The Agenda

Political Parties Choose Policies That Are Popular

There’s been an interesting debate Ezra Klein and Ramesh Ponnuru.

Ezra argues, as he has in the past, that President Obama’s policies are Republican policies, because Republicans and self-identified conservatives have in the past backed the individual mandate and cap-and-trade.

Ramesh briefly notes that many of President Bush’s policies were enthusiastically backed by liberal Democrats. 

Ezra replies with the following:

 

As I’ve written manytimes before, this is an important fact about George W. Bush: His domestic agenda mostly consisted of liberal social policy initiatives and tax cuts.

Sadly, Ponnuru doesn’t actually interrogate the idea that you can find liberal antecedents for many of Bush’s domestic policies, and instead considers it so prima facie ridiculous that it’s sufficient to function as a refutation of my point. That’s a shame, because this is where things really get interesting: If you look at American politics through a policy lens, you can more clearly see the ways in which partisanship scrambles both policy preferences and issue-oriented coalitions.

This is an interesting and important point, and it reminds us of why it’s not very useful to suggest that President Obama’s policies are Republican policies. Why?

(a) the Chafee Plan of 1993 was abandoned by conservatives in 1993;

(b) carbon pricing has been hotly debated on the right, and it has never been popular with grassroots conservatives;

(c) sulfur-dioxide regulations were never as controversial as the effort to regulate CO2 emissions.

And politicians tend to polarize around issues that are highly salient to voters. Otherwise, “expertise” tends to reign. The problem is that the consensus among experts isn’t always sound, as suggested by the economic policy debates of the stagflation era. And so political entrepreneurs will on occasion draw upon “fringe” ideas to politicize the terrain of expertise, to demonstrate that there are credible (and sometimes not-so-credible) alternative points of view. 

In his column, Ezra writes:

 

The normal reason a party abandons its policy ideas is that those ideas fail in practice. But that’s not the case here. These initiatives were wildly successful. Gov. Mitt Romney passed an individual mandate in Massachusetts and drove its number of uninsured below 5 percent. The Clean Air Act of 1990 solved the sulfur-dioxide problem. The 1990 budget deal helped cut the deficit and set the stage for a remarkable run of growth.

But he gives us no reason to believe that parties abandon policy ideas because they fail. I very much doubt that this is true because I believe that it is almost impossible to tell when a discrete policy has failed. In 1972, George McGovern championed a demogrant, a form of negative income tax or unconditional basic income. The idea received a road-test in the form of the Family Assistance Plan experiment, but this experiment was very limited in scope. It has since been revived in heavily modified form as the EITC, which widely lauded as a success. Yet the pure demogrant, championed by libertarians like Charles Murray, was abandoned not because it failed in practice but because it proved politically unpopular. And there are many other policy ideas that fall in this bucket.

If we post that the normal reason a party abandons its policy ideas is that those ideas become unpopular, it becomes easy to see why conservative politicians abandoned cap-and-trade and the individual mandate. These ideas, devised by right-of-center policy thinkers who weren’t thinking very deeply about the political implications of their proposals, didn’t gain much traction with the public. Cap-and-trade in particular was always going to be a tough sell in a country with a carbon-intensive economy, where marginal states and congressional districts are particularly carbon-intensive. 

Ezra continues with his theory:

Rather, it appears that as Democrats moved to the right to pick up Republican votes, Republicans moved to the right to oppose Democratic proposals.

One could say that Republicans move “to the right” to oppose Democratic proposals. But one could just as easily said that “Republicans moved to a more popular position to oppose Democratic proposals.” During the health reform debate, for example, many congressional Republicans condemned efforts to constrain the growth of Medicare expenditures, a position that had traditionally been associated with the left. Was this a move to the right or to the left? Many conservatives, like Keith Hennessey, argued that it was important to oppose Medicare cuts designed to finance a new health entitlement, but not Medicare cuts per se. That subtlety was lost.  

On the question of carbon emissions, at least some Republicans have opposed cap-and-trade and endorsed other subsidies for alternative energy, like the “Roadmap for America’s Energy Future.” I wouldn’t be surprised if some conservatives were even willing to support renewable energy standards and other administrative mechanisms than are less market-like than cap-and-trade. Is this a move to the right or to the left — or is it a move to a stance that is likely to prove less politically damaging? 

I don’t think it’s meaningful to talk about these shifts as though parties were something other than opportunistic coalitions dedicated to winning elections. So let’s rephrase:

It appears that as Democrats moved to pick up votes, Republicans moved to pick up votes.

Evidence for this view:

(a) as the number of anti-abortion Democrats has dwindled, the party has placed a heavier emphasis on the issue, particularly in affluent suburbs of big coastal cities;

(b) as the number of working-class anti-abortion Republicans has increased, the party has balanced tax cuts for high earners with increases in the child tax credit and other measures designed to secure the loyalty of less affluent voters with children, despite the fact that these “downscale” tax cuts are less likely to prove growth-enhancing;

I’d also suggest that the meaning of things like “cap-and-trade” and the “individual mandate” change with context. One can imagine a bare-bones cap-and-dividend scheme that doesn’t raise revenue for the federal government in practice, but rather than flows back to all households. Or we can imagine a cap-and-trade program that raises revenue that is then channeled to various business interests. In a similar vein, an individual mandate could take the form of a mandate to purchase catastrophic coverage plus flat subsidies funded by eliminating the tax exclusion for employer-provided coverage. Or it could take the form of a mandate tied to a more complex schedule of subsidies that requires more revenue plus an expansion of the Medicaid program. Or it could happen at the state level, and the federal government could simply serve as a facilitator. It seems obvious that all of these different approaches will mean different things — and will have a different ideological valence — depending on broader circumstances.

For example, President Obama’s health reform was based on a proposal that included a public option that was the germ of a transition to single-payer. Even with the public option excised, this coverage-first model was widely believed to require a public option, which could be implemented in the future. The individual mandate was not seen as part of a “stable equilibrium” proposal, but rather as part of a proposal that would grow more centralized over time. Perhaps this was all right-wing paranoia. But it certainly colored the debate over the individual mandate. 

Lastly, Ezra writes:

It’s impossible to argue that the individual mandate and cap-and-trade didn’t begin life as Republican policies and enjoy substantial Republican support until Obama adopted them, which is perhaps why Ponnuru neglects to mention either of them in his post.

I don’t think this is impossible to argue at all — do we have reliable polling data on how self-identified Republicans felt about the individual mandate and cap-and-trade? My guess is that both would fare poorly. More to the point, my guess is that relatively few self-identified Republicans would have heard of either concept before 2008. I assume that Ezra is referring to substantial Republican support among scholars at Heritage or congressional staffers.

I’d argue that this means very little: politicians respond to voters, and cap-and-trade was never going to be popular in Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and Montana. So it’s hardly surprising that politicians distanced themselves from positions embraced by some segment of the conservative intelligentsia.  

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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