The Balance of Power

(cc photo by kevindooley)

Something that I think is missing in a lot of recent commentary on the Obama administration’s negotiating strategy is the key role, as ever, of moderate legislators.

The administration’s rational fear about a hardball approach to any issue is the inevitable cavalcade of whining from Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman, Blanche Lincoln, unnamed Blue Dog House members, etc. Should the administration fear Evan Bayh? Maybe they should. After all, the very next step is John Boehner talking about how the only thing bipartisan about this administration is opposition to its agenda. What you have is a situation in which the very most superficial observer of politics—and keep in mind that swing voters observe politics in a manner that’s far more superficial than you can imagine—sees that on the one hand is the President and some liberal Democrats and on the other hand is the entire Republican Party plus many members of the Democratic Party. Now if you’re a Democratic member of congress from an even slightly Republican-leaning district or state you need to ask yourself “am I the kind of Democrat who wants to be on the leftwing side of intraparty divides?” Many of them will say “no, I don’t” and now to the superficial observer the White House’s position has shifted even further to the left.

That’s the bouncing ball of legislative doom. Of course the administration’s preferred alternative doesn’t much work either.

But this is a problem of structural asymmetries in American politics. I’m very skeptical that ideological self-identification polls tell us anything about people’s views on policy, but they tell us a lot about self-image and that matters. There are many more people in America who are proud to think of themselves as “conservatives who side with conservatives against moderates” than there are people who are proud to think of themselves as “liberals who side with liberals against moderates.” What’s more, rich people have much more voice in the political system than poor people; businesses have more voice than labor unions; old people have more voice than young people; Fox has a bigger primetime audience than MSNBC; conservative talk radio has a (much) bigger audience than liberal talk radio; etc.

You guys know all that already. But people sometimes forget it when talking about the details. The point, however, is that it’s superficial to believe there’s any set of tactical approach to legislative bargaining that can wave all this away. If we were looking forward to the inauguration of Senator Bill Halter or Senator Joe Sestak, things might be different. Or if we were talking about how Representative Alan Grayson and Senator Russ Feingold pulled out gutty wins in a terrible political climate, things might look different. But progressives simply haven’t built the volume of institutional power—in the White House or anyplace else—necessary to get the political system to do what we want.

Meanwhile, Scott Brown “is one of the most popular Senators in the country, with 53% of voters approving of his job performance and only 29% disapproving.”