Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Me and my donkey

A while ago, dadahead felt lots of discontent with the Democrats and started thinking about third parties. He'd still work within the Democratic Party, he said, though they were on the outer margins of being acceptable.

I said that voting for third parties wouldn't help. Even if you cost them elections, the math works out so it's foolish for Democrats to move left to appeal to you. Pulling the American public left to you, so the Democrats can take up your view and win, is the only thing to do.

Dadahead's response focuses largely on criticizing this assertion of mine: "Assuming a normal distribution of voters across each of the political/philosophical axes, moving left puts [Democrats] at risk of losing the people in the center, and there are way more voters in the center than on the edges." I think he'd say that my caveat -- "Now if you have some reason to think that there isn't a normal (bell-shaped) distribution on your issue, this analysis may not apply." -- is applicable to lots more cases than I think it is. He accepts that we're in the minority with regard to parental consent laws and gay marriage, though I think we both agree that our pro-gay stance is a great investment for the future.

To pick just one issue, there is enormous support in the political 'center' for government-guaranteed universal healthcare, a paradigmatically 'progressive' issue. The same goes for rolling back upper-class tax cuts, keeping Social Security, avoiding unnecessary wars, etc.

I agree with dadahead, his friends at the DLC, and John Kerry that rolling back Bush's tax cuts for the rich is something to push for without hesitation. Against Bush's Social Security Death Star, Han and Lando have put aside their grievances, the shields are down, and the Millenium Falcon has flown into the core reactor shaft. When this fight is over, we're going to have a big Ewok party on Endor with New Democrats kissing Deaniacs while the ghosts of Obi-Wan and Franklin Roosevelt smile upon us.

Serious health care reform, however, is an issue on which we've got to do a lot of work to persuade Americans to our side. They'll love it once everyone gets nice cheap health insurance, but irrational fears of government interference in the economy will make them fear it until they have it. We'll be up against an insurance industry fighting for its life. Americans only love government programs that already exist, and the insurers will make our proposal seem like the scariest piece of socialized medicine ever. I don't believe we have the power yet to win this fight, though I'd be really happy to be proven wrong. In any case, I see this as the time for people like us to lay the groundwork. (If anyone can sell health care reform in the near term, I think it's John Edwards.)

And then there's Iraq. Look, if everyone had seen in advance how it would turn out -- no WMD, no terrorist links, terrible management, the destruction of American soft power, a medium-term crippling of the American military, huge costs, Iraq becoming Jihad University, an interminable military commitment, so many dead -- Republicans might have nixed it themselves. (Sure, most of them won't say that now. They don't have the courage to flip-flop.) The Democratic wing of the Democratic Party was right on this all the way. But questions of retroactive political strategy are not easy here. After an easy-looking campaign in Afghanistan, and after earlier successes in Bosnia and Kosovo and a disastrous non-war in Rwanda, Americans simply didn't think things would go wrong in war. For years, they had been taught that Saddam was the biggest villian on earth, and they were terrified by 9/11 and anthrax. Could we have convinced them that this wasn't going to go well? (I wouldn't have expected Bush to screw things up so badly either. I mean, I thought he'd do a bad job, but the sheer botchery that has occurred is pretty phenomenal.) I suppose we could've tried a "finish Afghanistan first!" message. Or maybe we could have made our strong stand, gotten slaughtered at the polls in '02, regrouped, and won in '04 with a pure and clear message. Who knows?

I really don't see myself as a liberal or a centrist, as these intra-party disputes go. I'm just a utilitarian, trying to avoid the Pundit's Fallacy, and playing the hand I'm dealt.


dadahead said...

One clever way to fight the health care battle: enlist big business.

Atrios often points out that there would be quite a bit of support for govt.-funded health care from corporations that are not in the health insurance business, since they are footing the bill for the health care of quite a few people, effectively subsidizing the HMOs.

Justin said...

I was thinking about your original post on voting for third parties, and I think I disagree in more than one way.

First, it seems to me that the evangelicals "staying home" in '00 was sort of the equivalent of 3rd party voting, and it seems to have worked out awfully well for them in advancing their issues. I think leftists have an interest in there being 3rd parties (or stay-home strategies) which are (1) viable enough that centrist democrats feel that they need to appeal to them, but which (2) are not serious enough that they actually lead to Republicans getting elected, as happened in 2000. Who knows, if Gore had squeeked out Florida in 2000 (with the Green Party still doing as well as it did), there's a chance his administration would've felt the need to appease leftists, in much the way Bush has appeased evangelicals.

There's a "second..." coming up, but I will do that in a second post...

Justin said...

Second, even assuming the bell-shaped distribution you imagine, I'm not convinced that it's irrational for Democratic candidatess to reach out to leftists in order to get their vote.

Look, it's not like every voter has, say, 10 issues where they have well-thought-out positions, and then vote for the candidate whose views are closest to their own across those 10 issues. If that was how it worked, then I agree that any move left would result in a loss in the middle. Instead, though, what you have are a lot of either genuine single issue voters or quasi-single issue voters who only care about a few things (like, say, family values) but who are willing to construct their other views to match the candidates they like (so, once Bush comes out for Social Security reform, they themselves will write letters to the editor explaining how badly it's needed).

So, to pick an issue, take the environment. Seems to me that most of the middle doesn't really care that much about the environment -- in some vague sense they would like us to protect it, but they don't care enough to, say, contact their senators about it, or to vote against Bush strictly on that basis (of course, there are people who vote against Bush strictly on the basis of his environmental policies, but they aren't in the middle).

My hunch is that a Democratic candidate could afford to be more green than, say, 90% of the public without it costing her too much in terms of centrist voters. I mean, she might get ridiculed by Rush Limbaugh, and voters who otherwise weren't going to vote for her might say she is too extreme on the issue, but I suspect that if the candidate is otherwise centrist with the general public on core issues like jobs and terror, she could afford to reach out to potential green party voters by being fairly green herself. You can imagine game-theory type scenarios where a candidate could get a majority of votes even though she is decisively to the left of the public on a majority of issues.

Democrats shouldn't just try to learn lessons from Clinton, they should also try to learn lessons from Bush. I think Bush has shown how you can win elections without really playing too much to the middle, or at least without playing too much to the middle on certain things.