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Posts Tagged ‘democrats’

Why I Am Skeptical About the Media Narrative of Democratic Disaster and Hopeful for My Congress Member, Mary Jo Kilroy

Posted by Peter M. Shane on October 18, 2010

Last Friday, Politico published a sober analysis of the congressional race in my home district – Ohio’s 15th. According to the reporter, our one-term Democratic incumbent, Mary Jo Kilroy, is struggling to hold on against a Republican challenger she narrowly beat in 2008.

The reasons for this seem to have less to do with Mary Jo’s character, legislative skills or political values – like many of her constituents, I call her by her first name – than with the caricature of Democrats generally as reckless spenders, dissatisfaction with the economy, and the public’s general impatience with and anger towards incumbents. She and fellow Democrats, like Ohio Governor Ted Strickland and Lieutenant Governor (and senatorial candidate) Lee Fisher, are supposedly suffering from Democrats’ lesser enthusiasm this year to support their party.

Last night, however, a crowd of about 35,000 turned out on the campus of Ohio State – or, as we like to say, The Ohio State University – to welcome the President and Michelle Obama, as well as the other candidates on the Democratic slate in Ohio. And their enthusiasm made me wonder: how much of the Democrats’ supposed lack of enthusiasm and people’s anger towards incumbents is an exaggerated media narrative that voter behavior will not bear out?

In a recent essay, political consultant Robert Creamer outlined nine reasons he suspects Democrats will actually retain control of the House of Representatives in the next Congress. Many of them seem directly relevant to Ohio’s 15th District. For example:

• The pollsters’ undercounting of cell phone users;
• Voters’ possible doubts about supporting an untested challenger who, as compared to the incumbent, seems to take contradictory positions, flirts with bizarre ideas (such as the repeal of the popular election of Senators), and embrace policies – such as permanent tax-breaks for the wealthiest Americans – that are at least as unpopular as those of the Democrats;
• Increasing popular resentment about the influx of anonymous corporate money, typically devoted to helping Republican candidates drown out opposing opinions;
• The enthusiastic and likely-Democratic participation of minority voters; and
• The capacity of Barack and Michelle Obama to energize the base.

Moreover, Mary Jo’s appeal does not just rest on the scariness of a GOP House takeover – anyone want to watch an impeachment investigation over birth certificates, for example? – or her opponent’s unwillingness or inability to offer any new policy ideas for Ohio. It rests on the truth that she has been just the kind of House member she promised she would be – a progressive voice for middle and working class Ohioans.

The health care legislation she supported bans lifetime limits on health coverage, extends the age qualification for children to remain on their parents’ insurance policies, prohibits the denial of insurance to children with pre-existing conditions, and bars cancellations in coverage due to irrelevant mistakes on insurance applications. She co-sponsored the Credit Card Holders’ Bill of Rights. She has backed additional spending for border security, community policing, and tax incentives to help small businesses hire the unemployed. She has even been endorsed by the political action committee of the Veterans of Foreign Wars – an interesting achievement against an opponent who has served in the military.

When asked in a recent debate why he supports making tax breaks permanent for the thin sliver of the American public that makes over $250,000 a year, Mary Jo’s opponent said: “”I think, frankly, we have a big problem in this country if we punish success.” So, I wonder, what if voters in my home district agree with that sentiment – and decide to support Mary Jo Kilroy?

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Negotiations 101: Why Don’t Congressional Democrats Do the Obvious?

Posted by Peter M. Shane on February 13, 2010

Having much training in public law and very little in practical politics, I tend to think I must be missing something when people in power do not do what looks like what would obviously be in their interest.  But Democratic behavior in Congress is so counterproductive that I cannot resist pointing out two lessons they would surely pick up in an introductory course on negotiations.

First, if you want someone to negotiate, negotiation has to promise a better result than what professionals call the “best alternative to a negotiated agreement,” or BATNA.  Right now, for Congressional Republicans, the alternative to virtually any health care bill that could possibly pass is the status quo.  Republicans are happy with the status quo (or at least they realize that alternatives they might like better, such as draconian malpractice caps and the privatization of Medicare, won’t happen.)  So, why negotiate?

That’s why Democrats should do two things.  They should say to Republicans, “You want to start over?  Fine.”  But first, the House must adopt the Senate health care reform bill.  That would put in play an actual health care reform plan as the actual, real-live, not just imaginary alternative to negotiation.  Then, Democratic and Republican negotiators should give themselves a three-month deadline to strike a bipartisan deal that starts over from scratch.  If they do, great.  If not, at least the Democrats will have accomplished something.  Most immediately, they will have changed the momentum for negotiations.

Second, as others have observed, Democrats and Republicans in Senate face what game theorists call a “prisoner’s dilemma.”  Imagine police have two suspects they believe committed a crime.  They cannot prove it unless one testifies against the other.  The police say to each, “If you testify, you’ll only serve a year in jail and the other guy will serve ten.  But the deal goes only to the one who caves first.”  Neither prisoner should want to cave; they should cooperate with each other and maximize their joint welfare.  But each knows that, if he alone cooperates with his fellow prisoner, but the other caves in, the non-testifier will be much, much worse off than if he had simply abandoned the other.

I believe the major sourcce of public contempt for Congress — and contempt may not be too strong a word — is that Congress seems incapable of doing ANYTHING.  If Congress appeared to be tackling actual problems with imperfect, but incrementally helpful solutions, incumbents from both parties would find their approval ratings going up.  But maximizing the parties’ joint welfare requires cooperation — the equivalent, in the prisoner’s dilemma, of not ratting out.  But, unless there’s going to be some real promise of give on both sides — some actual bipartisanship — each side may think itself better off by posturing for its base.  (Here, however, one has to note that the Democrats do not seem good even at posturing.)

Game theorists have shown that there is one superior strategy for overcoming the prisoner’s dilemma if you have repeat players.  The strategy is called “tit for tat.”  One side offers cooperation; if the other side cooperates, repeat.  If not, retaliate — and hard.  Then, keep doing this strategy over and over.  The idea, through a series of repeat encounters, is to show that playing nice always produces good outcomes, and not playing nice always produces harm to the non-cooperating party.

What this means for the Democrats is that, as a consistent strategy, (1) they have to offer something that Republicans want as a means to induce cooperation, and (2) they have to have plausible retaliation strategies if cooperation does not happen.

Of these two lessons, the first is a no-brainer.  Unless the Democrats change the GOP’s BATNA, they will not negotiate. 

The second lesson should work, too — unless the Republicans actually do not want anything from the Democrats.  If the Republicans believe that doing nothing is always the superior strategy, then the Democrats have to think relentlessly about what they can accomplish by themselves.  Doing nothing and just blaming the Republicans spells weakness.  With a majority in the House and a 59-member caucus in the Senate, if the Democrats cannot enact legislation, voters are unlikely to give them more seats to work with.

A final note to Congressional Democrats:  The Republicans in Congress seem to have taken the introductory negotiations course — probably also the intermediate course — and gotten A’s.  You need to enroll and aim for a grade better than “Incomplete.”

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