Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Don’t be afraid of the public

Discussing the pro’s & con’s of Democrats passing the health care bill in the US,’s Peter Suderman writes

the choice for Democrats may actually be whether they want they want to be portrayed as so single-minded in their determination to push their unpopular agenda on the public that they are willing to use party-line voting and any sort of obscure procedural trickery they can come up with to get it passed, or whether they want to be able to make the argument that they responded to the public’s clear concerns and backed off an incredibly unpopular piece of legislation when they had the chance.

Suderman of course doesn’t want the bill to pass, but his reasoning is an all too clear example of the fear the political class have of a voter backlash for their actions. Indeed the political class and Center-Left wing politicians, especially in the USA are almost paranoid in its worry about appeasing the voters, to the extent it ends up doing a much poorer job & therefore looking much less competent than it should otherwise. To fix this, left wing leaders need to take a leaf out of conservatives like Reagan, Bush and Howard and have the courage of their convictions. The media and political class will always be jumpy, but our leaders ought to know better. Obama seemed to promise this at the start, but the fear seems to have crept in of late.

As I wrote yesterday, one of the things that most hurt the push for humanitarian interventions was Bill Clinton’s ardent desire not to see any US troops killed during his time in office. Not only is this a cowardly way to be commander-in-chief, it stems from a fear of public outrage that probably never existed. As George Bush Jnr demonstrated, even with controversial wars like Iraq the public will tolerate reasonable numbers of casualties (far less than previous era’s, but well above zero) without losing support for the action or politically punishing the leadership. The public know the military is there to fight and sometimes die for their saftey and whilst wishing every soldier comes home safe, know that isn’t possible. But Clinton never trusted them to be that reasonable and so subverted where and how the military was deployed, in ways that ended up making him look weak and perhaps even hurting the countries saftey (ie only firing the occasional missile at Osama rather than more deliberate activity)

In the case of Obama, he seems desperate to avoid the public seeing him and democrats as partisan warriors. Part of this is rational, an elevated debate is critical for the good of the nation, and will help Democrats get more of their policies through, but it’s also largely political fear driving the calculation as Sunderman endorses above, worrying that being “willing to use party-line voting and any sort of obscure procedural trickery” will see Democrats punished at the polls.

The problem with this claim is that it radically over-estimates the public’s dislike or distrust of partisan conflict. Whether cynicism or founding father like wisdom about the benefits of a partisan discourse, people don’t actually mind partisan conflict. Indeed they want it. Most people have a clear party preference, and even if they will occasionally vote for the other side they are happy to see blows traded. If this was not the case, Republicans would have been significantly punished for their uniquely oppositional abuse of senate procedures over the last 12 months. Nothing like it has been seen before, and whilst polls indicate Republicans are less popular than Democrats, its not by much, and the public seem to be just as receptive to Republican arguments as to Democratic ones. What the parties do in the legislature has almost no effect on whether people are likely to agree with them on if Health Care is the right choice or what to do about the deficit.

This fear of the public by the political class is also having a crippling effect over the deficit. Having made the deficit a big issue, the political class are petrified about telling the public the ways to deal with it: Cutting entitlements and raising taxes. Yet where it has occurred elsewhere (like Australia under Howard in 1996, or the US under Reagan), whilst there is initial public outrage, this is quickly forgotten and accepted if results are begun to be seen. Without these two policies, the deficit can not be seriously addressed, yet neither Republicans (who now claim to be defenders of entitlements like medicare) and democrats (who’ve passed some of the largest tax cuts in history in the last few years) are willing to risk seriously engaging with the public on this.

This all proves why Obama is so important and necessary. He does know these are problems, he does seem to want to seriously address them, and in his language he is slowly trying to elevate the discussion. But he still seems to fear the public outright (or his advisors do and are holding sway) and so is both looking weak politically, but also failing to be the engine of reforming government into a capable and competent force once more that they had wanted. Liberals like Obama (and Rudd) would do well to look at the confidence shown by Conservatives in government, recognise that any opposition will be short term and know that if their solutions are as good as promised, the public will reward them at the election for it.

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  1. TD

     /  February 5, 2010

    Exactly. Also think back to the GST election. Strong partisan argument almost cost the Coalition in the short term, but once it was in, it became a weapon to show how committed they were to reform in the national interest.

    Same thing will happen with the ETS for the ALP if it gets through.

    Also, the big, complex reforms brought in early become the legacy that governments leave behind because they’re too entrenched to remove. Just as the GST is now here to stay, so too will be the health reforms in the US and ETS here – assuming they get muscled through, of course.