I’ve been going off a bit about the difference between policy and politics and how to tell which is which. I’m not the only one. Ezra Klein has too, and expressing it better than I did. Here are a few of his paragraphs that I wish I’d written.
The problem with believing that Congress runs on ideology rather than electoral interests is that it perpetuates the harmful misconception that legislators of good faith can get together and agree on policy, and that when that doesn’t happen, something has gone wrong, or the policy in question is terribly extreme. We tell the public to expect agreement and then tell them to be disgusted when that agreement never manifests. It’s a recipe for cynicism, and it’s not accurate.
This is how Congress works: The majority party wants to govern. The minority party wants to make the majority a failure at governing. If you want to predict congressional outcomes, you’d do a lot better sticking to those two principles than following the optimistic statements of the media and the bipartisan hopes of the commentariat.
One of the difficulties in trying to understand a politician’s motives is that anyone can come up with plausible reasons to support this bill or oppose that legislation. Those reasons are probably even honest, at least to the person offering them. But for all that, you’d come up with a much better model for predicting Collins’s votes by asking whether a Democrat or a Republican was behind the health-care bill than you would by asking whether the bill in question was fiscally responsible. And that’s true for most legislators. Policy matters, but not nearly as much as party does.
And that’s the underlying reality of health-care reform. Substantive compromise is easy. In fact, the bill is a substantive compromise. It’s a deficit-neutral, universal-coverage scheme that relies on the private insurance market and looks like one of the Republican alternatives from 1994. What’s hard is political compromise. Because there, the two positions are that Democrats are helped if a bill passes and Republicans make gains if a bill fails. There’s no way to split the difference between those positions.
One of the major advances in my understanding of the world is that politics explains far more than ideology or policy goals. As a former engineer who still is able to think like one I marvel at the sheer amount of energy expended on political posturing, and not just by professional politicians. It is frustratingly inefficient. The world is full of people who would rather look good than d0 good. That may be baked right in to the human condition. I’m not immune to it either.
On the rare occasion when we are able to prod ourselves toward putting our energy into actually addressing issues in good faith, then–lo and behold–compromise occurs, common ground is found, things get done, progress gets made. That such a thing is still theoretically possible is a (small) degree of comfort. That it is so infrequently realized is cause for despair.