Politics and Policy

For the second day in a row I’m starting with a notion I came across in a Peggy Noonan column. This is weird because I’m not that much a fan of Noonan. Her patrician tone in her rambling Wall Street Journal columns drives me nuts. But I give her credit for her Never Trump, generally right-center, point of view, a flag she plants firmly in the middle of the rabid-right, ever-grumpy WSJ editorial page.

Anyway, my throat-clearing aside, here’s another observation Noonan made in her piece about Vice President Kamala Harris the other day: “Her real problems look more like this: She loves the politics of politics too much, and not the meaning. When people meet with her they come away saying that what she cares about is the politics of the issue, not the issue itself.”

I don’t see that as a problem. We need more Democrats who think about the politics first.

Yesterday, I wrote that I thought Noonan was right in her observation about Democrats’ fetish for “root causes,” though that was only a passing thought in her overall critique of Harris. Today, let me disagree with her on politics versus substance.

VP Kamala Harris has her problems, but being too political isn’t one of them. More Dems should think about the politics first.

Lurking behind Noonan’s critique is the idea that politicians and their parties will be rewarded for serious policy. Where’s the proof? A good example of the opposite is one of the biggest issues the world faces right now: climate change. Serious scientific and policy experts tell us that we need to take some painful political steps in the short-run (endure some dislocations out of the fossil fuel industry, place a big tax on carbon — read gasoline, etc.) to realize benefits in the long-run. But not only are those benefits years away, they won’t even be noticeable. That’s because strong action now (which already is way too late) will only soften the extreme weather events and coastal flooding that we’re already experiencing (see last night’s tornados in December).

So, there just simply isn’t any political juice in doing what needs doing on climate change. People may identify it as a top five issue, but they won’t support policies needed to slow the problem. For example, there’s no way Pres. Joe Biden will support a carbon tax (maybe the most potent potential policy answer) because it will have the effect of going back on his promise not to raise taxes on the middle class. So, even talking about a carbon tax is a waste of time and comes at a political cost to proponents.

Still, Democrats pursue one unpopular policy after another because they think they’re right on the substance of the issue. But here’s the thing, people: you can’t enact any policies at all until you get elected first.

Now, right here you might interject that the stuff in Biden’s Build Back Better Bill (B5) is popular. Two responses. First, nobody knows what’s in that bill because the Dems have loaded it down with so much stuff that people’s eyes just glaze over. All most voters know about B5 is the Democrats are spending a bunch of money, and what else is new?

My other response is that while individual items, like child care subsidies, are popular when you ask people specifically about them, they’re missing the point. That’s because when you ask voters an open ended question about what’s important to them right now, they mention inflation and COVID. Child care doesn’t come up. My point is that B5 has a lot of good stuff in it, but it doesn’t address people’s real concerns in the moment. It’s less about what people want then it is about what liberal activists think they should want.

In this way, the much-maligned Sen. Joe Manchin has a much better feel for the politics of the moment than his liberal colleagues do. Manchin is concerned about what most voters are worried about: inflation. To the extent that B5 will over-stimulate the economy and fuel price-hikes, that would overwhelm any benefits people might see out of B5.

All of this gets me back to my main point, and my disagreement with Noonan. The politics, not the policy, have to come first. Does that mean that Democrats need to trim their sails on issues that their activists are most passionate about, like identity politics? Yes! Does it mean they have to embrace policies and rhetoric that don’t come naturally to them, like talking (and being) tough on crime? Yes!

The point is not to be right, but to win elections, and then be as right as you can — while still living in the real political world — when you hold power. If you chafe at that kind of advice, consider the alternative: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and God help us, another four years of Donald Trump.

Kamala Harris has her problems, much of her own making. But being too political isn’t one of them. In fact, her more zealous Democratic colleagues would do well to follow her lead.

Welcome to the 296th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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