More On Progressive Bargaining: Bad Bluffs
Nate Silver provides an intelligent and cogent response to my post on political bargaining. Silver disagrees with my comparison of the union bargaining on the excise tax with progressive bargaining for, to take the most obvious example, a public insurance program:
Armando brings up the counter-example of the unions who, he claims, "were willing to 'kill the bill' unless they received major concession on the excise tax issue" and indeed received "major concessions." Let's look at this case, because it turns out to be pretty instructive. I can think of at least three fundamental differences. First, the unions were worried about something -- a tax -- that was more linear in nature than something like a public option. [. . .] Secondly -- and this is the much more important point -- the unions could make a much more credible threat to walk away from the bill. [. . .] Finally, the unions actually had the more, rather than the less, nimble position. It's not clear that they directly threatened to kill the bill, for instance; they simply made clear to the White House that they would be very unhappy if the excise tax was not scaled down and let the White House fill in the blanks.
I do not find these distinctions persuasive. First, a public insurance program option on the exchanges is concrete and as seemingly malleable as adjustments to an excise tax. Second, why is it that unions could make a much more credible threat to walk away than progressives? Third, it is simply wrong to believe that the unions were not blocking passage of the Senate bill without an excise tax fix. More . . .
Let's dig a little deeper into Silver's argument, particularly his points 1 and 2 because I think they truly reveal the problem with progressive bargaining. Silver writes:
[U]nions could make a much more credible threat to walk away from the bill. This is because, with a sufficiently cumbersome excise tax, the health care bill could reasonably be seen as a bad deal for unions [. . .] The unions were acting out of naked self-interest: threatening to walk away from a deal that would have been bad -- for them. Progressives, conversely, were threatening to walk away from a bill that would nevertheless have accomplished objectives of enormous magnitude and for which they've traditionally advocated. [. . .] Even if you were able to make the case that a bill without a public option was worse than the status quo -- and the kill-billers always struggled greatly with that -- it would be such a counterintuitive one (from the standpoint of "traditional" liberal values) that the counterparty in the negotiation would have trouble believing that you were arguing in good faith.
(Emphasis supplied.) There are two major errors in Silver's thinking here. The first is the belief that the killing of the Senate bill would necessarily jeopardize the Medicaid expansion and other funding initiatives in the health bills. Progressives should have realized, as the discussion of "scaled back bills" after the Brown win in Massachusetts made clear, that the Obama Administration was going to deliver some type of health bill. Here is where the reconciliation option was key. The unequivocally progressive parts of the bill were going to get passed, or would have a strong chance of passing, even if the Senate bill died. They would have passed through reconciliation. Indeed, what has never been controversial in this entire process is those parts of the bill that progressives most cherished - the Medicaid expansion. It is why I never think of its inclusion as a result of progressive bargaining. Similarly, the Nelson Fix had nothing to do with progressive bargaining and everything to do with the political fallout from the Cornhusker Kickback. When you find money on the street, you did not earn it, even though it goes in your pocket. The Medicaid expansion was found money for progressives. And I believe was not in serious jeopardy in the bargaining on the health bills.
The second error Silver makes is his belief that the unions were not blocking the passage of the Senate bill in the House after the Brown win in Massachusetts. They absolutely were. The Pass The Damn Bill movement had a very difficult time understanding this obvious point. And indeed, today we have the amusing spectacle of Chris Bowers claiming that progressives won when the White House capitulated on its demand to have the House pass the Stand Alone Senate bill. Hell, as I remember it, the Left Blogs were whipping for passage of the Stand Alone Senate Bill. Hard to see that as a victory for them.
One last error Silver makes really gets to the heart of the image of progressives as extremists out of touch with the mainstream, a view they seem eager to internalize. Silver writes:
Progressives would do well to realize that their batting average in these situations is going to be pretty low. To assert that there should be an equivalence between those people on the left and Blue Dogs is wrong, because the position of the Blue Dogs is usually closer to that of both the median voter and (more relevantly) the median Congressperson. There are certainly exceptions -- particularly as political space is not always unidimensional. But in a two-party, plurality voting system like that in the United States, the ability of those on either end of the political spectrum to exert direct influence over policy is inherently going to be limited.
(Emphasis supplied.) I think that is generally untrue and it certainly was false about the public option. Indeed, the public option REMAINS much more popular than almost every part of the health bills that are actually going to be enacted (I think.) It actually stands as a testament to the ineptitude of progressives. Fighting for a very popular initiative, they still could not muster a bargaining strategy that could work.
I certainly accept Silver's point that the bargaining strategies I have argued for carried risk. And not insignificant risk. But to get in the game, progressives will have to take some risk. No risk, no reward. Certainly if you believe that status quo of the political bargaining dynamics is unacceptable, you must be willing to try something new.
In the end, Silver's argument is basically progressives will always be ineffectual bargainers and that's just the way it is. Perhaps so. I think it does not need to be that way. But at the least we can all agree that progressives right now are largely ineffectual.
I count that as progress (pun intended) in this discussion.
Speaking for me only
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