Serious policy differences are not petty politics

Serious policy differences are not petty politics

Here’s the President, speaking yesterday at a town hall meeting in Fairless Hills, PA. See if you can spot his new theme, as pointed out by POLITICO. It’s not too difficult.

THE PRESIDENT: It’s a plan that says we’re not going to play the usual Washington politics that have prevented progress on energy for decades.  Instead, what we’re going to do is we’re going to take every good idea out there.

Again:

THE PRESIDENT: Reducing our dependence on oil, doubling the clean energy we use, helping to grow our economy by securing our energy future — that’s going to be a big challenge. …  It’s going to require us getting past some of the petty politics that we play sometimes.

And again:

THE PRESIDENT: So we’ve agreed to a compromise, but somehow we still don’t have a deal, because some folks are trying to inject politics in what should be a simple debate about how to pay our bills.  They’re stuffing all kinds of issues in there — abortion and the environment and health care.

And again:

THE PRESIDENT: Companies don’t like uncertainty and if they start seeing that suddenly we may have a shutdown of our government, that could halt momentum right when we need to build it up — all because of politics.

And again:

THE PRESIDENT: I do not want to see Washington politics stand in the way of America’s progress.  … You want everybody to act like adults, quit playing games, realize that it’s not just “my way or the highway.”

And again:

THE PRESIDENT: I want to kick-start this industry.  I want to make sure we’ve got good customers, and I want to make sure that there’s the financing there so that we can meet that demand.  And there’s no reason why we can’t do both, but it does require us getting past some of these political arguments.

When the President says, “I do not want to see Washington politics stand in the way of America’s progress,” he always defines “progress” as his policy goals. If you favor his policies, you are for progress. If not, you are engaged in “petty politics” and “games.”

The President is arguing that those who disagree with his policies are engaged in politics. They are, he argues, motivated not by a well-intentioned difference of opinion about how to improve America, but instead by selfish motives.

This is itself destructive politics, cleverly framed as trying to rise above the fray. It cheapens serious policy debate and makes it harder to reach agreement. It contributes to voters’ cynicism. It means that those responsible elected officials on the other side of the aisle who want to work toward principled compromise must overcome both their anger at being personally attacked, and the heat generated in both parties’ wings by a President who challenges the other side’s good intent. It drives away potential negotiating partners and thereby reduces the likelihood of bipartisan compromise.

President Obama changed the direction of American politics in 2008 and again in 2010. The partisan balance of our government reflects both changes. By attacking the motives of elected officials who ran against and now oppose his policy agenda, the President in effect attacks those voters who disagreed with his policies, started a new political movement, and changed the makeup of Congress.

Of course partisan politics and individual agendas interact with and influence policy debates.

Of course there are individuals, both inside and outside government, who at times provoke conflict for their own narrow self-interest.

Yes, the American partisan political structure and the short attention span of the average voter favor political battle over serious policy debate.

Yes, many in the press and commentariat are attracted by and contribute to ongoing conflict rather than cover the lengthy and complex debate needed to understand serious policy disagreements.

Yes, cable TV, talk radio, the internet, and now social media accelerate the news cycle, shorten our attention spans, and allow Americans to self-select into ideological camps.

Yes, there are plenty of people in both parties who spend most of their time in destructive partisan warfare.

Yes, there are plenty of irresponsible and selfish people in Washington, whose behavior and childishness repulses most everyone else.

Yet except for social media, these are not new forces. There are plenty of serious policymakers on both sides of the aisle who want to make America a better place, but just have different visions of how to do that. And all these negative factors are far less important to what happens in Washington than the serious, well-considered, deep policy disagreements among elected officials and other policy makers.

Paul Ryan has just proposed a plan to change our Nation’s fiscal path to one very different from that proposed by the President. Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, and Scott Walker are engaged in partisan battles as they try to fix New Jersey, Indiana and Wisconsin state finances. Dave Camp and Orrin Hatch are battling organized labor by working to ensure we enact free trade agreements with Korea and Colombia and Panama. They (and Democrat Max Baucus) are initiating a discussion of fundamental tax reform. Fred Upton and Lisa Murkowski are trying to stop the President’s EPA from raising costs on American farms and businesses. Countless Republicans are trying to stop the implementation of new health insurance mandates and entitlements that they believe hurt America. In each case, these are serious Republican officials engaged in policy battle because they think it’s necessary to improve policy. Their views, electoral success, and actions deserve respect from those who disagree.

If the President wants to reduce the impact of the usual petty Washington politics, the recipe is quite simple. Treat with respect those who disagree with you. Vigorously debate their ideas rather than impugning their motives. Ignore the screamers and rabble-rousers. Stick to your guns while seeking opportunities for principled compromise. And acknowledge that those who disagree with your policy agenda may not all be evil.

(photo credit: White House photo by Samantha Appleton)

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