process, and chose to use the debt ceiling for blackmail and yet again impose their will on both the rest of government, where elected representatives of the other party holds the White House and the Senate majority, and on the public, which, again, is overwhelmingly opposed to what they’re doing. Neither the public nor its elected representatives count for anything in such a circumstance. The reactionaries can’t elect sufficient numbers to do what they want to do, and use this sort of thing to get their way.

    Would it be fair to suggest the “pragmatic” position is to only support something that can get a filibuster-proof majority? Particularly given that Republicans have made it a matter of party loyalty to oppose almost literally everything that is put before them? The debt ceiling had to be raised to avoid disaster; one could argue that the “pragmatic” position, given this, is to give those holding it hostage whatever they want in exchange for raising it (Boehner was on tv last night, bragging that he got 98% of what he wanted from the debt-ceiling deal). A far more logical counter-argument on behalf of pragmatism is that giving in to blackmailers merely encourages further blackmail. If one doesn’t want to be perpetually blackmailed, giving the blackmailer anything is a really, really bad–and profoundly anti-pragmatic–idea. At the same time, it’s also the case that the money interests that control both parties aren’t going to allow for a default, so one can refuse to offer the blackmailers anything and credibly expect that the debt ceiling will be raised anyway.

    It is, in any case, extraordinarily unfair to suggest those who strongly object to what’s been happening are anti-pragmatic, raging against this behavior out of mere rowdy partisanship, or to equate their position with that of the other side. I think of myself as a fundamentally pragmatic fellow, consider the suggestion that I’m anti-pragmatic to be a slur, and I’m not connected to either party, but I look at what’s happened the last few years and wonder why we even bother having elections. I think you slip into the habit of both too narrowly defining pragmatism (thus unfairly excluding from it views that are arguably just as pragmatic), and by giving it undue weight (it’s always an important consideration, but it’s never the only consideration).

    • #2 by Scott Erb on August 3, 2011 - 01:24

      I agree with much of what you said, but given the realities what Obama did was probably the best result he could get. The actual cuts agreed to are few, and were agreed upon early in the process. The debt commission includes people like Pelosi and Reid, and will push for tax increases. If they can’t agree, then automatic cuts start — in 2013. They start slow, meaning that the 113th Congress can make major changes. So essentially Obama allowed the GOP to display how destructive their forces are, set up a debate in 2012 about taxes and spending, and created a situation where chances are greatest for the Democrats (if they can avoid ripping each other apart) to recapture the House and hold the Presidency. At that time, the tea party will fade away. Obama could not win on this turf with this House. He had no good options. So he bought time and put on display how dysfunctional the tea party republicans were making Congress. So it all depends on November 2012.

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