Saturday, May 07, 2005

Catering to Special Interests

Although this piece in Slate is peripheral to my recent post on evidence-based public policy, it does provide some good examples of how both sides of the political fence tend to eschew evidence when advancing "public policy" based upon their ideology:
Instead of the Children's Defense Fund pushing to fully fund Head Start, we now have church-affiliated social service agencies lobbying to have faith-based drug treatment funded by HHS. Instead of Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts promoting a hate-crimes bill endorsed by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, it's Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado introducing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on behalf of James Dobson's Focus on the Family. Instead of the Environmental Protection Agency proposing higher air-quality standards, it's the Federal Communications Commission levying fines and threatening broadcast licenses on the basis of profanity and indecency.
Now, I'm not arguing that one cannot find a basis in science or evidence for any agenda that happens to correspond to a political ideology - I am simply observing that any such basis is sometimes present only by coincidence, and is often completely absent from the policies being advanced.

The Slate piece suggests that catering to left-wing interest groups handicapped the Democrats in recent elections, but that catering to the religious right may not carry a similar consequence for the Republicans. I largely agree, but not for the reasons advanced by the Slate piece.

A number of years ago, the Republicans learned that if they did not give the religious right the care and feeding they believe they deserve, religious right voters would stay home or vote for a third party candidate such as Pat Buchanan. The Republicans have since carefully cultivated policies which they depict as neutral or centrist, but which are actually very friendly to the religious right. President Bush has proved very adept at catering to the religious right, whether through action or inaction, while paying no political penalty. For example, when he stands behind a John Cornyn, Bill Frist or General Boykin, it is depicted not as catering to the religious right but as "loyalty". If he took a public stance against them, the religious right would protest. But he can successfully support them, and immplicitly support the statements or actions they take on behalf of the religous right, while paying no political price.

The Democrats have no similar ability to cater to the political far-left while pretending that they are neutral. A Democratic President or presidential hopeful has to distance himself from any policy deemed "soft on crime", "detrimental to the national defense", "pro-welfare", or "anti-religion", often even when the accusation is unfounded, because the political center is skeptical of the public policy advanced by the political left, and because there are many religious moderates in this nation who perceive hostility toward religion from segments of the political left. And those people are the "swing voters" a Democrat requires in order to win an election.

But it's worse than that. The Republicans know that if the religious right feels comfortable with their Presidential candidate, they get the vote of the religious right, and in some states that can amount to 20% or more of the vote. The Democrats know that if the political far-left feels comfortable with their Presidential candidate, they will not only lose a significant segment of the swing vote, in many states those on the far left still won't bother to show up to vote - they lose at both ends.

In Britain, the Labour Party reinvented itself under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, casting off a lot of the policies which justified its being identified as a "labor" party, and adopting a very centrist course. This is essentially the same tactic Clinton adopted. It has often been suggested that the political positions of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton are actually on the conservative site of center, even as they at least nominally advance some liberal social policy. Yet that approach permitted them to capture enough of the swing vote to win multiple elections.

In England, Tony Blair has done something pretty amazing with the Labour Party, in that he cast off the leftist policies which he viewed as anchors on the party's ability to win elections, and adopted enough conservative policies to win over most swing voters. As a consequence, some within the Conservative Party are suggesting that they will have to do much the same thing - cast off the once popular, but now publicly unacceptable social policies they advanced under Thatcher - in order to regain power.

To the extent that those on the political far-left don't want to engage in compromise with the Democratic Party, they contribute to the party's electoral losses. If the political far-left wants to guarantee itself a voice within the Democratic Party, it needs to do two things: first, prove itself a viable, sizeable, and reliable voting block, and second, accept that if it wants any part of its agenda advanced, it will have to persuade the rest of the electorate of the merits of its ideas, be willing to compromise when those efforts are only partially successful, and be willing to adjourn its efforts to advance policies which the public at large does not support. If it cannot do that, then the Clinton/Blair approach is the approach that the Democratic Party should follow, because you can do a lot more as a moderate party in control of government than you can do by shaking your fist and threatening a filibuster.

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