Jan 1 2013

The Hall of Fame of Bad Ideas

Why acting like you lost the election is the ‘serious’ thing to do

ChartAs usual when Democrats win elections (Extra!, 1–2/93, 1/07, 3/12), plenty of corporate media pundits advised them to act as though they lost.

“President Obama appeared on track to become the first president in modern history to be reelected with a smaller share of the vote than he got in his first bid,” Karen Tumulty observed in the Washington Post (11/7/12), counseling: “If he hopes to achieve anything significant in his final term in office, the president must first forge the kind of national sense of purpose that the election failed to provide.” She quoted a Reagan White House chief of staff’s advice that “the role of the president is to build a consensus in America.”

Tumulty’s colleague Dan Balz (11/7/12) offered similarly gauzy advice for the second term:


It will now be left to him to create a true mandate for his agenda and then through leadership that combines compromise with conviction, produce a political consensus in Congress and the country to put that agenda into place.

Obama will now have the opportunity to show his true colors, in terms of both his ideological convictions and his ability to produce the kind of cross-party consensus he said he yearns to create.


So Obama should show his “ideological convictions”—so long as they produce “cross-party consensus” with Republicans who have vowed to oppose him.


Time’s Joe Klein (11/7/12) got more specific about what he was hoping for from Obama’s new term:


It will, and should, be argued that the election was a mandate for moderation. The last month of Mitt Romney‘s campaign, when he rushed to the center and suddenly made it a race, ratified the real will of the people: a sensible centrism that runs deeper than the over-caffeinated bluster that seems to dominate the media. The election hinted that the third rail of American politics—the certain death that comes to those who question entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare—is beginning to lose its juice.


So the election results “hint” that the public wants cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits? That’s not what voters “hinted” in exit polls; one such survey, commissioned by the AFL-CIO, found that “by 64 to 17 percent, voters want to protect Social Security and Medicare benefits and address the deficit by increasing taxes on the rich, rather than address the deficit by cutting entitlements,” according to the blog Influence Alley (11/7/12). Another exit poll done for the Campaign for America’s Future (11/8/12) found 62 percent of voters rejecting reductions in Social Security benefits and 79 percent opposing caps on or cuts to Medicare payments.

Still, corporate pundits swarmed, like moths around a lamppost, to the idea that Obama should take aim at programs for seniors. Michael Tomasky wrote of Obama in Newsweek (11/11/12):


He’ll have to get many reluctant Democrats to sign on to some com-promises he’ll probably be willing to make, but to which they’ll be very resistant. Example: gradually increasing the eligibility age for Medicare to 67 over the next 15 or so years…. Obama, if he were to consummate such a deal, would become a postpartisan president overnight—he really would have united Washington, to the extent that it can be.


In the hall of fame of bad ideas, raising the Medicare age deserves a place of honor: While it would be a real burden on the newly retired, it saves the federal government a relatively small amount of money (Think Progress, 7/12/11) because it would take the healthiest age group out of the Medicare pool; it’s cherry-picking and throwing the cherries away. It would increase the nation’s total (public plus private) spending on healthcare (Morning Edition, 11/29/12) while reducing the amount of care seniors get.

This is the kind of proposal, then, that official D.C. can really rally around. The public shows better sense, rejecting the idea by a 67-to-30 percent margin (ABC/Washington Post poll, 11/20–25/12).

The attraction of the idea, though, is less its dubious policy merits and more the fact that anyone who cares at all about the vulnerable  would hate to do it. Embracing such suggestions, then, is a great way for Democrats to show how tough-minded and responsible they are. (The worse the idea is, really, the more its value as a signal of “responsibility.”) As a San Jose Mercury News editorial (11/7/12) put it:


We understand that many who win elections want to hold onto their principles as they help govern. We respect and applaud that, but this is not a game. It is serious business.


“Principles” are not something that serious people cling to. And there is nothing D.C. pundits want more than to be seen as very serious people.