In these private debates (as in my 1/17/10 blog post), I argued that Obama would have been better off to come out swinging. If he had seemed to be fighting for the little guy, and the Senate Republicans were obviously blocking his every move, then it would have been clear to everybody who the villains of the piece were. His legislation might have been blocked – but it was anyway! By being seen as a fighter, his chances of increasing the Democratic majority in the midterms would have improved.
At least in my small circle of friends on the Left, this idea of mine seems to be coming pretty widespread. People are, in fact, holding it forth as a model for how Obama should go forward. “Let ‘em filibuster” is a call I hear more and more often. At a recent discussion we organized for the Boston local of Democratic Socialists of America, all three panelists put forth an analysis that seemed, to me, strikingly similar to mine. They ended by saying that Obama needed to find some pieces of legislation, however small, that he could move, and push them through Congress quickly. I raised my hand and commented that, based on what they had said so far, it seemed like even if Obama couldn’t move anything through, it would be better for him to try and fail due to visible Republican obstructionism. Somewhat reluctantly (they didn’t want to give up the dream that Obama could pass something), all three panelists agreed.
Unfortunately, as I reflect on the outcome of the recent Massachusetts Senate election, and some other thoughts about the nature and makeup of the U.S. electorate, I have come to have some doubts about at least the short-run effectiveness of this strategy.
The AFL-CIO commissioned a poll after Scott Brown’s election, which showed some very interesting results. Among other things, it showed that nearly two-thirds of Brown’s voters want him to “be bipartisan and work with Obama and congressional Democrats, rather than stick to his conservative philosophy and work to defeat the Democrats’ agenda”. Since Brown won about 50% of the total vote, this suggests that one third of the electorate makes no deeper analysis when voting than “I’m not happy with the way things are going, so I’ll vote for the other party.”
A behavioral tendency I have noticed in many voters may partially explain these results; if it doesn’t explain them, it may mesh with them to reinforce the result. In conversations with various friends and coworkers over the years, especially people who do not see themselves as particularly “political” people, I have noticed that many people apply a very simple model to the solution of social problems. Specifically, they:
- Think everybody sees the same problems they do, and sees these problems in essentially the same way, and,
- Think that the solution to these problems is essentially technical, and that there is general consensus among experts on how to solve them (even if they, themselves, don’t understand what the solution is).
In a recession, for example, a worker may take it for granted that the problem is “getting the economy going again”, and that this necessarily entails restoring or creating jobs, and good jobs at that – anybody can see that! But someone else may think that the definition of “getting the economy going again” is a matter of profitability and a rising stock market. If he’s elected to office, the policy this second person pursues may not be oriented towards restoring good jobs. Or, the politician may think bringing back jobs is important, but believe the way to do it is by a supply side approach: cutting taxes on the rich, while practicing fiscal austerity by slashing social programs to “stabilize” the economy. This policy will have a very different effect on outcomes then the massive Keynesian stimulus that might be proposed by some other politician, who had a different theory as to the solution to the same problem.
But if you don’t understand these effects of ideology and theory on outcomes; if you simply assume that everybody sees things essentially the same way you do (always excepting a few “radicals” and “nut cases”), and that fixes to social problems are subject to well-understood technical fixes like designing a stronger beam or choosing the right wire for an electrical circuit; then it makes perfect sense to flip your vote whenever the party “in power” doesn’t seem to be able to “get it done”. With this kind of attitude, even such an obviously obstructionist strategy as a filibuster may have an unobvious effect – causing you to vote for the filibustering party, not because you agree with their positions, but because their successful obstructionism makes the other party seem unable to effectively govern.
In light of these considerations, I am no longer so certain that a “Let ‘em filibuster” strategy will do much for the Democrats’ electoral results in the short run. But I still think it is better for Obama to fight and lose than to just lose without a visible fight. The AFL-CIO poll suggests that the electorate is divided roughly into thirds – one third left leaning, one-third right leaning, and one third that flips one way or the other depending on which way the wind is blowing. The long-term objective for the Left (and for the Right, for that matter) must be to hold onto and firm up our base, while trying to educate at least some of the flip-floppers.
The Republicans have proved that they can pretty much block legislation any time they take a serious mind to. If the outcome for Obama’s agenda is to be losing in any case, then coming out fighting won’t make him seem any less effective. He may still lose the flip-flopping vote, but at least he’ll have a better chance of holding on to his base. This may lead to less of a debacle in the mid-term elections, and at least, as Republican obstructionism enrages the frustrated core of left-leaning people who know their enemy, it may give those of us who are truly on the Left a better base to work with in the future.