News reports over the weekend were talking about how Obama wants to see 80 votes in the Senate for his economic recovery package and I find that pretty puzzling. Obviously, any president is going to want as many votes as he or she can get. But by the same token, stating that in advance as an explicit goal means that any group of 21 Senators can band together and hold action hostage to any kind of crazy idea whatsoever. If, by contrast, you state in advance that you’re looking for one or two Republican votes to help pass something, then suddenly you’ve got six or seven Republicans who’d like to be the one or two who get bought off. And since you’ve then got a handful of bidders for the slots, you know you can probably get them at a low price. Asking for 80 totally reverses the bargaining dynamic and even starts encouraging random Democrats to start driving hard bargains.
In political terms, meanwhile, it’s meaningless. If efforts at creating a strong recovery fail, the opposition will inevitable blame the governing party for the failure irrespective of who voted for what, whereas if efforts at creating a strong recovery succeed nobody will care by what margin it passed. You often find among political operators a tendency to overstate the extent to which little details matter politically when in fact it all tends to get swamped by the big picture.
Meanwhile, the big picture is that while it’s fairly easy to hold a meeting and have some wise technocrats draw up a sound $700 billion stimulus package, it’s quite difficult for such a package to pass through congress in pristine form. Some level of mucking around, pork barreling, and special interest giveaways is all but inevitable. But if you want the program to work, you want to keep all of that to a minimum. That means not setting arbitrary political hurdles for yourself and focusing instead on the core task of getting an adequately sized, appropriately targeted package signed into law.