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September 23, 2010

Erickson Vs. Frum On The Pledge To America

I think they're both wrong, and in ways that have become wearying predictable, each playing his cliched and exaggerated role.

Erickson:

Perhaps the Most Ridiculous Thing to Come Out of Washington Since George McClellan

The House Republicans’ “Pledge to America” is out. A thrill will run up the leg of a few Chris Matthews’ types on the right. As Dan noted on Twitter, the Contract with America was 869 words and this is 21 pages. The Contract told you everything you needed to know about how a Republican Congress would be different from a Democrat Congress after 40 years of Democrat control.

No, it really didn't.

These 21 pages tell you lots of things, some contradictory things, but mostly this: it is a serious of compromises and milquetoast rhetorical flourishes in search of unanimity among House Republicans because the House GOP does not have the fortitude to lead boldly in opposition to Barack Obama.

I have one message for John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and the House GOP Leadership: If they do not want to use the GOP to lead, I would like to borrow it for a time.

Yes, yes, it is full of mom tested, kid approved pablum that will make certain hearts on the right sing in solidarity. But like a diet full of sugar, it will actually do nothing but keep making Washington fatter before we crash from the sugar high.

It is dreck — dreck with some stuff I like, but like Brussels sprouts in butter. I like the butter, not the Brussels sprouts. Overall, this grand illusion of an agenda that will never happen is best spoken of today and then never again as if it did not happen. It is best forgotten.

The pledge begins by lamenting “an arrogant and out-of-touch government of self-appointed elites” issuing “mandates”, then proceeds to demand health care mandates on insurance companies that will drive up the costs of health care for ordinary Americans.

The plan wants to put “government on the path to a balanced budget” without doing anything substantive. There is a promise to “immediately reduce spending” by cutting off stimulus funds. Wow. Exciting.

All right, several points. First of all, Erickson's entire political premise is faulty. Platforms are not supposed to be detailed legislative agenda items.


Think of a pie chart. In this pie chart, "ObamaCare" -- let's use that as a specific example -- represents a tiny wedge of all possible political options. The rest of the pie -- color it red in you mind -- represents all other political options.

I was against ObamaCare. You know who else was against ObamaCare? The extremely liberal/bordering on leftist Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake. We were "allies" in the fight against ObamaCare.

Does that mean we agreed on anything else? Hell no. But going back to the pie chart, we were in the big fat huge red chunk of the circle, both opposed to the narrow slit of legislative space called "ObamaCare."

It is much easier to create a coalition against a specific thing than a coalition in favor of an equally specific thing. Because in opposing ObamaCare, Hamsher and I both agreed that the tiny little space Obama and the Democrats had to defend was bad. We each had in mind our own different slice as being the best option, but we were united in belief that Obama's slice was awful.

This is the advantage of an out-of-power party. And it is a huge advantage. You know when they say every election is a referendum on the incumbent? This is why. Because the incumbent has to defend the tiny wedge of political possibilities he advocated, supported, or voted for. The out-of-power opponent takes almost the entire rest of the pie, or at least a good half of it.

This is how Obama won. He was against Bush's slice of the pie (which became, in the media's telling, McCain's slice as well). And Obama occupied a far larger portion of the pie than any other candidate in history had been permitted to do, because usually the media tries to pin down candidates (even Democratic ones, though less so) into specific positions, specific slices of that whole pie.

But Obama was permitted to occupy nearly its entirety. Was he in favor of raising taxes? Yes. Was he also in favor of giving you a tax cut? Yes again. If you wanted taxes raised, Obama was your man. If you wanted taxes cut, Obama was also your man.

Was he a candidate of peace who would end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Yes. Was he also the tough-on-terrorists candidate who would finally stop coddling bin Ladin? Sure was!

In almost every case, Obama was not merely to the left of McCain -- he was also to McCain's right.

Does that make sense? No, of course not. But post-partisan hope and change plus a media walking around with painful 4 hour erections permitted that illusion to hold for the few months necessary for Obama to win.

Now, in a more conventional election, with the media actually attempting to narrow a candidate's platform into what the candidate really intended to do, McCain and Obama would have been roughly equal as regards how big a space they had to defend. But that wasn't the case.

As a general proposition: The candidate who, whether by media connivance or skill at obscuring policy choices, is permitted to occupy the largest section of the pie chart of political possibilities will win. At least he'll have a massive advantage -- because, if you're not sure of either candidate, might as well go with the guy who doesn't force you to make hard choices.

Every choice a voter makes is a chance for him to decide against you. Every single time. "I'm pro-life" loses you some votes. Gains you some, but loses you some tool. "I'm pro-life and I am against any abortion even in cases of rape, incest, or life of the mother loses you a lot more. Because at each decision point you peel away voters. The more specific you are, the narrower the cohort of voters you are appealing to.

The Democrats have been demanding for a year that the Republicans define themselves in sharp and narrow focus. Why? Because the Democrats already are defined in sharp and narrow focus, by their own actions, and they are insisting that Republicans operate under the same burden.

They are not demanding we define ourselves in order to help us politically. They are making this demand to hurt us politically and help them.

They have a very narrow, and very unpopular, slice of the pie to run on. They cannot escape it -- what they have is worse than bad rhetoric; they have bad facts and bad outcomes.

This is why Obama keeps demanding that Republicans vow to slash Social Security and Medicare in order to prove we're serious about budget discipline. Of course he wants that -- he wants us to make the most unpopular promises imaginable. And I assure you he is not doing so with our best electoral fortunes foremost in his mind.

Now on to the pledge: First of all, this nonsense about the Contract with America being super-detailed and super-limiting is nonsense. It was by and large a procedural sort of thing, promising better procedures, ethics, etc., and expressing a disgust at how business was currently being done in DC. As far as substance -- there was substance there, but in general terms.

Point out to me the specific legislative commitments on substance in the Contract. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Further, this idea that the Contract arouse out of pure principle whereas the Pledge is "poll-tested pablum" is childishly naive.

Let me assure you all that Newt Gingrich did some amount of focus-grouping on the Contract before presenting it.

When I saw Gingrich at CPAC two years ago, he listed a whole bunch of popular positions, and rattled off the level of support for each. Paycheck protection? 75% approval. Term limits? 80% approval. And so on. For each he knew the exact level of polling support. He did not just suddenly discover polls and the power of public opinion. He was a creature of math in 1993-94, too.

Now, comparing the two documents, the Pledge is far more specific. Far more. And that, of course, is an infirmity, because by being specific, it makes Erick Erickson say "Well, they are specifically pledging to do far less than I would have hoped." Whereas a broader, more constitutional sort of document -- constitutional, I mean, in the Constitution's open and vague language -- might have satisfied him. Broader, more open-ended language would have occupied a bigger slice of the pie, uniting those who have in mind more limited reductions in the size of government and much bigger reductions. Neither could say precisely what such a broad hypothetical Pledge meant; but neither could say the Pledge did not say what they wanted it to say.

Now, bullied by Democrats and a media demanding "details" about our agenda -- and, once again, when they demand this, let me assure you right off the jump they are not doing so in order to help us win elections -- the Republican leadership decided to offer a bit of that, a few genuine specifics, to shut people up.

These specifics aren't all that impressive, certainly. Guess what? That's because they're poll-tested and a broad slice of the electorate has been found to be in favor of each. But that hardly means this is all we're going to do. This is just the easy stuff. The gimmes. The lay-ups.

As for the hard stuff...? The stuff that will take some convincing to get...? The stuff the electorate has a pretty solid chance of turning off of...?

Well, do you really expect that to appear in a consensus document written by dozens of hands? And a document crafted, by the way, without the input of the 50-70 new Tea Party Republicans who will soon be occupying Congress?

Politicians love claiming they have "plans" they post on their websites. Ask a presidential candidate what his plan is for reducing our dependence on foreign oil, and he'll give you a few empty platitudes. When you ask for specifics, he'll say "go to my website; our plan is there." That plan, by the way, he knows you won't read (and even the media will barely read it, mentioning it perhaps once or twice), and furthermore is barely any more concrete than his easy-breezy platitudes, but it has charts and graphs and stuff and looks "detailed."

Looks detailed. But not actually detailed.

And not to be all cynical, but that's really a good way to go about things. And it's smart for Republicans to offer their "plan" -- hey, you want our detailed plan? It's online, go read it (we know you won't) -- just to shut the Democrats up.

Now the Democrats will say, "But you don't have a plan!"

And we say, "Sure we do. Check our website, www.noonewillreadthis.org."

So there's our plan.

The objection here is obvious: But then you're not specifically promising your partisans any really detailed policy goals. I.e., sure, you can get elected on this platform; but then how do I know you will advance my goals? You haven't given me a firm guarantee on specific policy points.

Again, this is a congressional midterm. We do not have one candidate here, representing the party as its titular head as in a presidential election. We have around 360 federal candidates and hundreds (maybe thousands) more of state office seekers, from Governor to AG to SecState to all those state legislator slots that we desperately need to take to put our foot on the throat of the Democrats for the next ten years.

With literally thousands of people up for election, just how specific a promise were you expecting in a document supposedly representing all of them?

If you want specifics, go to an individual candidate. (And, frankly, if I'm advising him, I tell him in that instance to be only as specific as necessary and not a micron more detailed than that.)

We are occupying a very large slice of the pie right now. We are anti-Obama. We are anti-Pelsoi-and-Reid. We are anti- the wreck these people have made of our country the past two, four years.

You can get a whole lot more detailed than that, and narrow the area of political possibilities you represent, if you like. I would strongly advise against that, and be content to say we're that big fat half of the pie that is for lower taxes, stronger defense, slimmer and trimmer government, and no more ObamaCare.

We can win with that, and are winning with that. This demand that we upset the applecart and pledge some list of specific goals some of which may be quite unpopular... I don't get that.

We have a lot of arguments ahead of us. Let's have those arguments among ourselves once we're in the goddamned majority, huh?

Okay, here's Frum, and my rebuttal:

ut if the document is unsurprising, it’s also unsurprising that Erickson and those who think like him would find it enraging. The “Pledge to America” is a repudiation of the central, foundational idea behind the Tea Party. Tea Party activists have been claiming all year that there exists in the United States a potential voting majority for radically more limited government.

The Republican “Pledge to America” declares: Sorry, we don’t believe that. We shall cut spending where we can – reform the legislative process in important ways – and sever the federal guarantee for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Republicans will redirect the federal government to a new path that is less expensive and intrusive than the status quo. But if you want promises of radical change? No. Too risky. We don’t think the voters want that – not the smaller, older, richer, whiter electorate that votes in non-presidential years, much less the bigger, younger, poorer, less white electorate of presidential years. And even that smaller, older, richer, whiter electorate is highly wary of cuts to programs that benefit them, Medicare above all.

But the real news is this: You can primary a Bob Bennett, you can nominate a Sharron Angle, you can balk Karl Rove and Mike Castle – but when decision hour arrives, the leadership of the party rejects the assessment of the American electorate offered by Rush Limbaugh, Dick Armey and for that matter Erick Erickson.

Yet at the same time, we so-called RINOs can take no pleasure in this document. Yes, there is good in it. (Putting legislative language online 72 hours in advance seems Good Government 101.) The silly bits are not too silly: the promise to cite specific constitutional language is an empty sop to those so-called constitutionalists who vainly hope to revive the John Randolph school of constitutional interpretation.

But the true sad news is that this is not a document to govern with in the recessionary year 2010. It’s fine to reject Tea Party illusions. But without an alternative modern Republican affirmative program, the GOP will find itself at risk of being captured and controlled by special interests instead.

Shut the fuck up.


A More Detailed Rebuttal On Specific Pledges: At Dan Riehl.


Paul Ryan's Explanation:

Ryan: We designed it for a Republican Congress with Obama in the White House. It's the stuff we can do, not a bunch of promises we cannot possibly keep.

Yeah, that's a good point. I don't know what the hell the revolutionaries have in mind when Obama has the veto pen. Like, you want us to propose stuff that isn't going to happen just for the sake of validating you?

This grates on me, more than anything else.

Are we here to win fucking elections and enact real, positive, tangible change, or are we here to spout cant and rhetoric and feel psychologically validated?

Let's prioritize here, huh?

"Good Stuff:" Says Dr. Melissa Clouthier, going through each proposal.


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posted by Ace at 01:40 PM

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