Democratic Strategy

…or the lack thereof. Alternate title: “Why Democrats (nearly) Always Lose — Even When They Win.”

Via John Cole at the excellent Balloon Juice, Matt Yglesias gives us a succinct explanation of one of the manifestations of the Democratic malaise of timidity which continues to bedevil nearly all genuine efforts at progressive reform, even in the Age Of Obama™. Yglesias points us to committee chairman Max Baucus saying, in the New York Times:

(New York Times, 6/24/09):

He conceded that it was a mistake to rule out a fully government-run health system, or a “single-payer plan,” not because he supports it but because doing so alienated a large, vocal constituency and left Mr. Obama’s proposal of a public health plan to compete with private insurers as the most liberal position.

I think that’s right. Framing effects are important in politics. The public-private competition is supposed to be a compromise between the pristine vision of single-payer and the desire of private insurers not to be put out of business. It creates a situation in which insurers are challenged to prove that single-payer advocates are wrong, rather than simply assert it. But with no single-payer plan in the mix, this gets lost, and the compromise becomes the leftmost anchor of the debate. A single-payer plan couldn’t possibly have passed, but I think having hearings on single-payer and having one committee draft a serious single-payer bill that gets a serious CBO score would have been a useful exercise. In particular, it would have focused the mind on the costs involved in rejecting this option.

Why don’t even the smartest Democratic politicians seem to understand this concept? It’s not exactly brand-spanking-new, nor is it limited to the possession of a few über-genius, high-priced political consultants and advisers. The sales world has a version of it: start negotiations at a higher point than what you’d be willing to accept, because if you don’t – if you go into the negotiations asking for no more than what you really want – then there’s no room to compromise, negotiate further, or “give concessions.” You’ve effectively painted yourself into the corner of issuing a “take it or leave it” ultimatum, in which you won’t be satisfied if you’re forced to give some of your “core” stuff away, and the other party won’t be able to avoid causing that reaction in you unless they agree right away to your first offer.

Some people and organizations actually prefer this sort of “no B.S.” deal-making, but you won’t find many of them working in the sales field…or in politics. In politics, this is actually formally known – though apparently not to Democratic politicians and policymakers – as the Overton Window. Named after its originator (or, rather, after the man who adapted what was already more-or-less conventional wisdom to specific definition within the political realm), Joe Overton, the Overton Window states that for every political issue, there is a range – a “window” of acceptable, understandable political positions which can be taken seriously on that issue, ranging from one “extreme” to the other. Usually, this is a left/right set of extremes, conservative/liberal, but it doesn’t have to be. What’s important is that the furthest-out extreme within the Overton window may not be the actual furthest-out or extreme positions. In other words, in virtually all cases of political issues, there are some positions which are considered too “out there” for “serious” consideration, and thus those positions get no serious coverage or analysis, nor does any “serious” (I use the scare-quotes judiciously) commentator or analyst take these positions into account when describing the range of public opinion.

As an example, when considering the issue of, say, race in America (a very broad topic, I know, but just for example), everyone in America knows that groups such as the Ku Klux Klan exist, and they know what the positions of these groups on the issue of race are (more or less). But the Klan’s view on race is considered so radical, so “fringe,” that we are hardly ever treated to a discussion of the political state of civil rights legislation in the House or Senate which takes into serious consideration the views of the Klan on the subject. On that issue, their views do not fall within the Overton Window.

One need not be a political theorist or high-priced campaign consultant to understand that what isn’t widely discussed during “serious” political debates or discussions in the media won’t ever be decided upon as the method of addressing whatever question is being entertained. This works for candidates as well as issues, by the way: it’s why third-party candidates – even well-known ones like Ralph Nader or Ron Paul – only get 1-4% of the vote, typically: because they are not seen as “serious” (by which I mean, not credible and “a player,” not that those candidates themselves aren’t serious in their candidacy) by the public, because the public has not seen the major media and political figures discussing these candidacies as having any legitimate chances at being the eventual winner. They’re mentioned – if at all – as “also-rans.”

When it comes to issues, the prospects are even worse: any views which are not deemed sufficiently “mainstream” or “serious” by the media and political punditry do not get nearly the airtime that other positions do, and when these positions or proposals which have been deemed “not-serious” DO get media coverage, it’s with a markedly different tone – one which carries with it an underlying and implicit but nevertheless very real note of dismissiveness or at times even outright mockery. Anyone watching this will know immediately, perhaps without even realizing the difference in presentation, that this set of solutions or ideas or proposals are “credible” and “serious,” while these over here are not.

But Overton’s “window” theory wasn’t limited to describing the simple notion that certain views on nearly any issue are considered too “fringe” even for consideration – though that is indeed the chief insight which underlies the whole theory. Overton also noticed that the “window” – i.e., the range of acceptable opinions one could entertain credibly in public – could actually be “shifted.” In other words, through conscious manipulation of the message, a skilled political operative or group could actually change what the acceptable range of discussion or opinions was on a given topic. The method Overton discovered (or was the first to explicitly diagram) for achieving this was to begin to consciously promote, disseminate and allow to be voiced ideas or opinions about a given subject which were previously considered off-limits or even taboo, even if one did not endorse or support those ideas oneself. By so doing, ideas which had previously seemed at the very outer edge of “acceptable” debate would be outflanked by even more extreme ideas in the public consciousness. This would have two beneficial effects which served to reinforce one another: first, it would make those previously-“extreme” ideas seem much more reasonable in comparison to the newer, more-extreme positions which had been brought into the dialogue. And second – but just as important – it would have the opposite effect upon the other end of the political spectrum; making ideas which had been on the far-out extremes of that end of the spectrum of “acceptable” positions begin to seem even more extreme, with the ultimate goal of making those ideas seem, in this new light, perhaps no longer even within the bounds of acceptable discussion.

It’s not a coincidence – in fact it is crucial to note, if one wants a clear-eyed view of one of the most important dynamics of the political landscape during the last twenty to twenty-five years – that Joe Overton  was working for the Mackinac Center at the time he developed the theory which bears his name. Wikipedia lists the Mackinac Center as “the USA’s largest state-based free market think tank.” And, while the Mackinac Center’s web site has an entire page of their “About Us” section devoted to a lengthy attempt to convince the reader that their mission is neither “left” nor “right,” but rather a politically-dispassionate attempt to advance free-market principles, the reality of the term “free market” as it’s defined, understood and employed in use in modern day America is almost exclusively the province of the business community (in commerce), Libertarianism (the GOP, in terms of actual political parties), and conservatism (in terms of general political philosophy). The Mackinac Center was founded in 1987…right at the end of the Reagan years, building off the early successes of Reagan’s anti-tax and pro-deregulation mythos, and continuing on that ideological tradition into the Bush years and beyond. It is, in short, effectively a conservative – though not explicitly Republican – organization.

The last time this country tried to enact comprehensive health care reform was thirteen years ago during the Clinton administration. That effort failed for a number of reasons – and not everyone agrees on all of those reasons – but everyone obviously agrees that fail it did. In the intervening years (as was predicted by virtually everyone not directly benefiting from either the medical or health insurance industries), costs have continued to rise at several times the rate of inflation, and access to care hasn’t improved for most people. In short, the problem has simply, slowly – but inexorably – gotten worse with the passage of these thirteen years. Enough so that most people – especially Democrats, but also just general rank-and-file citizens – now feel again (or still feel) as if health care reform MUST be undertaken in a comprehensive, nationwide way, if we want to remain competitive as a nation on the world economic stage, not to mention if we want to maintain our own standard of living. The time seems right: there is significant public interest – even public pressure, there is a newly-elected and very popular Democratic President, and the Democratic party enjoys majorities in Congress not seen since the late ’70s, early ’80s, all of which would seem to indicate a once-in-a-generation (or even longer) favorability of conditions which make now the perfect time for real health care reform that might simply not be possible at other times.

Yet what do we find our Democratic leaders doing? Even someone with as sharp a mind and as impressive a speaking ability as Barack Obama approaches business-related matters such as this one with little to none of the fiery oratorical rhetoric and steel-jawed determination with which he approaches issues like race. And the Democrats in Congress are, if anything, worse. Neither Obama nor most of the real players in the committees which would be responsible for hammering out bills on health care reform have given the time of day to advocates of a Canadian style single-payer health care initiative. It isn’t that these people – and these ideas – don’t exist. They do, and have for years. And not just in theory, either, but in practice, in countries all over the globe. Even right here on our own shores, Medicare is an example of single-payer, but only for a select sub-group of citizens (the elderly). Granted, Canada is not America, and the elderly aren’t representative of all of us. And I truly do not believe that a single-payer bill – a strong and appropriate one – would have any serious chance of passing in Congress at this particular juncture. But that’s due at least in part to the Republicans’ understanding of the power of the Overton window, and the Democrats’ apparently near-total obliviousness to it. It’s quite simple, on the macro-level – as Max Baucus as much as admitted in the linked New York Times article at the top of this post: if you don’t work to specifically bring positions which are even MORE “extreme” at present than the ones you’d be willing to compromise on to the table AT THE BEGINNING OF THE DEBATE, then you’re left with literally nothing as a fallback position. Worse, you allow your opponents (in this case, the AMA, the insurance lobby, and opportunistic GOP politicians the likes of Newt Gingrich) to be able to merely ASSERT that theirs is the “centrist” position, and that the Democrats proposal of even a “public option” to compete with the private insurers is dangerously radical, while single-payer is just “silly.” Why? Because no one in a position of power like Obama or Baucus realized that by bringing passionate, vocal advocates of single-payer into the debate, they’d have another position which (to the Republicans and the insurance lobby) was far more “extreme” upon which to focus all their attention and opposition…and the Democrats would then have seemed MUCH more reasonable and compromising if they came to the rescue by offering this “public option.” Heck, they could even solicitously tell the insurance lobby and the GOP that this was the best way to stave off the possibility of the much more “radical” single-payer.

Now? They’re left having to defend the public option in the media and in the public consciousness against the Gingriches and the insurance flacks with nowhere to go, allowing all sorts of demagoguery against “socialism” and what have you. Because of Democrats’ failure to recognize the utility – and the inevitability – of the Overton Window, single-payer is now considered “not serious,” i.e. – outside the bounds of what’s acceptable debate, what’s within the Overton window. And they’ve allowed the most-extreme position WITHIN that window to be defined as the public option – the thing they were actually hoping (or even expecting) to be able to pass. And the only place for the debate to go from there is rightward….toward the GOP and the insurance lobby’s desire to leave the status quo in place.

That’s why, with (soon) 60 Senators and an even larger majority in the House, PLUS the Presidency, Democrats have almost certainly just effectively lost the health care debate….again. What reform comes from this session of Congress (for Obama has insisted that he wants a bill THIS session, not later in his Presidency, which he views, probably correctly, would be perceived as a defeat) will likely be tepid at best, and at worst will be a byzantine set of onerous new procedures which will be intensely spun by health insurance industry flacks as “real, market-based reform,” but which will be little more than smoke and mirrors which do nothing to address the underlying problems of health care. Unfortunately, in that latter case, it will have one other effect. In three or five years’ time, as people realize that despite this “reform” of health care, the on-the-ground problems weren’t really solved, it will make many citizens even more cynical about the political process in general and specifically, it will make them believe that the Democrats in particular are either in bed with the fat cats, or simply ineffectual.

To paraphrase the last President, heckuva job, Obama and Baucus.

One thought on “Democratic Strategy

  1. Interesting post. I have a review of Overton’s Window, the political theory, on my blog that might interest you.

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