Reagan the Liberal, Obama the Conservative

7 Jul

Ezra Klein has a great post showing that Obama’s first proposed budget is more conservative – when measured in the ratio of spending cuts to tax raises – than any of the deals under Clinton, Bush I or Reagan. Klein’s post includes the following, vivid graphic:

Klein thinks that the Democrats, should something like this deal go through, “were suckers for offering it.” A thought reinforced by Nate Silver’s recent post showing that as Republicans have become increasingly intransigent they have alienated yet more moderate voters. The irrationality seems difficult to apprehend – why are Democrats offering such a rotten budget deal, and being so politically wimpy?

This is, in fact, a regular complaint about the Democrats (and growing louder, see here and here). It is a complaint that stems from an assumption familiar to anyone acquainted with contemporary political science, or with what appears to be plain old common sense: congressmen will do whatever will maximize their chances of re-election. If they are rational in that way, it would seem this deal is irrational because it violates what the polls recommend. Of course, one might say that it isn’t always clear, especially in an off year, what will maximize electoral chances. There are no doubt many clever ways of saving the basic model of electoral politics – that it is the power of the ballot, and more or less only that power, that sways politicians.

But there is another possible explanation – that the ballot is not so powerful, or at least not the sole power, at play in the actions of representatives and political leaders. To be clear, we don’t mean here that there are other kinds of social power that might influence voters – like media monopolies skewing voter perceptions, or well-funded political action committees buying advertisements to sway voters.

The point is about influences on representatives themselves. There are, after all, battles that individual representatives, even parties, are sometimes willing to take a stand on, even if it might threaten electoral chances. There are, moreover, long periods between elections during which groups can exercise influence, of subtle and not-so-subtle varieties, over the thinking of politicians and those counselors around them. Parties also have commitments to certain core constituencies, fidelity to whom might override short-term electoral fortunes – itself a perfectly rational strategy since the ultimate aim of power is to do something concrete with it, not just keep it. As Corey Robin notes in a great post on the question of the Democrats’ ‘constituency,’ the problem for the Democrats may not be a failure to test the electoral winds properly, but a more fundamental problem with the Party’s conception of its core – as opposed to peripheral – constituents. Or, put another way, it may just expose the truth of the party – that it has no core, it is a catch-all party that drifts in, rather than attempts to exercise mastery over, its political environment.

Whatever the reason, it might be worth seeing the oddity of the Democrats’ behavior not as a failure to act rationally given the potential electoral support for a less conservative budget, but as something else. It might be evidence that our conventional view of democracy, and democratic power, is to say the least simplistic. Each person has only one vote, but the vote is only one form of power exercised in this process, and it may not even be the most important one.

4 Responses to “Reagan the Liberal, Obama the Conservative”

  1. Art July 8, 2011 at 12:52 am #

    The Klein post is informative, but to my eyes Corey Robin’s is misleading. It’s a bit of a “metapost,” since it really interprets another post by David Frum, and it’s not at all clear that Frum is referring to the financial community as Obama’s “constituency” or that he is using “constituency” in the precise sense that Robin infers. Frum, as I read him, is actually urging the financial community to exert its influence on Republicans, because it is the interests of the financial community that will be harmed first in case of default. The financiers of course have influence with both parties, but there is no point in using it on Obama, who is already committed to averting default. It’s the Republicans, and particularly the rank-and-file Republicans elected by the Tea Party, who need to be brought around. So this whole roundabout reading via Frum serves no purpose except to say that the financiers influence Obama, which no one would deny, but that is irrelevant to the budget negotiations, as opposed to financial regulation, the Elizabeth Warren nomination, etc. Your argument does not need Robin’s support and would be stronger without it.

    • thecurrentmoment July 8, 2011 at 2:07 am #

      Reading the original Frum piece I see that you’re right, I had read it out of context and Robin might be doing that a bit too, though I think not entirely. It may be that all Frum could think of for Obama to play hardball was to ask finance types – ‘constituencies’ – to put pressure on Republicans. But then that still raises the question why those are the only ‘constituencies’ Obama could bring to bear on the situation. And raises the broader question of just whose interests, exactly, Obama thinks he is representing.

      This bears on the original point insofar as Frum’s comment implies the natural constituency is only finance types. But surely there are many other natural constituencies – admittedly less well-funded, well-organized, or well-connected.

      These are side points, of course, to the broader aim of the post, which was to emphasize that the power at work here seems only loosely connected with the power of the ballot.

      • Corey Robin July 9, 2011 at 12:22 am #

        Art, I don’t think I’ve mis-read Frum, and I think you’re missing the larger point. Frum’s argument is not directed at the financial community or the Republicans; it’s very clearly directed at Obama. Obama’s failure to rally the financial community to put pressure on, yes, the Republicans is indicative, to Frum’s mind, of Obama’s mishandling of the crisis. That’s Frum’s argument, take it or leave it.

        My “metapost,” if you will, is to say that Frum’s argument reveals a much larger failure on the part of Obama, the Democrats, and the political establishment as a whole. And that is to: a) to think that the banks are his constituency (historically, bankers were not particularly friendly to the Democratic Party); b) to think that banks are deserving of such a politically larded term as “constituency” at all (that was the main subject of my post, again, take it or leave it); and, though this was not a point I made in my point, I’d add it now, partially in response to your post, c) that banks are the only or even the leading forces in society that have an interest in questions like the debt.

        On this last point, I’d ask that you think about the problem of debt historically. Public debt has always been a tremendously political category, far transcending the interests or immediate concerns of financiers. The French Revolution was brought on, in part, by the accumulation of debt by the monarchy (in part through its funding of the American Revolution). The financing of the debt after the American Revolution was a major item of debate between the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians, which went to the heart of the type of society it was going to be. And as so many Americans have come to realize, the debt became a major political question after the Civil War, so much so that it was written into the 14th Amendment by the Reconstruction Congress.

        Debt, in other words, is something that the public, and all its factions, have always taken an interest in. Frum’s assumption — and yours too — that it is the banks who have a leading interest in this question — and it is they to whom Obama should turn — is extraordinarily revealing. Even if one assumes that Frum is using the word constituency in the sense of “interest” (i.e., there is a constituency for this policy), it’s a testament to how economistic our polity has become that no one could possibly imagine that there is a constituency other than the banks who has an interest, economic or otherwise, in the debt.


  1. The Financialization of Political Discourse (or more on David Frum) « Corey Robin - July 9, 2011

    […] more on this and related issues, check out this post and the discussion over at the excellent new blog The Current Moment, run by my friend Alex […]

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