Ezra Klein on Pernicious Illusions

by Reihan Salam

I agree with what I take to be the thrust of Ezra’s post, and I don’t think I ever disagreed: congressional Republicans want to win control of Congress. And when Democrats were in the minority, they wanted to win control of Congress. I don’t consider this news, but it is safe to say that this dynamic has sharpened since 1994, when control of the House was once again seriously contested, as it hadn’t been for several decades.

Reihan Salam’s effort to explain how you can know congressional Republicans believe something they don’t mention publicly or support legislatively gets at the heart of one of D.C.’s most pernicious illusions: The idea that we should worry about what congresspeople believe in their heart of hearts, as opposed to what they’re willing to vote for at this time.

I think “what congresspeople believe in their heart of hearts” is salient insofar as control of Congress really is contested. I will say, however, that it is hard to get a clear sense of how these motivations translate into policy substance, as many other factors play a role, including institutional resistance, broader economic and political conditions, etc. So it could be that my conjectural sentence was trivial — indeed, I considered it trivial at the time.

But as I understand it, Ezra didn’t consider it trivial because he saw it as illustrative of a broader problem:

The Republican Party does not currently exist as an institution interested in working with Democrats to shape policy, just as the Democratic Party in 2005 did not exist as an institution interested in working with Republicans to shape policy. Pundits and commentators like to ignore this fact as we like to write pieces about how if Congress followed our policy preferences somewhat more closely, it would surely be more successful. That’s what Salam was doing in his original post, in which he said there was a conservative consensus that included a large number of lawmakers behind a conditional version of state and local aid. But there isn’t. There’s a Republican consensus in favor of winning the next election and a Republican consensus that winning the next election means obstructing Democratic accomplishments and that, and not policy disagreement, is the central operating reality in the United States Congress.

I don’t think the highlighted sentence applies to me: I’m not interested in a “successful Congress.” I’m interested in trying to figure out what is wrong with our public institutions and identifying solutions. This is, admittedly, very different from what Ezra does, which is cover a broader set of questions concerning policymaking and legislative strategy. I am interested in getting things right, regardless of whether that means criticizing Republicans or Democrats, in Congress or in state legislatures. The tenor of the piece Josh Barro and I co-authored on the Ryan Roadmap was markedly different from many others on the Roadmap and on PPACA: we offered praise as well as criticism, pointing in the direction of a more balanced, sustainable approach.

Again, this could be a trivial exercise — given that we’ll never have truly good policies, why bother thinking through these questions? But I suppose I disagree. My hope (a vain one, perhaps) is to influence policy debates of the future, not policy debates of the present. 

In the end, a lot of this has to do with “teaminess.” Many pundits and commentators are very teamy, and they see criticisms of their team as pernicious roadblocks to reform and good governance. Others are less teamy, and aim at thinking through policy questions without much regard for the political to-and-fro. There is a lot of excellent politics and legislative quarterbacking coverage here at NRO for readers to enjoy, but that’s not what you get here. My team consists of citizens who worry that the public sector in the United States is on an unsustainable course, and who are interested in ways of changing course. I have a bias in favor less government and more room for voluntary action, but I make an effort to keep it in check so I can respond to and take in new evidence as it arises.

No more meta-blogging for now, I hope.