Monday, June 7, 2010

Policy Detail In Primaries: It's Good!

Matt on policy detail during campaigns: "I wrote blog posts comparing the details of the Obama, Clinton, and Edwards “plans” on health care and climate change and it turns out this was all totally irrelevant."

I draw exactly the opposite conclusion. The details of these plans ended up being extraordinarily relevant. What we got in the end was the Edwards-Clinton plan, except with regulated competition on the exchanges replacing the public option. When a plan shows up in a primary, gets adopted by a major centrist Senator (Max Baucus in his Jekyll aspect) and ends up one or two centrist-vote-buying compromises away from the eventual thing that passes Congress, it suggests that health care plans introduced in primaries are a big deal.

It's true that Obama won and the policy we got was farthest from his plan. But that's just because the pro-individual-mandate forces won the debate, even as their candidates lost the election for other reasons. One of the beautiful achievements of the interminable 2008 Democratic primary was that Democrats got together and figured out that an individual mandate was good policy. A mandate is exactly the sort of technocratically essential but superficially icky proposal that wonks dream of but nobody will swallow. But we chewed on it for a good long time, and in the end we realized that it was good. So when the legislative process started, the Democratic base was ready to support a plan with a mandate.

It makes me proud to be a Democrat. Where Republicans made ridiculous smears about death panels, we took time to learn about adverse selection death spirals. We talked out the wonky details and formed a consensus behind a strange but good idea. The guy who won had proposed the wrong idea (probably because he was being a bit timid on the issue during the primary), but given that a consensus had developed about the details of the plan, he and influential moderates could embrace the consensus and do the good thing! Well done, people.


ikl said...

Who is the "we" in the "we chewed on it."

Isn't the basic situation here that Obama and Clinton didn't have many policy differences so they (and others) talked a lot about the mandate? Then Obama won the primary for completely unrelated reasons. Democratic policy people had already decided that a mandate was necessary for comprehensive reform. So when the Democrats decided to do comprehensive reform in 2009, a mandated ended up in the bill notwithstanding Obama's platform.

Obviously, we have been through this before in the comment section of this blog and I'm on team Yglasias on this one. I just don't see much causality here.

Neil Sinhababu said...

The 'we' is 'people who are influential on policy in the Democratic party.' And I mean that broadly. It starts up top with people working at think tanks, but continues down to people at Drinking Liberally who get listened to by their fellow drinkers.

You say, "Democratic policy people had already decided that a mandate was necessary for comprehensive reform." I'm inclined to respond, since when do Democratic policy people get their way all the time? Goodness knows there are enough bad influences on policy out there. If top-level wonks are all you have, chances of getting good policy aren't high. It helps if an actual voter constituency cares.

low-tech cyclist said...

A somewhat longer piece of Matt's quote: "I wrote blog posts comparing the details of the Obama, Clinton, and Edwards “plans” on health care and climate change and it turns out this was all totally irrelevant. Presidents can’t compel congress to act, and generally don’t do the detail-work of policy-design. It would make much more sense for candidates to talk less about this sort of thing and instead address what presidents actually do—help set the legislative agenda..."

Presidents certainly can't compel Congress to act, but a newly-elected President with a Congressional majority of his party will generally find that majority willing to let the President "help set the legislative agenda," especially to the extent that the election implied popular support for that agenda.

After all, why was it that health care reform was considered by Congress at such length? Because the primaries demonstrated that the Democratic base was united behind doing health care reform, and that portion of the base that had gotten into the weeds of the plan were largely OK with something like what ultimately passed.

Similarly with the House having passed cap-and-trade. That happened because the major Democratic primary candidates were all for it, including the nominee and ultimate winner of the election. And it still might pass the Senate, if we're lucky. But would these things have come half as far if they hadn't been part of Obama's agenda?

ikl said...

The short answer is that when President Obama is President, the President defers to the consensus of smart Democratic policy people! And that is why I was supporting candidate Obama way back when others were obsessing about the details of various candidates' platforms.

Neil Sinhababu said...

I know you like Obama, but you're not fanatical enough to claim that he operates independently of political constraints.

ikl said...

I was going to add a "insofar as is politically feasible" qualifier, but that would have messed up the flow of the comment. So I went with style over substance.