Sometimes the Quid Is Better than the Quo

There is much ado today about the fact that Obama, apparently in response to conservatives’ objections, has asked House Democrats to withdraw a provision in the stimulus package that would provide family planning money for low income families.   Some of the more partisan elements of the left are particularly upset about this, arguing that this provision is an absolutely essential element of the stimulus package.  This type of reaction is pretty much par for the course whenever a President concedes something to the opposing party on an important piece of legislation, so I’m not going to write anything further about it. 
But more independent liberals are also quite upset about this whole situation – even though, as Matt Yglesias acknowledges (correctly I think), the provision is “genuinely tangential to the point of the bill.”  In other words, liberals of Yglesias’ mold acknowledge that the family planning provision, whatever its independent merits, has little relevance to economic stimulus.  Yglesias justifies his disappointment, with which Brian Beutler and Kevin Drum agree, writing:

as with a lot of Democratic concessions on the bill thus far, what seems to be missing is the “pro quo.” Where are the members of the House saying “yesterday I was inclined to vote ‘no’ on this, but thanks to this change I’m voting ‘yes.’” Bargaining is smart. I even think magnanimity on the part of a new majority is smart. But when you bargain, you get something. And I don’t see what Obama’s gotten for his business tax cuts nor do I see what he’s getting for selling out low-income women’s access to contraceptives.

I’m not sure I get this style of argument, at least not in this particular instance.   Don’t get me wrong – even though I’m not loyal to either political party, there are few words more likely to make me cringe than “bipartisan.” 

Particularly given Yglesias’ admission that the contraception provision is not very germane to the concept of economic stimulus, his point doesn’t seem to give Obama enough credit and fails to recognize an important nuance that all-too-often gets lost in the usual arguments against “bipartisanship.”  Specifically, Yglesias seems to argue that the sole reason for stripping the provision is to obtain Republican support for the stimulus package – even though it is almost inconceivable that this action will actually succeed in bringing Republicans on board.  As such, Yglesias basically accuses Obama  of caving in simply for the sake of appearing “bipartisan.”

But this misses something extremely important that we cynics (of all political stripes), myself included,  seem to forget all too frequently:  sometimes politicians legitimately try to do the right thing. 

In this case, Yglesias correctly presupposes that the provision has little to do with an economic stimulus package, which even those who oppose consider to be an important piece of legislation.  If the legislation is important and predominates all other legislation at the moment, as it does, permitting non-germane wish list items to remain in the bill is counter-productive, increasing the bill’s costs without serving the bill’s goals.  This is something that is true whether or not removing the provision will garner more votes to ensure the legislation’s passage. 

There is something else important here: there is no principle at stake for Obama in backing away from a provision like this when it is in an unrelated, but “must-pass” bill.  If this is a program that Obama ultimately wants to implement (whatever I may think of its merits), he sacrifices no principle by removing it from this legislation and fighting for it later on as a stand-alone program.  This willingness to compromise without sacrificing ultimate principles is the epitome of “good” compromise rather than the bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship that makes so many of us cringe. 

And finally, there is something else important here in the long run, which is also independent of whether stripping the provision garners more Republican House/Senate votes.  As we are all fully aware, the economy is currently in the toilet; moreover, most economists I have read acknowledge that there is a strong possibility (and a near-certainty in the case of libertarian-ish economists) that even if the stimulus is effective it will not do much more than stave off a Depression.   This legislation is massive, comparable to last year’s bank bailout, but without the selling point of only being a loan of sorts. 

Because the legislation is so massive and because of the fact that many Americans are going to be hurting for a long while no matter what the effects of the stimulus, it is absolutely essential that Obama get as much popular backing for the legislation as possible.  Permitting this provision to remain in the package would have needlessly undermined that support and angered a lot of Americans who are already suffering from “bailout fatigue.”   Should Obama need the support of these Americans in the future, whether to pass a separate piece of legislation or to win seats in the midterm elections, allowing this particular provision to remain in the bill after it has created a relatively justified stir and has proven unnecessarily divisive would prove foolish.  

Worse still, allowing this provision to remain would provide a convenient scapegoat for the problems that the stimulus inevitably fails to solve.  When next Obama sought to push through an additional government intervention about which many are skeptical, the fact that this provision remained would provide these skeptics with a legitimate reason to distrust Obama’s judgment with respect to that subsequent intervention.

In sum, Obama’s request to strip this provision more likely presents an outstanding case study in politics at its all-too-rare best than it presents a case study in “bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship,” suggesting that perhaps Obama actually listened to the opposition’s concerns rather than merely making the changes in the hopes of appeasing that opposition, regardless of the merits of their concerns.

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8 thoughts on “Sometimes the Quid Is Better than the Quo

  1. The distinction you are drawing between compromise and bipartisanship is not at all clear to me. Are you defining bipartisanship as some sort of sell-out? You say, at least twice, bipartisanship is cringe inducing. I need more than an assertion before I will buy that line.

    This is just a thought, maybe you are really praising nonpartisanship.

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  2. Bob:

    I need to do a better job remembering that this site provides me with a lot of readers who aren’t familiar with my past writings.

    Perhaps this will help draw that distinction:
    http://www.ordinary-gentlemen.com/2009/01/dont-feed-the-talking-heads/

    Also, please see the old Myth of the Moderate post I linked to above.

    The basic distinction is that “bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship” is where a politician simply cowtows to the opposition for the sake of political expediency, usually because of the political benefits of appearing “bipartisan.” This type of bipartisanship is usually more harmful than worthwhile because it subsumes all principles to political expediency, effectively resulting in little or no actual debate on the merits of a policy. But principled compromise, by contrast, is extremely valuable because it keeps in mind an ultimate goal of the “good” that trumps all else; if a policy is shown to be counterproductive to achievement of that “good,” or at the very least irrelevant thereto, then it is to the benefit of all involved parties to make changes to the policy.

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  3. Mark, here is my problem, your definition of the term really does not fit any standard definition. As I search the term “compromise” is often mentioned as part of the definition. My background is in history and political science and I must say your use of the term does not comport with standard usage.

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  4. Bob:
    Perhaps I should clarify that I’m not attacking ALL bipartisanship, just a particular form of bipartisanship. Similarly, I’m not saying that ALL compromise is good, but rather just a particular form of compromise.

    Perhaps it would be better to state that compromise and/or bipartisanship are detrimental when they require at least one party to the compromise to act in derogation of a basic, foundational principle; meanwhile, compromises and/or bipartisanship that allow each party to act in accordance with their foundational principles are usually good.

    That said, I’ll be the first to admit that this is an extremely amorphous concept that I’ve been struggling to refine for an extremely long time. But I utterly reject the conventional wisdom that something is good as long as it can get the votes of large portions of both parties.

    But you may well be correct that ultimately I am praising nonpartisanship.

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  5. Mark, thanks. About six weeks ago Will Wilkinson called me a pendant because I called him on a certain construction. Now, I know pendant is not a term one should embrace, but I could not take offense. Words matter, I try to be precise. (Fail often.) Simple declarative sentences work best, for me.

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