I haven’t been writing about politics lately because “frustration” is a dramatic understatement of my attitude towards the Obama administration’s domestic policy (and politics). But Matthew Yglesias wrote something yesterday that should be repeated as often as possible:
“…frustrated progressives have fallen into a trap of thinking that the answers to policy questions are more obvious than they really are. In a world awash in right-wing nonsense, it becomes easy to think that the obvious wrongness of the right’s policy prescriptions implies that the correct policy ideas are also obvious. But they’re not! Not at all.”
I think this is right, and sometimes so right that it makes it difficult to discuss policy with people who are “on the same side”, ideologically speaking. (And I’m probably guilty of the same simple-mindedness when it comes to foreign policy.) The healthcare debate was a perfect example. Lots of people on the left thought it was baffling that the Obama administration all but ignored a single-payer solution where the government paid healthcare bills directly, rather than through the middle-man of the health insurance industry. But while I don’t think there’s any argument that a system like that can work well (see, you know, Canada, and Medicare in the US for that matter), it would have been incredibly risky from an economic and political standpoint to simply gut the private health insurance industry. It employs thousands and thousands of people directly and probably at least a million from an indirect standpoint. To tell the industry that its days were numbered, especially in a period of economic collapse, would have been a nightmare. That’s not even counting the massive amount of data the government would have to collect from scratch in order to enroll everyone in the country under 65. I wouldn’t have wanted to count on the newly obsolete insurance industry to just hand over the data.
All this said, I think that while the correct policy ideas are far from obvious, the correct politics often are pretty obvious. Democrats seem cursed with the idea that if the best policy ideas are complex, the best way to sell them has to reflect that complexity. This leads to endless amounts of dithering and poor framing. Supporters end up having to sell the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” rather than the “Awesome Healthcare for Americans Act”. Instead of claiming that “Republicans want to sabotage economic recovery” and “Real patriots have to sacrifice for the sake of their fellow Americans”, Democrats fan out around the country saying “Now may not really, actually, probably, well-at-least-in-my-opinion be the time to extend tax cuts for people who make more than $250,000 a year — not that those people aren’t part of our economic engine because some of them own small businesses and are really hurting from the recent economic unpleasantness.”