The Insufficiency of Ideological Explanations of Policy Outcomes

Here is Matthew Yglesias from yesterday on the Stimulus act:

The more we learn about how we wound up with a too-small stimulus the more I wonder about the slightly odd aversion of American presidents to accepting legislative defeats. After all, in our system of government it’s just a fact that you can only enact the legislation that congress is prepared to enact. Given that we don’t expect presidents to have views that are identical to those of the median legislator, and especially given the rise of the de facto supermajority rule in the Senate, it should be expected that the policy preferences of the White House will substantially diverge from those of the pivotal members of congress.

So would it be so terrible for the President to just say, “I’m glad congress passed this bill and I’m signing it because I think it would help the economy, but the considered judgment of the Council on Economic Advisers and the rest of the staff is that we could use hundreds of billions of dollars of stimulus over and above what Ben Nelson and Susan Collins were prepared to vote for?” Why is it felt necessary for the president to pretend to believe that what congress will pass is the same as what the country needs? (Emphasis added)

Yglesias and a few other bloggers have been pushing this moderate-Progressive divide as the explanation for disappointment with legislative accomplishments of the Obama Administration. The basic argument is that Obama and his core supporters are more Progressive/Liberal then the average member of the House of Representatives or certainly the 60th Senator, so Progressives should all get used to disappointment.

That’s true enough that there is only so much you can expect from Congress, but focusing on ideology (or even the simpler ‘view points’) will leave you with far less then the whole story. The obstruction points in many Congressional issues simply aren’t ideological in nature. Similarly, many policy positions are only moderate because moderate politicians adopted them. For example in the stimulus debate one main point of contention within the coalition that ultimately passed the bill was the overall size of the bill.

It’s pretty unclear there is any particular “ideological” justification for the centrist Senators desire to cut the overall size of the stimulus. Does being moderate mean you support higher unemployment or adopt some alternative method of measuring the multiplier effect of spending measures? None the statements by centrist Democrats I heard suggest they were analyzing the economic downturn differently or weigh unemployment vs. deficit trade offs differently then Progressives. Rather they think it’s politically beneficial to be seen as constraining Obama’s agenda. There’s nothing ideological about it.

You could make the case that less government spending or reducing the deficit is the ideologically moderate position, but few members of Congress have the voting record to back such claims. Between voting for budget busting tax cuts, expensive foreign adventurism, unpaid entitlement expansion, Agro subsidies, and all manner locally directed pork you’ll see Congressional commitment to the ideologically moderate position of balanced budgets is quite weak.

Health care and particularly the public option have a tenuous connection to ideology. The public option polls strongly enough to clearly indicate the idea has resonance with moderates in the public, but so far it’s failed to win over many Congressional moderates. Indeed the weaker version of the public option currently being pushed by Senator Schumer is perfectly in line with Conservative conception of a minimal welfare state. It would be a cheap last resort option for citizens. By contrast the Medicare prescription drug expansion of 2003 was a huge deficit financed program, which completely replaced a whole section of the free market.

The rationale for both Medicare expansion and the Public Option is private industry failure to provide affordable prices and the proposed solution is government provision of those services and yet most members of Congress that supported the Medicare expansion, now oppose the public option. Ideology explains little if any of the shift.


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