Saturday, May 14, 2011

Flip-flopping all the way to the top

Ezra Klein asks whether politicians who abandon prior policy views are being cynical or are just talented at self-persuasion. In short, why do flip-floppers flip-flop?

On one level, I should say, I don't think this is a very important topic of conversation. Because basically, who cares why they do it? Flip-flops are for the most part very predictable, and it doesn't really matter whether a senator, in his heart of hearts, subscribes to his new position or his old one. What matters is how he casts his vote, and that's much easier to explain (how's his party voting? How well does each side poll?). But it's still instructive to explain what makes this happen, because it shows a little bit about what goes on in the brains of our leaders, and maybe suggests a way to make them better at what they do.

So with that in mind, I don't really agree with either of Ezra's options. I don't think that most politicians are willing to sell America down the river to win a vote, and I certainly don't think a guy who supports universal health care enough to make it Massachusetts law can suddenly become genuinely, honestly opposed to the same system when it's enacted nationwide. Instead, I think politicians feel free to change their views because they hold a political worldview that minimizes their own role in the lawmaking process. Ironically, for people who have spent large portions of their lives seeking power, their behavior is mostly facilitated by a belief that they don't really hold any power at all.

Basically, I don't think individual lawmakers attribute policy outcomes to their own efforts so much as they see policy outcomes as a reflection of public opinion. There's a bit of truth to this idea, and a bit of incoherence. (A lot of more dramatic policy proposals are precluded by the general shape of political opinion: for instance, privatizing Medicare - or, for that matter, installing a UK-style health service. But process matters too! Many bills in Congress live and die on the structure of the political system. Cap-and-trade, for instance; it passed the House and would be law today if there wasn't, by recent historical accident, a supermajority requirement in the US Senate. You can't really say that the American public rejected cap-and-trade -- you can only say that cap-and-trade didn't survive the journey through the American political process, but might have survived the journey through a nearly identical political process.)

Nonetheless, people are always more keenly aware of the obstacles they face than the agency they exercise. So politicians tend to overstate the importance of public opinion limitations and understate the importance of their role in shepherding good legislation through the process.

Once you've assumed the centrality of public opinion to lawmaking, it's only a short hop to justifying a flip-flop. If Mitt Romney truly believes that America opposes the health-care law, and that any Republican president would, as a result, also be forced to oppose the health-care law, why does it matter what he thinks about the health care law? In this view, him supporting the law might affect him personally - it could prevent him from becoming president! - but it doesn't affect America at large, the trajectory of which is beyond his control. If he changes his view and opposes the law, he might have to reckon with himself a bit but the moral consequences don't extend much further than that.

In a sense, politicians justify bad behavior the same way people have justified bad behavior since the beginning of time: telling themselves it doesn't really matter. It does. And politicians aren't just policy-makers, they're opinion-setters. As Ezra himself said: "Politically knowledgeable individuals tend to be partisans who take cues from their parties. Voters take cues from politically knowledgeable friends."

So it seems to me the best way to stem the tide of flip-flops isn't to increase media scrutiny or decrease partisanship. It's to instill in our leaders the idea that there is gravity in what they do, and that they have an obligation to behave accordingly.

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