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July 16, 2007

Getting Things Done

The actual art of getting things done in politics is sort of woefully neglected in political commentary. There's a lot of discussion as to how good candidates are at campaigning, and a lot of discussion as to how ideal their expressed policy preferences appear, but very little explicit talk about their theories of political power and persuasive governance. I don't really know how to fix that, nor how to get candidates to talk a bit more about their theories on congressional relations, but this sort of thing is actually much more important than their plans, which many of us use as a stand-in for more hard-nosed discussions of power.

In the end, the actual features of a Democratic health care plan make relatively little difference politically: Anything from a slight expansion of the state-run SCHIP plans to single-payer will be called socialism and opposed by the Republican Party, the medical-industrial complex, and a constellation of businesses and interest groups worried about a turn towards social democracy. The question is what proactive strategy a Democratic president has to pass their plan. The reason many are enamored with Edwards is that his attention and enthusiasm for universal health care makes it appear likely that he'd, at the least, really go to war for his plan. Whether he'd do some in a tactically intelligent way remains uncertain. Hillary doesn't appear to have much of an appetite for such a battle, and Obama lacks both the record and the rhetoric that would allow us to make a judgment. But it's this question -- how would you pass your plan? -- that matters. In a perfect world, we'd be able to focus on it, rather than being forced to talk through the poor substitute of "what is your plan?"

July 16, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Actually Hillary does talk about tactics of passing a health care plan; they're just not framed as "going to war". She has a stock answer to "what are the lessons from the '93/'94 health care debate?" that goes something like "have broad support ... involve Congress ... White Hosue must think about messaging more than we did".

Edwards talks about this as a matter of right and wrong, which is more appealing to those of us out here, and for those who believe that a forthright populist message will lessen the "conviction gap" [i.e. the difference between parties on the "know where they stand" question] it seems like it might appeal to the middle. But I don't have any good evidence on that score.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jul 16, 2007 10:36:23 AM

Ezra,

I'm really perplexed at this post one day after the one on the experience question. There's a reason that people typically prefer executive-level experience-- because it answers the question you raise here. You mention your concern with little "explicit talk" on how things get done-- actual demonstration in a career whether it be in the public or private sector is more meaningful than talk. Beyond executive-level experience, if one is limited to legislative experience-- "getting things done" on a national scale is significantly more complex than at the state and local level. So for those concerned with "getting things done," the presumed hierarchy you described in the earlier post makes more sense than not.

Posted by: wisewon | Jul 16, 2007 10:40:31 AM

"Edwards talks about this as a matter of right and wrong, which is more appealing to those of us out here, and for those who believe that a forthright populist message will lessen the "conviction gap"

Beyond winning the election, I think this frame will also create a better atmosphere in '09-'10 for actually getting cloture.

Posted by: Petey | Jul 16, 2007 10:43:12 AM

This is the first diary that you have written to my mind on this subject, and it's the most critical. From the media campaign (you must hit the media first) to how to frame the discussion to poll tested wording of how to have people think what you want them to think about it- Democratis, quite frankly- suck.

We already have more than enough examples of this. From waiting until the confirmation hearings rather than hitting the ground running to derail the Alito nomination by taking him a part when the GOP announced his name to any number of other incidents- they just don't seem to want to get it.

Most of it- I believe- is attributable to two factors a) spending more than 30 years under conservative asendency and b) some of them believing the hype. Those are my less cynical answer. My more cycnical one is that they are the lip service party, and what this is really about is their contributions comes from the same trough.

By the way, Petey, is exactly right. One of the problems I have with both Clinton and Obama's strategies (at least in the primaries thus far) are that they aren't building towards hitting the ground running. I maybe wrong about HRC, but I am definitely not about Obama. He's my second choice at the moment, but he needs to get this. This whole talking to people- and respecting them is nice. But who will he be talking to? The insurance companies? I mean lets look at who is opposed to this for once, forgo the fake conversation, and come out punching. It's not like any of the players are new to this debate. But the democrats seem to as if they are.

Posted by: akaison | Jul 16, 2007 10:54:43 AM

This is an excellent point, Ezra, and is why I don't pay anywhere near the kind of attention to candidates' domestic policy proposals as I did in, say, 1992.

The obvious solution if you are concerned about passing major domestic legislation is to nominate a governor with a strong track record. I don't know enough about Bill Richardson's record to know if he qualifies. If not, it's pretty much a toss up who of the serious candidates could actually get anything done.

I'm highly skeptical that anybody is going to get major health reform enacted in the next 4 years anyway, so I'll cast my primary vote almost exclusively based on my reading of what the candidates will do in foreign policy where a President actually can get things done (and as Bush has shown to potentially disastrous effect).

Posted by: Ron | Jul 16, 2007 10:55:03 AM

wiswon, "executive experience" has little, if anything, to do with the act of getting any comprehensive health care reform pushed through congress. That is preimarily a task which is best suited to someone with experience doing the necessary sort of arm-twisting and deal-making of the sort we associate with LBJ. People bleating about "executive experience" almost invariably use this as shorthand for "rich, tall, and has thick hair," not "would be an effective governor/president."

"Executive experience" comes in handy when it comes to finding good people to fill certain executive-branch positions and coordinating the tasks of cabinet agencies.

I'd be tempted to argue that "getting things done" legislatively on a state level is more difficult than on a national level because the egos are so much larger (because the stakes are so low). It wasn't until Tom DeLay that we ever encountered anyone in the House of representatives whom one could reasonably compare to Tom Finneran or Willie Brown.

Posted by: Tyro | Jul 16, 2007 10:59:11 AM

I disagree when you state that "Obama lacks both the record and the rhetoric that would allow us to make a judgment."

Obama always seems to keep an eye on how to "get things done." Sure, he could through out more red meat in speaches that will appeal in the primary, but he always tries to dial back the rhetoric in hopes of later reconciliation. Being willing to listen and treat your opponants with respect is the first step toward getting things done. This is also why Obama's health care proposal is more incremental in nature.

Posted by: Jared | Jul 16, 2007 10:59:29 AM

I think it's an open question whether the governor of a midsize state is as well prepared as a senator to pass national policy. He, after all, has never dealt with these interest groups, at this level, with this sort of media attention and opposition, before. The Senator has.

Posted by: Ezra | Jul 16, 2007 11:15:10 AM

I agree with Ron I will look at Foreign Policy as well.
To expect anything to happen on healthcare in the near future is right up there with OJ finding the real killers.

You can look no further than this being the reason right here.

http://money.cnn.com/2006/07/12/news/newsmakers/healthcare_clinton/index.htm

Posted by: Dingo | Jul 16, 2007 11:48:59 AM

There's a reason that people typically prefer executive-level experience-- because it answers the question you raise here.

Actually, there is more than one reason. Another reason is that "executive experience" usually translates into a style of management respectful of established power relations, interests and modes of operation. Such experience focuses on managing the status quo rather than challenging it.

In politics, the executive model pursues policy by attempting to assuage various existing interests and avoiding antagonisms. This is fine so long as the policy in question requires no fundamental reordering of the status quo. Where such a restructuring is indicated, the executive model breaks down, since it's impossible to pursue such a policy without engendering hostility among the entrenched interests and power brokers who stand to lose from such reforms.

In societies possessing a democratic franchise, a different model of political leadership is required in such cases. One less dependent on established modes of governance and defined more by the popular mandate of the office. Specifically, in order to bring about fundamental changes, the office holder must be less of an executive and far more a galvanizer of popular electoral sentiment.

The hope for effective reform lies not in the incremental machinations of the beltway nomenklatura but in building a critical mass of popular support for broad change.

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | Jul 16, 2007 12:04:08 PM

Actually, there is more than one reason. Another reason is that "executive experience" usually translates into a style of management respectful of established power relations, interests and modes of operation. Such experience focuses on managing the status quo rather than challenging it.

Truly effective leadership by a chief executive, whether its a governor, president or CEO challenges the status quo, not manages it. Meaning, this isn't just a matter of having "executive experience" for the sake of having it, but demonstrated success in that role. There are plenty of public and private "executives" that do a mediocre job and we are able to evaluate their experience as such-- the incrementalism you rightfully loathe, rather than broad and visionary change. There are others, however, that have provided the leadership you seek and don't accept the status quo.

Posted by: wisewon | Jul 16, 2007 12:35:30 PM

I think it's an open question whether the governor of a midsize state is as well prepared as a senator to pass national policy. He, after all, has never dealt with these interest groups, at this level, with this sort of media attention and opposition, before. The Senator has.

Fully agree. They each have their advantages and disadvantages in terms of demonstrated skill and experience. What surprised me, however, was that your earlier post seemed to criticize a line being drawn at state legislative experience, which does seem reasonable.

Posted by: wisewon | Jul 16, 2007 12:47:26 PM

First paragraph above should be italicized from Ezra's response...

Posted by: wisewon | Jul 16, 2007 12:48:14 PM

very little explicit talk about their theories of political power and persuasive governance. I don't really know how to fix that

I dunno how to fix this either, but why it occurs is actually well-understood: (1) people want to know no more about how laws are made than how sausages are made and (2) the media types that control our national discourse are, in a very literal sense of the word, conservatives (no matter for whom they vote or what they call themselves or are called) -- they are doing quite well with the status quo and want to maintain it: hence, even if they support the reforms in question, the reforms are, frankly, uninteresting to them, so they don't really care about the details of how the reforms are gonna get passed. Indeed, they will destroy any candidate who dares bore them with those details.

I guess a key step in changing this is to somehow to return journalism to being a more "blue-collar" profession?

*

As far as Obama is concerned, by my reckoning, he is the most qualified in terms of management/organizational skills of all the Dems. (contrary to the conventional wisdom that he's the least experienced in this regard) -- remember before he became a politician his job was to organize things!

OTOH, Edwards has the best skills in terms of persuading people to go along with him -- which'll be useful in both elections and in dealing with Congress. After all, being a successful trial lawyer, he has a track record of convincing groups of people to vote in favor of his case.

So Edwards/Obama or Obama/Edwards '08?

Posted by: DAS | Jul 16, 2007 1:21:52 PM

Being willing to listen and treat your opponants with respect is the first step toward getting things done.
Not any more, it isn't. The horse-trading approach only works if the other side is willing to negotiate in good faith. If they're just looking for opportunities to shiv you, then trying to negotiate with them is for suckers and will get you sucker-punched. (As proof I submit the last several years - or arguably decades - of American history.)

I'd be a lot more willing to support a candidate that showed some signs of realizing that, and seeing how the Republicans have torn up the rulebook. They have, genuinely, zero respect for the traditions of this country, or the ideas of democracy or parliamentary debate. They are not only more hypocritical than you imagine, they are more hypocritical than you *can* imagine. Their idea of bipartisanship is proposing a joint photo op at the top of a staircase so they can push you down it.

Posted by: Chris | Jul 16, 2007 2:13:27 PM

P.S.: In such a political climate the only way to "get things done" is to kick ass and take names. And when they won't give you any names...

Posted by: Chris | Jul 16, 2007 2:14:25 PM

How did LBJ pass the Civil Rights Laws, Great Society, War on Poverty? Whatever mandate he had was short-lived enough that I don't think Senators really had to worry about losing elections. I think I read he made a deal with Dirksen about Vietnam, meaning mostly about Dirksen's caucus.

Look, a US Senator does not grovel to a President unless she thinks it is useful or inevitable. And then she will lie. I consider the Senate opaque.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 16, 2007 2:51:16 PM

"I think it's an open question whether the governor of a midsize state is as well prepared as a senator to pass national policy. He, after all, has never dealt with these interest groups, at this level, with this sort of media attention and opposition, before. The Senator has."

Bill Clinton getting things done in Little Rock vs Bill Clinton not getting things done in Washington supports your thesis.

Posted by: Petey | Jul 16, 2007 3:15:32 PM

How did LBJ pass the Civil Rights Laws, Great Society, War on Poverty? - bob mcmanus

As Charlie Pierce (I think it was him) pointed out, LBJ couldn't keep his pants up ... and not just in terms of sex. He'd drop his pants at the slightest provocation: to the press, etc.

So, being a Senator, one would live in fear of crossing LBJ ... you never would know when he might just drop his pants and literally piss on you (IIRC, when he was still a legislator he actually did this).

Posted by: DAS | Jul 16, 2007 3:22:55 PM

Just recently watched Sean Pean in "All the King's Men."

Line at the very beginning of the movie:"Ain't no governor ever done anythin worth doing and kep his dignity."

This would be where my pessimism would kick in and tell the kids that to get Universal Coverage y'all are gonna have to give Iran to Halliburton at the cost of thousands of lives, But I will instead remain silent, let the deal-making happen behind closed doors, and let those who want to keep their idealism think that the UHC was an achievement unrelated to the tragedy. What a mixed administration HRC will be.

There was an even earlier line about idealism in ATKM. Not wanting to know the truth, I think it was.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 16, 2007 3:36:30 PM

I think expanding Medicare and S-Chip, and making them one program ultimately, is the way to go. Universal single-payer insurance is difficult to achieve for a number of reasons, primarily that the insurance lobby will fight tooth and nail being legislated out of existence, also it's an enormous transition that will be difficult to make smoothly. So how to get there gradually? Having insurance go through the current insurance industry leaves the administrative costs. Offering government insurance as an option sets up charges of unfair competition particularly if you use any general tax revenue or make it cheaper for those of lower income, and it creates an adverse selection problem.

What we should do is have a single-payer federally run plan that covers everyone above age X and below age Y. It covers at a level that should be sufficient without insurance, and covers regardless of whether recipients are insured anyway, though anyone can purchase additional insurance. Since it is not elective there is no adverse selection. And it makes a great political stalking horse, as it exposes everyone to government run health insurance long before they retire. People with kids notice all the forms they have to fill out for their older kid and how nice the insurance is for their younger kid, thus there will be political pressure to expand the program. Thus we can gradually switch to single-payer by changing the ages for coverage until everyone is covered.

Posted by: Eric L | Jul 16, 2007 10:38:59 PM

I'm not that interested in having candidates talk in detail and in public about legislative strategies for passing universal health care and other good things. Isn't it the nature of these things that some deal-making and arm-twisting has to be done in private?

Ideally we would be able to point to some candidate with a strong history of legislative effectiveness and general ass-kicking. Unfortunately, we are Democrats. Best we can do is hope that HRC, Obama, or Edwards quickly figures out, when in office, how to use the bully pulpit to do some bullying.

This effectiveness issue provides me with another opportunity to criticize HRC. While there's a colorable argument that she's the most experienced of the three, what does her experience consist of except failing to achieve universal health care; being part of an administration whose president signed DOMA and AEDPA; and becoming known for bipartisanship as a senator (i.e., doing things Republicans think are OK, rather than fighting for things Republicans don't like)?

Forget Hillary. I'd rather put some faith in Edwards or Obama to be able to use their rhetorical gifts to make the other side look bad when necessary, even though neither of them is as proven a fighter as I would like.

Posted by: Tom | Jul 17, 2007 1:16:42 AM

what does her experience consist of except failing to achieve universal health care; being part of an administration whose president signed DOMA and AEDPA; and becoming known for bipartisanship as a senator (i.e., doing things Republicans think are OK, rather than fighting for things Republicans don't like)?

That's a serious question? You think Edwards wouldn't have supported DOMA, or that Clinton was worse than the 91 Senators who voted for AEDPA? On her supposed bipartisanship in the Senate, see here. (Compare Edwards here. Edwards if from a more conservative state, of course.) I think Bill and Hillary both have a few better things to their credit.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 17, 2007 1:34:14 AM

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