Posted by: Jeff | February 19, 2010

Does Good Policy Equal Good Politics?

And here’s a more positive, or at least not quite as fatalistic, take on the themes of the previous post. The Monkey Cage (if you haven’t already noticed, I think it’s a pretty cool blog) has posted even more data, this time from Jim Stinson, showing the strong correlation between Americans’ satisfaction with the economy and their approval of the government. Ezra Klein comments:

This is more evidence, I think, for the idea that politicians need to worry less about what the electorate thinks of what they’re going to do and more about how well — and how quickly — their policies will actually work.

People in Washington spend a lot of time thinking about what political players are doing, and so they concoct elaborate theories of what the voters think about what political players are doing, and then they offer advice on what political players can do to change voters’ minds. But all the evidence is that voters don’t pay very close attention to politics and are much more interested in the state of the economy than the behavior and emotiveness of politicians.

There is something extraordinarily weird about the conventional wisdom, now solidified in many circles, that the American public has rejected the Democrats’ health care reform bill. In a purely technical sense, it’s obviously true – polling shows that disapproval of the bill has now well out-paced approval. What’s so weird is the underlying implication that Democrats should care that the public has rejected their bill.

That’s weird because we don’t elect politicians to propose policies to the American public, and then expect the public to grant or withhold its blessing via polling before the politicians go ahead with the actual implementation. We elect politicians to implement policies, full stop. If their policies are good, the politicians get re-elected. If not, they don’t. Our entire system of elections and terms of service is predicated on the notion that politicians are held accountable at election time, and judged based on their policy results. But the conventional wisdom about the rejection of health care rests on the notion that politicians should be judged on their policy proposals.

And that’s no good, because the American public is not cut out to judge policy proposals. They aren’t wonks and no one should expect them to be. Yes, most of the public now disapproves of the health care bill, but we have plenty of evidence that most of the public also doesn’t understand the bill at all. Most Americans simply don’t have the resources to have a meaningful opinion on the health care bill one way or the other. (That doesn’t stop plenty of them from having a meaningless opinion on it, but whatever.)

What Americans are cut out to judge, in at least a general sense, are policy results. Not in a data-parsing sense, but in the sense of “are my own circumstances and my general sense of the country’s circumstances better after the passage of this policy than before?” This is the source of the argument for why Democrats should ignore the “rejection” of their health care reform, embodied by Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts, and forge ahead with passage. Because Massachusetts voters, even while rejecting health care reform on the national level, already live under the same type of reformed system at the level of their own state, and are quite happy with the results.

It’s understandable that politicians worry about short-term polling and how voters respond to their emotiveness and day-to-day behavior. They worry that their short-term approval, or lack of it, presages the results come election time. But really, what counts is the accumulation of results an incumbent politician has been able to put together by the time elections roll around, however favorably or unfavorably voters may have viewed those policies before implementation.

So, in one sense, the notion that “good policy is good politics” is indeed hopelessly naive. Proposing good policy will get you kicked out of office as often as not. The public simply isn’t capable of recognizing good policy when they see it, and is profoundly vulnerable to demagoguery on subjects they don’t understand. I’ve been cynical enough to sneer at this notion for exactly that reason.

But in another sense, the notion that “good policy is good politics” is absolutely right, as long as you can get the policy passed with enough time for the results to start coming in before the next election. People may not be able to recognize good policy, but they can recognize the improved circumstances brought about by good policy. It may not be an intellectually coherent form of collective information processing, but it’s something. And as Klein says, politicians would do well to remember that.

*Unfortunately, there’s one big hick-up to this logic. Namely, the public isn’t always very good at rewarding the right people for their improved circumstances. Stinson’s assessment:

So what does it mean that citizens approve or trust? It appears to mean mainly that things are going well in the country. What is important about this pattern, and unexpected, is that the approval and trust are granted to those who have had no role in producing the outcomes. We have known for some time that presidents seemed to get more credit or blame than they deserved. With the pattern now extended to those who have had no conceivable role, we need to reassess what it means to approve.

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