Blame Games

Politics isn’t mainly about policy, but when policy comes up politicians mainly want credit for appearing to do what voters embrace, while avoiding blame for appearing to do what voters reject.  Actually doing something everyone likes is very hard; it is usually easier to modify how things appear, and who appears responsible.  Republicans do this as much as Democrats, but since Democrats are now in charge, they offer current examples.

Since the Democrats gained control of the US Presidency and both houses of Congress, they have been getting a lot of what they’ve long wanted.  They didn’t patiently wait to get it slowly, but have been grabbing as fast as possible.  Even so, Democrats don’t want to appear fully in control, because then they could be blamed for the negatives as well as the positives.

On the financial crisis, the Democrats loved the stimulus idea as an excuse to spend lots on favorite projects, but emphasized that the spending was forced on them by the credit crisis, which they blame on Republicans.  Democrats also loved overruling bankruptcy law to give [Chrysler] to unions at the expense of bondholders, but again said the crisis forced their hand.

On global warming, the Democrats want credit for cutting carbon, but don’t want blame for higher energy prices.  A carbon tax would make price blame clearer, so they are going with tradable permits, which also lets them play more favorites with who gets permits.  Permits also make it harder to notice if they actually cut carbon, vs. preserving business as usual.  They hope to get credit for creating a process that will cut carbon if future politicians set low permit levels.

On medicine, Obama says it is his top priority, and debates now assume Democrats will get much of what they’ve long wanted.  They are happy to propose and take credit for expanding coverage, prohibiting denials for pre-existing conditions, etc.  But they don’t want blame for raising taxes or encouraging medical spending growth. So they first said only that they were considering many revenue and cost-control options, hoping others would step to take “credit” for such issues.  Their most concrete cost-control proposal has been for new agencies, which they could take credit for creating, which would result in cuts if future politicians choose to cut.

For example, when Tyler dared Obama to propose concrete cuts now, liberal Ezra Klein complained that Tyler should instead tell Republicans to take charge of controlling costs:

Tyler Cowen’s critique of health reform is the right one: It is certainly plausible that the final bill will include a pricey expansion of coverage paired with a speculative and uncertain set of cost controls. But it is baffling to watch him blame this on the Obama administration. As he himself says, the White House is firmly behind … efforts to tie Medicare’s reimbursement rates to the cost-effectiveness of different treatments and initiatives to give MedPAC the power to aggressively reform Medicare. But those policies are not certain to exist in the final bill.

What stands in the White House’s way is Congress. And, more often than not, it’s the Republicans in Congress. … Fiscal conservative[s] could resign themselves to the coverage expansion and offer their support in return for stringent cost controls. … it seems pretty likely that the White House would deal. …

Cowen, of course, is one of the nation’s most respected conservative economists. … It’s surprising to me that he chooses the quixotic strategy of convincing Barack Obama to abandon health reform, rather than convincing the Republicans in Congress to improve it.

Yup, Democrats can by themselves do all the stuff the public will like, but when it comes to doing stuff the public won’t like, they can’t do it alone and need Republican help, and it would be best really if Republicans took the lead there.  Democrats want credit now for getting these things started, while leaving the really unpopular pains to be imposed by future politicians.  Arnold Kling is right:

Democrats will first go for expansion of coverage in a way that alienates Republicans, and then come back and ask for bipartisan help with cost control. I call this the “dessert now, spinach later” strategy.

This whole blame game helps to explain why government policies are often so complex.  Policy complexity not only offers more ways to favor supporters over others, it also offers more chances to favorably split credit from blame.

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