Politics & Media
Oct 03, 2012, 04:15AM

The Economist and Mindless Ideological Bipartisanship

Don’t vote… compromise!

Rsz screen shot 2012 10 03 at 80429 am.png?ixlib=rails 2.1


In this week's Economist, “Lexington” bemoans the fact that electoral politics these days are less about winning arguments, or even having arguments, and more about turning out targeted demographics.  President Obama puts together massive GOTV efforts in inner-city Philadelphia; meanwhile Romney acolytes go stomping purposefully across rural Ohio. Lexington admits that there's "nothing intrinsically wrong with this"—"nothing intrinsically wrong" here, meaning, as it almost always does in pundit-speak, that there is in fact something wrong, wrong, wrong.  And sure enough, Lexington eventually gets to it:

Yet politicians should not be blind to the implications of a growing emphasis on turnout rather than persuasion… after being propelled over the winning line by such efforts, politicians tend to say things like "elections have consequences," as if they had won office on the merits of their arguments rather than on the quality of their operations on the ground. 

Thus, according to Lexington, the failure of Obama's first term was that he felt that he had more of a mandate than he did, and overreached instead of seeking bipartisan compromise.

This is absurd: like most politicians, Obama has no real ideological commitments, but the closest he gets is probably a rock-bottom belief in bipartisan compromise. This is why he didn't prosecute his predecessor for war crimes; it's why he handled the financial crisis by keeping on the establishment stooges who wrecked the economy like Ben Bernanke (and hired Wall Street insider Tim Geithner); it's why he was willing to do a budget deal that would have made liberals squall and Lexington chirp if only the Republicans weren't hamstrung by the Tea Party. It's why he shepherded through a healthcare reform package based on the ideas of the current Republican presidential nominee. Lexington's claim that "Republicans… would not have dared be so obstructive if they had felt that Mr. Obama had made a case that had won over the center ground" is a perfect demonstration that centrist whiners can be every bit as blinded by their moderate ideology as those on the left or right. The only way Obama could have won over the Republicans was by resigning and appointing John Boehner in his place, and even then the Tea Party probably would’ve been pissed.

But, even putting aside the actual facts of Obama's first term, Lexington's case is still nonsense. The writer seems to think that there is some rigid dichotomy between ground game and winning arguments. But, surely, people are only willing to vote if they in fact support their nominee. The inner-city Philadelphia folks who are coming out to vote for Obama aren't doing it because they've been "coddled" by the Democrats, as Lexington says—they come out to vote because they actually want Obama to be President.  Same with those who vote for Romney. The GOTV campaign may be more targeted and more effective, but campaign operatives are not taking voters to the polls at gunpoint. If the positions of the candidates didn't matter, if it were all just organization, then the candidates wouldn't bother with massive spending on issue ads, and neither would come within miles of the debates.

Lexington knows this. He's not really upset that there’s too much GOTV and too little argument, but that the electorate is fairly evenly divided… and that Democrats and Republicans actually believe in different things. It's not that there's too little argument, in other words, but that there's too much, and that there's no easy centrist compromise possible. Why didn't Obama and the Republicans just work things out on healthcare? Why can't Republicans and Democrats just sit down in harmony and balance the budget without coddling all those nosy voters? Why are we even trying to get those voters to the polls, anyway? Forget those unwashed masses over there; we've got work to do, legislators! (And, of course, lobbyists.)

The fact is, painful and frustrating as the partisan divide is, it’s positive to have politicians who are responsible to the electorate, and the more of the electorate who vote, the more of the electorate they are responsible to, and the better off our democracy is. Obama was elected by a majority of the voters, and he was elected on the grounds that he would try to fix the economy, that he would pass some sort of healthcare reform, and that he would get us out of Iraq. The fact that he did all those things is not a sign of his evil overreach and unresponsiveness to the electorate. It's a sign that he, in fact, did what he said he was going to do.

Of course, in other areas Obama failed to do what he promised—such as reform the financial sector, or pretend even vaguely to give a shit about civil liberties. But the failure there is not one of insufficient compromise. Rather, the failure is precisely too much bipartisan compromise. Centrist trolls like Lexington tend to forget that there is, in fact, a fairly broad bipartisan consensus in this country, and it's not an especially pretty one. The drug war, massive imperial executive military interventions, craven genuflecting towards the financial sector—these are all policies embraced by both Democrats and Republicans in an ongoing carnival of centrist amity.

And since both parties embrace them, they are not really discussed. Oh, journalists like Glenn Greenwald will write about them obsessively, and bless his heart for that. But these issues don't figure in our national debate, and very likely will not feature prominently, if at all, in the televised debates either. One result of bipartisan centrist compromise is to take issues off the table… with the result that people interested in those issues are alienated, and may well not vote.  Currently in the US, usually only half the people vote anyway—which suggests that, for many of them, the issues they are interested in are not being discussed. To me, that sounds like we need more debate, more issues, and, yes, more voters—not, as Lexington seems to want it, less, less, and less. 

  • Again, Noah, you get in trouble by oversimplifying everything. If Obama had "no real ideological commitments" he would have ditched healthcare when Ted Kennedy died and the road to getting it passed got treacherous. I believe that it is more accurate to say that Obama is a centrist politician -- hence the conservative approach you describe in the third paragraph -- who was happy to get elected by letting people think he was a progressive. He has some progressive tendencies (health care, consumer protection, etc.) but is at his core a moderate who would have been very comfortable as a pure middle of the roader -- conservative democrat or moderate republican -- in the landscape of a generation ago. So it's not lack of ideology as much as a shrewd approach to electoral politics. Fault him for that, not a lack of ideology.

    Responses to this comment
  • I think Obama's overriding ideology is the advancement of Barack Obama. Not very different from most politicians, but it doesn't dovetail with his rhetoric.

    Responses to this comment
  • BillFranklin, politicians are no different than anyone else. Baseball players try to make the majors. Lawyers try to argue in front of the Supreme Court. Teachers try to win teacher of the year. Everyone strives to succeed in what they do. The question is what policies you support as you advance and whether the ego-driven nature of striving for personal gain is the end in and of itself, or whether that person really is trying to put things in place he/she truly believes benefits society. IN other words, did Obama push health care because it would satisfy his ego, or because he felt too many people were without it and he could use his political skills to make their lives better. It is a big differentiation.

    Responses to this comment
  • Ego. Legacy. Desire to believe hype about him being resurrection of FDR.

    Responses to this comment
  • And your deep knowledge of what drives Obama is based on what, precisely?

    Responses to this comment
  • I think it's best to operate under the assumption that politicians are motivated by politics, not ideology in particular. Obama's a center left progressive. There are many good political reasons for him to push healthcare; popular with his base; something to run on, etc.//And you can generally tell that a politician is driven by politics by the fact that they're a politician. This isn't brain surgery, here.

    Responses to this comment
  • My point is that you could argue that somebody is driven by a cause and the best way to further that cause is to be a successful politician. It is possible--I do not know, but it is possible--that Obama's early, pre-politicians days working in Chicago in the poor community caused him to be dedicated to helping people at that level. This could have led to the career in politics. So, in that case, he wouldn't have been driven by politics fundamentally.

    Responses to this comment
  • You don't get to be president without being fundamentally driven by politics and ambition. It just doesn't happen. Obama's a politician, not a humanitarian. That doesn't mean he has never done anything good, and it certainly doesn't mean that he's worse than any other politician out there. But it is what it is.

    Responses to this comment
  • I disagree, sort of. Of course he isn't a humanitarian. But is core drive and what set him onto the path to where he is can be altruistic. You seem to be saying political success is a goal in and of itself. I am saying it also can be a means to an end. Great political drive are present in both cases.

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment