The Rules of the Game.

February 8, 2009

The Rules of the Game.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Every weekend CUIP’s president Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogues compiled on Sunday, February 8, 2009 after watching selections from “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” “Hardball with Chris Matthews” and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Salit: We watched a discussion between Mark Shields and David Brooks on the News Hour about the past weeks in Washington. The economic stimulus bill passed the House, but with no Republican support. It moved to the Senate. The bill is being re-written with politicking and negotiations and wheeling and dealing with a few Senate Republicans. A deal on a compromise bill was reached which shaves $60 billion off of the $900 billion package that was passed by the House. And the pundits are into what I would call microscopic analysis of the twists and turns and what it all means relative to Obama and the Obama presidency. Let me start with a broad question. Is there anything in the events of last week that surprised you in any way?

Newman: Nothing.

Salit: Me, too. It’s how Washington does business. And, it’s how Washington does business no matter who’s president. But the talk show discussions seem to suggest or imply that something should be different or that it’s reasonable to have an expectation that things might have been less partisan.

Newman: No. Don’t forget it’s the talk show crowd who pumped Obama up so much that he was expected to come in and wave a wand and Washington would be completely different. Now they are shocked that it isn’t. I don’t know if this is cheap psychoanalysis, but what they probably mean is that they’re surprised that they weren’t 100% right.

Salit: This governmental structure has been in place for a long time.

Newman: Yes. And some of these people in Congress have been there for a long time. They have a history of functioning in certain kinds of ways and they’re very full of themselves as the guardians of “the way.” They’re moved, as most Americans are, by the Obama story. And it’s a great story and he’s very good. But, as they come back to their jobs in the House or in the Senate, they’re saying, I’m not going to be that moved by this pipsqueak from Illinois. I don’t care if he’s purple. It doesn’t make a difference. I’ve been in the Senate – says Mr. Byrd – for fifty years. They do things their way. They can even be simultaneously moved by this phenomenon and then say, OK, now it’s time to go back to work and do things how I’ve always done them, because that’s my job. It’s naïve to think that they were going to be overwhelmed by Obama or, indeed, even overwhelmed by the crisis. They’ve been through crises before.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: The Republicans don’t even see it as a crisis.

Salit: They see it as the downside of the upswing in the economy, as the new Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele said to George Stephanopoulos.

Newman: And, they see it as the Democrats trying to take political advantage of the current situation. The ideology that governs those people in Washington DC, both Republican and Democrat, is weak. They’re not looking for a strong ideological program. They’re interested in the slightest of gains for their state, their district or their special interest constituency. You have 500 people playing that game and they play it continuously. So, you think you’re going to get some idealistic revision of all that because of Barack Obama? No.

Salit: Not at all.

Newman: And are they any different than the American people in this regard? Are the American people going to transform their lives in any truly significant way off of the inspirational message of Barack Obama? No.

Salit: Let’s put to rest the idea that coming up with an economic stimulus package is going to somehow be less partisan or more elevated or whatever.

Newman: It’s just another appropriations bill. That’s what it is.

Salit: Exactly. And that’s what Congress does. That’s what it’s empowered and required to do by the Constitution.

Newman: And it has a certain way of doing that. And it has been done in that way for a very long time.

Salit: In attempting to give what you might call a more strategic framing to the shaping of the stimulus package, Mark Shields says that one of the things that’s operative, at a meta-level if you will, is that it’s the end of the conservative era. The conservative era is over. Deregulation, tax cuts, all of that has been wholly discredited by the facts on the ground, by the onset of the economic crisis. So, says Shields, the conservative era is over, but we don’t know where to go. We’re in “uncharted territory,” his term. I guess what he’s saying is that things haven’t “swung back to” traditional liberalism, but conservatism is over. So the question is where are we? Where are we going?

Newman: All that might be true. I don’t know. It sounds somewhat metaphorical to me. But the process has remained exactly the same.

Salit: The process for hammering out what Congress does, yes.

Newman: It’s like people who come in to reform education and one side has a liberal view and the other side has a conservative view. But, when you get to the schools, the chairs are screwed into the floor in exactly the same way, no matter what.

Salit: Brooks argues that the Republicans who are opposing the package are doing so on the basis of principles, meaning that they simply don’t believe that a certain kind of spending is equivalent to an economic stimulus. So this debate, if you want to call it that, is over whether spending on certain kinds of programs – education, health care, Head Start, etc. – is stimulative or not. The conservative Republican argument, by and large, is that it isn’t. It’s just spending. It’s just appropriations. It’s just spending money on public programs, which you may or may not like, but it’s not a stimulus. The argument on the other side is that it is stimulative. Shields makes the argument – as did Larry Summers on Stephanopoulos – that everything from the Head Start program to Pell grants to helping the states with block grants so that they don’t have to either raise taxes or cut services, which includes layoffs, is stimulative. What do you think about that debate?

Newman: If you just take a brief look at the psychology behind those two positions, they’re both, in their own way, valid. What the conservatives are saying is that these public works programs don’t stimulate most Americans to buy or to sell or anything because they’re just services that are provided by the government and they’re either good or they’re not so good. But they’re always there, one way or the other. Your average American can say, Well, whether it’s a beautiful bridge or a kind of run down bridge that I might be a little scared about, it’s a bridge. And, if they’ve repainted the bridge, that doesn’t send me off to the local Walgreens to buy all kinds of things. And I think there’s something to that. I think they’re right. They say that the only thing that stimulates the average American is putting ten bucks in their hand and saying, Here’s ten bucks that you didn’t have yesterday. And that’s best effected by tax cuts, given that taxes are now so bloody high in this country.

Salit: But one “problem” that economists point to is that when Americans got a tax rebate last year, they used it to pay down their personal debt or put it in a savings account. So, it’s not clear that putting money in people’s hands does induce them to spend at this point.

Newman: Correct. Meanwhile, the Democrats are saying, psychologically speaking, something like, Well, if everything looks nicer, since it’s all about incentive and psychology as to whether people spend or don’t spend, the better these things are – in addition to the money that comes from hiring people through public works or increasing certain benefits to them – if you come up with enhanced public works products, it’s going to enhance the likelihood that the entire economy will grow. It’s kind of a soft socialism. If the government spends enough money – so the theory, psychologically speaking, goes – then the American people will say, Oh, I guess I can spend money, too. Which is somewhat dubious psychology. But it’s all based on dubious psychology.

There’s something to be said for both of those approaches. What actually happens, though, is hard to say because you’re talking about 350 million people and how they’re going to respond. The answer, so far, is that they wanted Obama, as opposed to McCain, but not by an overwhelming margin. And that’s where the country is still at and that’s where it’s been at for awhile.

Salit: OK. It’s a few weeks into the process of hammering out an economic stimulus. David Brooks said that this was a “bad week” for Obama. But why? A bill passed the House and there’s a bill that’s going to pass the Senate and there will be a conference, or compromise, version of the package. What’s the problem?

Newman: Right. And there will be a bill that the president will eventually sign, which is an appropriations bill. That’s what their job is.

Salit: There’s been discussion in some circles about the issue of how Obama did or didn’t relate to “his base” during the course of this week. Some people said: ‘Why didn’t Obama send e-mails out to his three million person database, his Obama for America base, and say Call your Congressperson and tell them they have to vote for the stimulus bill or Call your Senator and tell them they have to vote for the Senate bill.?’ Obama’s political advisors were asked about this and there was some critique of him for not doing this. Here’s what I thought about this. First of all, the Democrats are all voting for the Obama package, both in the House and in the Senate. So, if you were to undertake that kind of grassroots mobilization, you’d basically be mobilizing your base to target Republicans to try to shift their vote. Obama and his political advisors probably thought that that’s not the kind of thing they’d want to engage their base around as a first action, because, in some sense, it could be read as a kind of partisan activity, which is to put pressure on the Republicans to get on board with the Democrats. I thought they might feel concerned about doing that and not want to relate to their base in that way. I think the base actually does have feelings about that and doesn’t want to engage in what could be considered to be partisan politics. And, moreover, Obama obviously felt reasonably secure that, through a negotiation process in Congress, they would get to roughly where they got to.

Newman: I agree. Furthermore, the main reason he doesn’t do that is that the people don’t vote on the stimulus package. When they did vote, as in an election for the presidency, he did send e-mails out. Every 30 seconds. But they don’t vote anymore. The people who vote now, and the only people who vote now, are the people on the Hill. So he goes there instead. And it’s perfectly reasonable. Why wouldn’t he go there? Those are the voters. They got elected by the people, but then they make the decisions. We could have a structure in which the American people had a greater capacity to influence those things in some direct way, but we don’t. It’s not designed that way. It’s designed so that we vote one time, send these people to DC and turn the governing over to them.

Salit: I thought something that Obama might have done in this situation – the only thing different than what he did, relative to what should be in the economic stimulus package, was that he could have thrown into the package the requirement that every state – and I know there are constitutional questions of federal authority here, but leaving that aside for the moment – legalize initiative and referendum with very reasonable ballot access requirements. In other words, create a tool for citizen engagement and for citizen involvement in an enhanced and ongoing way in the governmental process.

Newman: Let me be cynical for a moment, and I support that kind of thing. But if you did that, you’d unify all the elected officials in opposition to that very thing. Ironically, that’s how you would finally bring the two parties together. They’d be uniformly opposed to that.

Salit: Which raises this question: During the campaign, Obama’s appeal to the public was that we’ve got to change how we do politics. We’ve got to change the political culture. And, at the same time, we have to move the country forward. His argument, and it’s a perfectly reasonable argument, is what I’m focusing on right now is moving the country forward. We have to have an economic stimulus package. There are 600,000 more people that just lost their jobs…

Newman: …Even if the Republicans argue that this isn’t moving the country forward, it’s simply taking advantage of a crisis to further advance a liberal agenda…

Salit: Yes, and, that’s a legitimate argument against or in protest of a certain kind of politics-as-usual, though the Republicans don’t have much credibility to make an anti-politics-as-usual argument. But, how do we, how do the American people change the political culture? If Congress does roughly what Congress does and it operates along partisan lines in certain kinds of ways and it creates compromises and it comes up with a bill, etc., how does the political culture change? Obama the dreamer, Obama the change agent, Obama the leader of the movement ran smack into the politics-as-is superstructure. OK, fine. That’s how it works. You put together the bill. Let’s get this money to the people. Let’s take care of that. Let me put the question to you this way: If you’re Barack Obama and you’re sitting in the Oval Office having a cup of coffee this morning, you’re saying, All right. I feel good about the fact that I got my bill through and we’re going to do some things for the American people. But what the hell am I going to do to change the political culture in this country? I told the American people that I wanted to do that. The American people said to me that they want to do that. What do I do?

Newman: I’ve spent the last 40 years of my life answering that question. You have to change the basic rules by which the game is played. Ten years ago I wrote an article about Jesse Ventura’s upset victory in Minnesota. He was elected governor as an independent in 1998. What should have happened is that we should have just let the whole thing end with his having won the election. That’s what was interesting and exciting. Once he started governing, things went from dull to duller. You’ve got to change the rules by which the game is played so as to give the people a greater capacity to participate in the game. That has not happened in a major way. It’s happened in dribs and drabs in certain places. We’ve participated as much as we could. It’s not glamorous, it’s not sexy. But that’s what could actually make a difference in changing the culture. Now, Obama would probably say, and his advisors would concur, That’s well and good but that doesn’t address the immediacy, not only of the current economic crisis, but of anything. We have to get things done here because that’s what we’re elected for.

Salit: That’s what governance is.

Newman: Yes, that’s what governance is. Once the people vote, they’re out of it. So you can set up your own database, but when push comes to shove, as you pointed out, you don’t waste your time doing that. You go back up to Capitol Hill and try to twist someone’s arm because they’re the people who do the voting.

Salit: They’re the decision-makers.

Newman: Right. Now, if you change that, in either minor ways or major ways, you might get some different kind of dynamics. But you won’t get change until you touch those things – and no one in power is going to want to touch those things because everyone, once elected, wants to play the game by the rules that empowered them. Well, what do you do about a situation like that? You have to create some kind of revolution, you’ve got to change the rules of the game, fundamentally, for the game to be played differently. No matter how eloquent, no matter how moving Obama is – his being president doesn’t change the way the game is played, because the rules of the game remain roughly the same.

Salit: Thanks, Fred.