The Case For Slow Politics

by Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin on February 18, 2010

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Perhaps it is easier to see the value of slow politics now that everyone is so frustrated that the fast “Big Bang” politics of 2009 seems to have come to a grinding halt in 2010.  With health care reform, jobs, energy, and immigration initiatives all apparently stalled, fast politics has been exposed as exceedingly slow.  Fast politics now seems as likely to lead to lasting progressive policy change as speed dating is to lead to a lasting love relationship.  Quality is more precious that quantity and force is meeting resistance.
But this is not just hindsight.  In November 2008, we echoed then President-elect Barack Obama’s Election Night caution against impatience, “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term,” in an essay that identified the central challenge for Obama as that of keeping his liberal and moderate supporters united in support of his goals.  Obama is failing now, because he is failing to do just this.  Liberals and moderates are both frustrated and can agree only that the first year has been a disappointment.
As happens every time Democrats get frustrated, both wings of the party have a theory about what has been going wrong, and what to do about it, and both conclude Obama should have charted a clearer course in their direction. Naturally, frustrated liberals like The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber offer political analysis to suggest that Obama needs to charge harder to the left in order to achieve bi-partisanship.  Scheiber points to George W. Bush’s charge to the right in his first year that nonetheless netted him 62 votes including 12 conservative Democrats for his tax cut package.  Without actually counting the votes, Scheiber suggests a similar strategy would be the best way to get Republican votes now for liberal policies.
The logical flaw in this argument is that most of the same conservative Democrats Bush courted are still in the Senate now (Evan Bayh’s announced departure at the end of this term notwithstanding) providing the margin of votes for Democratic control of the chamber.  The suggested symmetry is a fantasy.  There is simply nothing close to the dozen liberal Republican Senators that would be needed for this suggestion of symmetry to have any validity.  The problem has never been one of finding compromise between Democrats and Republicans, but between Democrats and Democrats, more specifically the liberal Democrats and many of the same conservative Democrats that signed on to the Bush tax cuts.
This is just one of several false symmetries that have been suggested when commentators suggest that Democrats employ the same tactics that have been used successfully by Republicans.  Democrats (especially the Liberals) are the party that wants to use government to make lasting policy changes, and we need public trust in Democrats and in government to do so.  So Republicans can threaten to shut down government, or the House, or the Senate, but Democrats cannot make the same threat.
Republicans can use gross exaggerations and even falsehoods (“death panels”) as a weapon, but Democrats really cannot because they would squander public trust.  Republicans do not really care if the public trusts Republicans as long they do not trust Democrats or the government.  In that it is a lot easier to destroy things than to build them (including trust), Republicans will always be able to take an easy route that is not available to Democrats.  The Democratic path to lasting change is the slow and difficult path.  If you want easy, get out of politics or become a Republican.

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