Posted by: Jeff | January 27, 2010

When Political Will Is Important

A while back, Matt Yglesias provided a biting summation of neoconservative foreign policy. He dubbed it the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics, after a comic book superhero with a magic ring that basically allows him to do anything so long as he’s able to conjure sufficient will power. It was a slick and funny way of undercutting the neocons’ assertion that nothing but political will stood in the way of American power and the chance to remake the Middle East in our own image. Because while it’s a decent premise for a comic book, it’s a terrible premise for policy in the real world. No matter how impassioned or forceful you and yours may be, structural and political realities on the ground will win out.

Now Megan McArdle thinks the growing chorus for the Democrats to “Pass the Damn Bill” (henceforth to be called the PTDB movement) is an instance of Green Lantern Theory applied to domestic politics. I get where she’s coming from, because I think a lot of the criticism the left directed at Obama during the health care debate boiled down to a Green Lantern Theory of presidential power. But in this specific instance, I think she’s wrong.

One of the central points of Green Lantern Theory, it seems to me, is that you can’t force people or political actors to act in contravention of their own self-interest. But as I suggested in my last mega-post, what disturbs and angers me about the Democrats’ reaction to the Massachusetts election is precisely the fact that PTDB would actually help their own long-term political interests. I think they’re behaving irrationally by allowing short-term panic to drive them perilously close to immolating themselves politically.

Normally, I think politicians are actually quite good about rationally adhering to their own self-interest, and that most of their behavior can be explained in those terms. I also think that as long as their behavior is aligned with their self-interest, it’s exceedingly difficult to get them to budge, hence my surface sympathy with McArdle and frustration with a lot of Obama’s critics. Those complaints overlook the fact that, ultimately, even other Democrats don’t answer to Obama. They answer to their voters.

However, just like human beings don’t always behave as rational interest maximizers the way economic theory tends to assume, politicians don’t always act as rational interest maximizers either. Sometimes, on rare but precious occasions, politicians jettison their self-interest out of a genuine belief in principle. Sometimes, in attempting to gain a short-term advantage, they lose sight of their long-term interests. (I think this is arguably what happened to the Republicans between 2002 and 2006.) And sometimes they lose sight of their long-term interests out of sheer panic. A combination of the last two seems to have happened to the Democrats, and that’s causing them to contemplate breaking the health care bill into smaller chunks or even jettisoning it entirely.

This doesn’t mean the PTDB movement, if followed, will work. Democratic legislators don’t just answer to the voters writ large, they answer to very specific constituencies. And some of those constituencies don’t like the health care bill, making a “yes” vote difficult for their representatives. Bringing the pro-life contingent amongst the House Democrats on board is probably going to be especially difficult. But I suspect, and this theory has been floating around liberal wonk circles for a long time, that whatever parochial gains reluctant Democrats might get by voting against the bill will be overshadowed by the damage the death of the bill will do to the party as a whole. Reluctant Democrats tend to be centrist Democrats, and centrist Democrats are the most vulnerable to a pro-Republican surge.

So maybe it’s a wash between these opposed structural forces. But in such an instance, it seems to me, the normally nebulous power of the president as de facto leader becomes much more relevant and concrete. Also, a lot of anxiety in the House appears to boil down to the question of whether the Senate can be relied upon to pass fixes to the health care bill via reconciliation. So we remain in deal-making mode between the House and Senate, a phase once again where the president can step in and have an outsized influence.

This is just me talking here, but I’d argue that when you have a virtual stalemate between structural forces, Green Lantern Theory becomes a bit muddled and things like will and passion become more relevant.

Now, I’m not certain that Obama should publicly turn to the bully pulpit in favor of passing the Senate bill, or that he should focus on health care in the State of the Union address. I’m open to the theory that health care reform as a political topic has become so toxic that the Democrats would be better off pivoting to jobs and financial regulation as a rhetorical matter, while still pushing to pass the Senate health care bill in practice.

But I do think we’ve entered a moment – and it’s an unusual moment – where the onus of slapping some sense into the Democrats and rallying them to the flag of health care reform falls squarely on the shoulders of the White House. And they need to deliver. I realize it’s not terribly helpful to say the Obama Administration needs to do something, when I’m not sure what that something is. But hell, they need to do something.

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