Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

What the Democratic Contest is Really About

On March 15 (according to today's NY Times), Barack Obama gave the following statement in an interview, after stressing the need to include independents and "disaffected Republicans" in a larger, working majority: "Senator Clinton’s argument in this campaign has really been that you can’t change the electoral map, that it’s a static map and we are inalterably divided, so we’ve got to eke out a victory and then try to govern more competently than George Bush has. My argument is that if that’s what we’re settling for, after seven or eight years of disastrous policies on the part of the Bush administration, then we’re not going to deliver on the big changes that are needed."

Similarly, on health care, Clinton has repeatedly said that if a Democratic President doesn't advocate universal health care from the get-go, we'll never get there. What she means is that a president must be a strong advocate for a position (a "fighter" as she calls herself) and that compromise must happen, if at all, after a bruising battle with the legislature. Barack Obama's proposal on health care, by contrast, already smacks of compromise. He thinks the job of a president is to be a conciliator, moderator, and the proponent of the compromise between the divided halves of the legislature.

So you have two very different views of what the election is like and what governing is like.


Dr. Strangelove said...

I think you have characterized their advertised positions quite well. In the end, of course, I suspect Obama and Clinton would both prove to be realists.

Although Clinton assumes an uncompromising stance, she would not flinch from cutting deals with key Republicans to push her agenda through Congress. Likewise, while Obama takes a more conciliatory approach, he would never compromise core values to placate Republicans. In other words, I think the practical difference would chiefly be one of negotiating tactics: hard-line vs. soft-sell.

I oversimplify greatly of course, but it is interesting that both Clinton and Obama have positioned themselves somewhat away from the traditional gender stereotypes. Clinton is colder and tougher; Obama is warmer and more sensitive. (Of course, both candidates maintain many aspects of their traditional gender roles as well.)

Raised By Republicans said...

I think Dr. S. is slightly off the mark. It's not a question of whether Clinton intends to or will ever compromise. The question is about how they plan to negotiate.

Obama is sending a clear signal that he seeks consensus and compromise. Clinton is sending a clear signal that she's going to cram her position down her opponents' throats (but then hints that she'll back off a bit if they push back).

LTG is right to point to this as a major difference in philosophy. It also reflects a difference in how each candidate views people with whom they disagree.

Clinton's view seems to include a lot of baggage from 1990s. She sees herself as the only one capable of doing battle with the "vast right wing conspiracy."

In contrast, Obama sees cracks in that conspiracy and sees an opportunity to break it up.

As LTG points out, the health care issue is indicative. Obama's health care proposal is a compromise position designed to appeal not only to a majority of Americans but a majority of Republican voters as well. Clinton's plan follows her original 1993 plan in that it is similarly ambitious and focussed on exactly the kind of government control mechanisms that provoked such hostility from many in Congress.

History Buff said...

I think that no matter who wins, compromise is the name of the game. After all, there would be no US Constitution if the Founding Fathers hadn't compromised on some positions and completely ignored others.

Dr. Strangelove said...

RbR, I wonder if you read my comment all the way through. Did I not say that the key difference between Clinton and Obama was how they would negotiate?

Dr. Strangelove said...

To be fair, RbR, Hillary's plan in 2008 is worlds apart from her plan in 1993. Worlds apart.

Her key goal remains the same: to provide universal health care. But for for me, the striking aspect of her plan in 2008 is how conservative she has become in approaching that goal. Hillary's new plan regulates the health care sector; her old plan reorganized it completely. Her new plan works with existing health care providers and insurers--in fact, it guarantees them universal franchise; her old plan was a full-scale assault on the corporate health care system.

What really killed the 1993 plan was not the opposition of Republicans per se, but rather the opposition of the entire corporate health care system. That would not be the case this time.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I don't think this is merely a difference in "advertised positions." As I tried to explain in the post, I think this is a fundamental difference in philosophy. Should a president be a "fighter" or a compromise-worker? I think these are significant philosophical differences worth pondering. I also think we see these reflected in the campaign styles of these two.

Obama believes that he can (as Reagan did) move the public in his direction. They will put major pressure on the legislators of both parties in Washington to stop the politics of obstruction and participate in compromise. His model of success is the way Reagan got Dems to sign onto his tax cuts in 1982, or welfare reform in 1996. Clinton takes a different tack. She believes she can win new legislation primarily through the power of the presidency and Congressional majorities. Her model is the 1993 budget act that passed the Senate by Al Gore's tiebreaking vote.

Dr. Strangelove said...

I think we have seen in this primary season a preview of the coalitions Clinton and Obama would seek to forge. And I agree there is a real choice here.

Clinton's approach is best framed in terms of red/blue/purple states. She sees the electoral maps from 1992-2004 as the blueprint for strategy in 2008. Demographically, she seeks to augment traditional Democratic constituencies with stronger turnouts among Latinos and perhaps women. Politically, her more hawkish stance is an attempt to reach out to the independent-minded "security moms" and such in the recent swing states like Ohio. She positions herself in the center by a balance of left/right positions, some quite liberal (health care) and others more conservative (Iraq). It is not all that surprising that she is viewed as pragmatic by older voters and as closed-minded by younger voters.

Obama hopes to build a new coalition. Demographically, he seeks to augment traditional Democratic constituencies with stronger turnouts among African Americans and perhaps men. Politically, his more conciliatory stance is an attempt to reach out to disaffected independent voters across the country who want to move past the red/blue/purple divisions of recent years. He positions himself in the center by a harmony of moderate positions: sometimes less ambitious (health care), sometimes more in line with the mainstream view (Iraq). It is not all that surprising that he is viewed as naïve by older voters, and open-minded by younger voters.

Raised By Republicans said...

Dr. S. I don't think it is enough to say that Hillary's 1993 health care failed because of Big Health Car companies. Sure they put on a full court press. But that was only one factor. Another BIG factor was the image of everyone having a government issued health care card and being required to participate in the plan.

That mandated participation is a deal breaker for a lot of people. That's why Obama left it out. Polls reported on NPR a few weeks ago showed that Obama's plan is acceptable to a majority of all voters and and Republicans. That will make it very hard for moderate Republicans to oppose it.

But "Hillary Care" is a battle cry that is used by Republicans to mean "socialism" and the reason that tag line sticks is because of her emphasis in both plans on government control at the expense of individual choice.

To me, that says she either has not learned what went wrong in 1993 (i.e. that you can't pass something if ONLY 50% are with you) or that she is only using an extreme position as a bargaining tool.

It is exactly that kind of bargaining through extremism that bothers many Americans who say they are fed up with "partisan bickering." And those people may react negatively against the party they see as being the cause of more of it.

Dr. Strangelove said...

I agree that a lot of people will react negatively to the idea of mandated participation, but I am not sure it will actually be a "dealbreaker." Other than that, however, I feel that my comparison of Obama's and Clinton's approaches in the previous comment is quite in line with yours, RbR and LTG. Do you agree?

Pombat said...

As a latecomer to this thread, I'm not seeing a huge difference in Dr.S, LTG and RbR's views on the comparison of Clinton & Obama, FWIW.

Given the choice of "fighter" or "compromise-worker", my personal opinion is that what both America and the rest of the world need from America's next president right now is the latter. Definitely the latter. There are too many tricky situations in the world at the moment that involve people who would not react well to the head-butting approach, and would be likely to push back in a most unpleasant manner.

I have a question too (as per usual!), about the fact that "mandated participation is a deal breaker for a lot of people" to steal RbR's words. Coming from the UK, where healthcare contributions are fully mandatory and removed from gross salary by your employer, and having moved to Australia, where the situation is similar, with the addition of effectively being penalised for not having additional insurance after age 30 (your employer-removed contribution increases), I simply do not understand why healthcare being a mandatory contribution is such a big issue. It's one of those real "can't get my head around it" / conceptual mental block / cultural difference things, I know, but I'm hoping at least one of you could have a stab at explaining it to me?...

Dr. Strangelove said...

Pombat: Interesting! I think it probably is a cultural difference Americans see themselves as highly individual and independent-minded. We are deeply proud of that. (American exceptionalism is not unrelated to this.) Although in practice, we often recognize that we are neither as individual nor independent as we like to think we are, conceptually the notion of personal freedom has become integral to our identity as Americans.

Benjamin Franklin famously said that, "Nothing is certain but death and taxes." But he might just as well have said that Americans believe, "Everything is optional but death and taxes." And even those two are not ironclad. There are still Americans who claim they are "sovereign" as citizens and need pay taxes to nobody. And as David Brennan (US-born CEO of UK-based AstraZeneca) once remarked on America's unique view of health care, "Americans have a funny approach to this--we think death is optional."

So to many Americans, requiring people to pay for health care is no different from requiring people to purchase coffee or buy concert tickets. The gut reaction is, "it's my money." Health care is just seen as another economic choice--an option anyone can choose to buy, or not. Quoting Mr. Brennan again, "We treat an 87-year-old person with pancreatic cancer the same way we treat an 18-year-old with pancreatic cancer. That's not the case outside [the U.S.]"

That's the nub of the problem--and I also think it is the key to getting past it. We have taken things like education and car insurance and put them in a special category. We can do the same for health care, but it is going to take time and a lot of convincing. And even then, some will still resist.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Dr.S. is saying that both Obama and Clinton are pursuing similar strategies, just with (slightly) different coalitions. I think that is a fundamental error, and if he thinks we are in agreement, he is mistaken.

I have tried to explain that I think Clinton and Obama possess dramatically different conceptions of how a president wins and governs. In simplistic terms, she thinks the best way to accomplish a liberal agenda is for the president to be the Chief Liberal. He thinks the best way to achieve the same liberal agenda is for the president to be perceived in the Center, mediating between left and right. I think this should be paid attention to, not ignored, which is why I blogged about it.

There is basically zero difference between them on their goals (Iraq, Health Care, etc.).

The Law Talking Guy said...

Pombat - I tried on an earlier post about mandatory voting to explain that the dominant American political and cultural and political ideology is libertarian, offended by the idea of making things mandatory. This isn't something genetic, of course, and we do have some government mandates (like the 6.5% tax for social security) but these have to be very, very carefully packaged. For example, mandatory auto insurance is sold as the price of the privilege of having a driver's license, which is - in turn - carefully packaged as a privilege rather than a right.

My point, above all, is that the communitarian and (some would say paternalistic) language of European social democratic policies is political death in America. Even the word "liberal" is suspect in many quarters - that's why liberals have returned to the term "progressive," the venerable tag of Teddy Roosevelt and Robert LaFollette.

You are absolutely correct to have that "not being able to wrap your head around it" feeling, because that reaction can be mutual. Policy discussions across the Atlantic can be dialogues of the deaf. Understanding that the differences are more in discourse than substance is a start. Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1830 that Americans spend endless time analyzing the United States and so little talking about the rest of the world. Nothing has changed on that score, as you can se eon this blog. It makes us introspective and has led to a different sort of political discourse - a different sort of politics - than you see elsewhere in the world.

Here's part of my pitch: Throughout New England, there are still plenty of small towns whose annual budgets and taxes are voted on by direct democracy in town meetings, a tradition going back to the 17th century. A friend of mine who lived in upstate New York (not technically New England, but close enough to have some of the traditions) used to call it "government by whoever was still there at five in the morning." Americans are taught to hold this idea of government to be an ideal, not just a quaint anachronism. New Hampshire, where we have our first presidential primary every four years, is the true home of such notions. The combination of direct demoracy at town meetings and legendary Yankee thrift makes for wonderful stories.

I would pay for health care through a separate payroll tax. Americans hate taxes, but they (we) grudgingly accept the idea of taxes. Our political culture views taxes approved by the majority as a form of self-government, an acceptable form of coercion.

And for this reason, I think Clinton has a harder sell than Obama on this issue.

Dr. Strangelove said...

"Dr.S. is saying that both Obama and Clinton are pursuing similar strategies, just with (slightly) different coalitions."

Wow, that's not what I said at all. I re-read my last comment, and I don't see where you get that. I think I have agreed almost completely with how you see Hillary and Obama governing. In fact, I'll just say it: I agree. There's something wrong if I can't even agree with you without having you object.

The Law Talking Guy said...

There is something wrong if you aqgree but don't appear to have actually understood what I meant. I don't think Obama is "soft-sell" versus Clinton as "hard-sell." You explicitly said the difference between the candidates could be seen in the coalitions they are trying to form. I disagree. The underlying point of the post was about governing styles and philosophies, not campaigning. In fact, you conclude that both Obama and Clinton would more or less behave the same once in office in terms of making compromises, and I totally disagree. Obama is Tom Daschle, who persuaded Jeffords to jump ship; Clinton is Harry Reid, who "believes in vengeance." But I don't have to keep at it.

Raised By Republicans said...

On the mandatory paricipation thing. LTG summed up the culture here pretty nicely. I would only add that in America, we've had a political system dominated by two parties that in Europe would both be called "Liberal." The Democrats are usually very similar to the British Liberal Democrats or the Danish Radikale Venstre. The Republicans used to be very much like the German Frei Demokratische Partei. Lately, though Bush has transformed the Republicans in something like the Bavarian Christlich Soziale Union. But the candidacy of Ron Paul is very much a return to what the Republicans used to be about.

The use of the term "liberal" in the US to mean "socialist" is a particular pet peeve of mine.

I also think that if Americans already had a mandatory health care plan they wouldn't mind having it. But they don't like being told their about to get it. It's not even a majority of Americans for whom this is a "deal breaker." But there are about a quarter to a third who would oppose any health care reform at all. Then there about a third who agree to just about any reform that expanded access to medical care. But there is a critical bunch of voters in the middle for whom mandatory participation would be a deal breaker - meaning they would accept reforms based on voluntary participation but not reforms based on mandatory participation (I can't find the polls just now but I've heard polls reported on NPR that show exactly this).

Dr. Strangelove said...

OK. I'm taking a deep breath and trying to step back for a minute. Sometimes I speak more to the framing of an issue than to its substance, which may muddle things. I would just like to find the common ground of agreement on substance between us. Let me try to summarize where I believe we agree Please let me know if one of the points below is not a point of agreement.

1. Obama and Clinton would not behave similarly once in office. Clinton believes a President should be a fighter. Obama believes a president should be a compromise-worker. In very simplistic terms, Obama believes that both Left and Right seek solutions, so to move forward a leader should forge compromise and consensus between them; Clinton believes that the Left seeks solutions while the Right seeks to obstruct them, so to move forward a leader must seek as much victory as possible or face defeat. This is a fundamental difference in governing style and philosophy.

2. Both candidates have similar legislative agendas. Both have made similar promises in terms of proposals and policies, but there are some differences in the details. One can see indications of their different governing styles and philosophies in the details of some of their plans, e.g. health care. To the extent that Clinton and Obama have similar platforms, they stand close together on the political spectrum.

3. Clinton is not purely a fighter and Obama is not purely a compromise-worker. Both statements are, to some extent, simplifications. Both candidates recognize that some compromise and some confrontation are necessary to move a legislative agenda forward.

Do we agree on these points?

History Buff said...

I think you guys agree, Can we move on please.

On the Diane Rehm show on Monday the Governor of Tennessee, Phil Bresden, suggested that the Superdelegates should have their own primary before the Democratic National Convention this summer. What do y'all think of this idea????????

Dr. Strangelove said...

It is a clever idea. Yet although I am a proud Hillary supporter, I do not believe that the superdelegates should determine the nominee unless there is an effective tie among the pledged delegates. And it should be clear in June whether this is the case.

For this reason, I think a "primary" among superdelegates would be counterproductive. Gathering them together to vote more as a bloc could insulate them from the scrutiny that would face them individually on the convention floor. The superdelegates really should be forced to cast their votes individually when the eyes of the world are upon them in Denver. The word "primary" also might suggest that their role in the process is more democratic (with a little "d") than it really is.

It is possible that a non-binding, non-voting "convention" of superdelegates prior to the convention (a similar option that has been floated) would help them get their collective act together, but it may just be unnecessary and may confuse the public. And when we make up new rules partway through the process, someone is going to be unhappy.

The Law Talking Guy said...

The word "primary" is precisely intended to suggest the process is more democratic (small "d") than it really is. The DNC rules don't provide for it anyway - there's no way of committing the superdelegates - and Dr.S. is right that this would be widely viewed as just another way of changing rules in midstream to favor one particular candidate.

I'll bet a majority of superdelegates would support a proposal to strip themselves of the right to vote at the convention (but not their right to show up and with delegate credentials at the hospitality suites). I'm sure Superdelegates today realize that the experiment with superdelegates is a failure: their existence has not brought stability to the party, but uncertainty and a stink of illegitimacy.

Certainly, it would be far easier for the Democrats right now if everyone in the country understood that in this primary, like every other election, it's winner-take-all, and there's no such thing as a "close second."

The Law Talking Guy said...

Well, Dr.S, I guess we agree.

Now we can get to the debate I had hoped to have: do we each agree with the apparent philosophy of our preferred candidate? For my part, I do sometimes get very angry and think Clinton is right - that Unreconstructed Republicans (a term rich in historical irony) need to be bludgeoned and publicly humiliated. You can't compromise with evil - you have to fight, fight, fight! But is that the role of a chief executive or the leader of the majority party in Congress?

But then I think Obama's call for unity and compromise is best. Calling on us in Lincoln's words - to indulge in the historically anachronistic analogy above - to heed the "better angels of our nature." Indeed, I feel as if he is asking me to be a better person than I am, more willing to forgive and turn the page. It is, I think, an especially powerful message coming from an African-American.

In short, I think Clinton's view of governing will make her a terrific legislator, and maybe not so terrific a president.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Obama's message is also powerful and appealing to me, in much the same way as you describe. That is one reason why Obama would (will?) make an excellent President.

You will not be surprised to read that in the end I agree more with Clinton. But I do not agree out of anger--and I do not make that statement carelessly. And while of course none of us will ever truly know Clinton's personal mindset, I would not presume that she is driven by anger either.

Which is not to say that I am not angry. I feel the same sort of anger toward Republicans that I think most of us do... But deep down I have given up hope of ever seeing justice done. I just don't believe anymore that the Unreconstructed Republicans (I love that phrase of yours) will ever held to account for what they have done.

I don't see any point to shaking hands with the devil. You can only outplay him. And in Hillary I think we have a master of the game. She's tough, she gets it, and she's not going to let them walk all over us again--not in the name of unity, not in the name of anything.

All that being said, if Obama is the nominee (as seems very likely) I will support him 100% and look forward to his Presidency. Make no mistake: I think Obama is a great man. I am willing to be proven wrong--hell, I'd like to be wrong. It is even possible that a visionary of his caliber can change the rules of the game, at least for a while. But the smart money bets on the house.

Raised By Republicans said...

History Buff. Dr. S and LTG are brothers...:-)

History Buff said...

It Figures!