The Wages Of Moderate Policy Wonkishness

Or is it wonkery? Anyway, one of the things that rattled around the Democratic primary was what would any Democratic president would be able to accomplish, at best (certain from today’s vantage point), a Democratic Senate and a Republican House. The honest answer–which none of them gave–would have been, “Not a whole hell of a lot”, followed by “That’s why we need to draw clear distinctions between Democratic policies and Republican policies.” That’s why this piece by Ed Kilgore discussing a Huffington Post piece about Clinton’s policy wonk shop is so discouraging (boldface mine):

Aside from the dynamics of the campaign, though, the other big question Cohn addresses is the relevance of Clinton’s policy agenda to the realities she will face if she is elected president. She will very likely face a Republican-controlled House (and possibly a Republican-controlled Senate) that will not be any more interested in helping her rack up accomplishments than they were when Barack Obama was reaching out to them in the name of an increasingly anachronistic bipartisanship. And to the extent she does try to work with Republicans, she and her administration will have to deal with a revived and vigilant progressive wing of the Democratic Party alert to any signs of a centrist sellout.

The people in Clinton’s close orbit understand all this. They know that their boss has been preparing herself for this job for much of her adult life. They are confident that she will achieve progress in the White House by drawing on the qualities they admire about her the most: her belief in the potential of public policy to change lives, her tenacity. And they believe that advancing her agenda piece by hard-fought piece, laying the foundation for bigger legislation at some future point when the politics permit it, is a deeply meaningful accomplishment.

“When the politics permit it” is a pretty important proviso for Clinton’s ability to win policy achievements. The intra-party tensions that represent one horn of the dilemma on which she might founder are actually growing less severe; one of the important phenomena Cohn explains is the recent movement of centrist economic thinkers toward positions once thought to be left-wing (misunderstood by conservatives and mainstream journalists as a purely political rather than intellectual development). But the vast gulf between the two parties has not shrunk at all, and a post-Trump GOP trying to rebuild itself is very likely to make total obstruction to a Clinton administration its unifying touchstone.

This actually presents an opportunity–though one the New Democrat wing of the party would never seize–as Rick Perlstein explains (boldface mine):

For decades, the Democrats’ Achilles’ heel has been an obsession with strategizing to win this election, often at the expense of building strategic capacity to keep winning elections and control the agenda for the next several elections—and decades—to come…

Democrats, meanwhile, are just glad to pull off the next presidential election. The fact that the presidential victory is often followed by an agenda-crushing defeat two years later always comes as a surprise.

This year, we see the same short-term thinking in the celebration over the Republican apostates pledging their hearts to Hillary…

The flaw in this argument is that it overlooks something: the potential problems come in the longer term. Large numbers of supporters of only glancing or provisional commitment to your governing agenda, shoehorned into your tent in time for Election Day, can become quite the liability for effectuating that agenda when it comes time to govern…

As a [Clinton] campaign senior strategist said, “Campaigns are always looking for ways to build your coalitions of voters. To the extent we can add to that by appealing to some moderate Republicans and some Republican-leaning independents—that’s worth some energy. It’s not going to consume the campaign, but it is worth the energy.” You know when it’s not worth the energy? When it weakens your party in the long term.

Or, if it attenuates the coalition of legislators on Capitol Hill that will be needed to get done what Hillary Clinton says she wants done—if not in 2017, perhaps in 2019, when a Democratic House majority might be within more realistic reach. That was the fear expressed by the DNC’s communication director in the May 2016 email I wrote about in August: efforts “to embrace the ‘Republicans fleeing Trump’ side, but not hold down ballot GOPers accountable” might be great for getting more votes for Clinton, but these come at the price of fewer wins for Democratic congressional candidates….

People will say this is an argument for purity. It’s actually a plea for practicality. Hillary Clinton will almost certainly win the presidential election on November 8. That’s merely the battle for today, when anti-Trump votes come cheap. But this election is not just about rescuing the nation from Trump. It’s about rescuing the nation from conservatism. That’s the long march. It cannot be won with conservatives in tow.

Like I noted at the outset, this is par for the course for the New Democrat wing:

For anyone who actually remembers the 1990s, this is textbook (Bill) Clinton–it’s just the 2016 version of triangulation, at the expense of the Democratic Party as a whole. This strategy should shock absolutely no one.

As I often point out, Clinton is obviously better than Trump. But Democrats need to view the aftermath of a likely Clinton win with our eyes wide-open.

And non-New Democrats (‘New New Dealers’? Dunno) should realize the real fight begins Nov. 9.

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3 Responses to The Wages Of Moderate Policy Wonkishness

  1. Basic presidential year politics = there’s a difference between going after voters for the presidency and going after down ticket opponents.
    Remember, there is a considerable rolloff between the presidency and down ticket offices (i.e. a lot of people vote for president then the numbers fall off considerable as you go down the list). When you run for president you are doing two things at once: trying to get your supporters to the polls and trying to discourage supporters for your opponents. A lot of the “outreach” to Republican voters you (and, surprisingly, people like Perlstein) decry isn’t intended to shift their votes at all. It’s intended to make them less enthusiastic about their candidate and keep them from the polls. Same with party elites; what you are trying to do is disrupt the funding and organizational networks within the opposing coalition. Look at Clinton’s ads. The ones running here in Georgia aren’t intended to make Republican adherents vote for her; she knows better. They are intended to show potential Republican voters just how bad Trump is as a candidate for their party and, consequently, stop them from showing up in the first place. If they don’t show up to vote for president, they sure as Hell won’t vote for down ticket offices either.
    And, btw, none of this has diddly to do with how a successful candidate governs. Clinton knows what she’s up against and she’ll do the best she can. That’ll mean, if the Senate shifts, changing the Supreme Court (that’ll probably happen) and using the presidency’s powers to achieve goals. Let the House swing in the wind, unless the Pub majority gets more tenuous (maybe) and bargains can be struck.
    As I’ve said in other posts, this is all presidential election politics 101.

  2. albanaeon
    albanaeon says:

    Something I keep trying to get across to my total Hillary supporting friends.

    An endorsement from some Repub bigwig seems like it should cause celebration, but if it’s driving away your progressives, you aren’t going to get Congress even if Hillary wins by big numbers.

    But I then get told I’m only helping Trump win…

    • I think you are overestimating the level of attention that regular voters give to elite electorate.
      In national elections nobody but intense partisans care one way or another about endorsements. Everybody went into this campaign with a pretty good idea about both Clinton and Trump and they are unlikely to change their impressions or their votes. “Progressives” won’t change their final vote over the occasional Pub elite figure going all in for Hillary. The ones who aren’t either Dems or “leaners” (independent leaning Dem) – and there aren’t too many of them – probably won’t vote at all rather then vote for Trump or Clinton. (A small proportion might end up going for Johnson, but I’d be surprised if he gets a fraction of the votes he’s polling now.) Those who are partisans will vote for Hillary. And everybody down the line with a D next to their name.
      So don’t sweat your friends. You (and they) aren’t doing anything that’ll change the election at this point.

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