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Tuesday, July 19, 2011  

Play the Game, or the Game Plays You

Sullivan responded to my gibes below:

I supported Obama in part because he swore to do what was right and necessary, rather than partisan politics and the usual Washington games. He had a chance to make the case for his current position months ago and balked. Maybe now that he is shown to have been forced into this, his own party will treat the proposal less harshly. Maybe. But he lost a key chance to cement a central proclaimed characteristic - tackling hard choices the responsible, post-partisan way - and allowed the GOP to push him into it.

Some day I'd like the chance to vote for a candidate who swears to do what's wrong and gratuitous and who commits to playing partisan politics and the most usual Washington games. There would be a refreshing honesty in that. But I think what the Obama years have shown us is that, if we didn't assume so before, everything is a rhetorical strategy. Obama's approach was politically deft in that he managed to make someone like Sullivan part of his media base and someone like me part of his activist base (really, I worked my tail off for this guy compared to what I did for Kerry in 2004). But when it comes to passing bills, all the Andrew Sullivans and all the Ben Dueholms in the world don't get you squat when you are dealing with a truculent opposition over whom pundits and door-knockers have no leverage.

In a parliamentary system, I think Andrew's case would make a lot of sense. Despite what a lot of people seem to think, a system with fewer veto points and more party discipline leads to greater democratic accountability and some strong incentives to govern responsibly. So if Bowles-Simpson is the government's policy that's one thing, if it's a partisan actor's bargaining position it's quite another. And that's the thing: Obama can't unilaterally opt-out of any partisan politics or Washington games. He needs partners, and those prospective partners will have ideological, electoral, and demographic reasons to oppose him no matter how earnest and post-partisan he tries to be. Those reasons need more attention. Partisanship and Washington games are not bad moral habits. They're inevitable when you have well-sorted, demographically distinct parties who regularly compete in elections, and especially when you have a political system like ours that builds in incentives to extreme position-taking rather than responsible governing.

UPDATE: See Ezra Klein for more on this.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 8:21 PM
You are quite wrong in one of your points: "Washington games" are inevitable only in the absence of party discipline. It's down to the nature of the American political system and the way Congress works more than it is to the fact that there are ideologically distinct parties; look at any parliamentary democracy with the Westminster system and ask yourself if the same thing could happen. So-called "post-partisanship" and "bipartisan measures" are part of the problem in American politics; the Republicans are far more ideological and inflexible, and so it's only ever the Democrats who bend in the direction of "post-partisanship". Which is, quite frankly, stupid.
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