The Implications of Massachusetts

It’s important to separate the causes of Scott Brown’s win from its possible effects.

I don’t know why Scott Brown won. The causes are hard to identify, mostly because any election like this is massively over-determined. I agree with Jon Chait that structural factors (in this case specifically, the unemployment rate) have an enormous role. Further, people in the business of analyzing politicians have a vested interest in over-emphasizing the importance of rhetoric, campaign tactics and so on. For reasons that I have elaborated at length in other posts, however, I believe that we should be extremely skeptical of the ability of social science to quantify the relative impact of these factors.

In the face of this kind of uncertainty, expert opinion should be given great weight. Unfortunately, all the experts are self-interested. Elected officials are the leading experts in one thing: winning elections. The fact that so many say that they believe that this election indicates that support for health care and other elements of the Obama agenda will matter for them in November is important, but unfortunately, you can’t trust that are speaking objectively. Politicians speak in order to win elections, not to provide expert testimony. We should assume that they are using this analysis as a way of accomplishing other objectives.

What other politicians say about the causes of the election result, however, can provide much more useful clues about the effects of this election. It will obviously become much more operationally difficult for Obama / Pelosi / Reid to get health care reform in its current form passed. The loss of this senate seat matters in and of itself; the information contained in the election result will presumably negatively affect the calculation of self-interest on the part of many politicians (even though we can’t know by how much); and, it will provide cover for those who did not want to go along with this reform for other reasons to come out against it now. It’s possible that there is some inside baseball play, based on information unavailable to me or anybody else who is talking about it, to get health care reform in something close to its current form done. But it sure doesn’t look likely from here.

I didn’t believe on his inauguration day that Obama was either a genius or had an FDR-like opportunity, based on objective conditions, to change the public agenda. I don’t believe that he is somehow incompetent now, nor that – holding the presidency and with large Democratic majorities in both houses of congress – he is somehow not in a position to implement policy now. Just like retrospectively analyzing the causes of the outcome of an election, it is easy to talk about what alternatives he might have followed to: (1) his decision to prioritize health care and climate change versus jobs and the economy, and (2) his tactical approach to advancing his policy goals on the topics that he decided to prioritize. But even in retrospect, with the information available to him at the time, his choices seem defensible.

That Senator Kennedy would die, and that Massachusetts would then elect a Republican senator in a special election that happened to occur just as health care reform seemed to be nearing completion, is a true “black swan” event. What is striking to me, however, is that he has allowed himself to get into a position in which the loss of one senate seat threatens his prioritized domestic policy goal.

I have a pretty unromantic view of politicians. I don’t believe that I can see somebody on TV, and understand them very well. I do think, however, that specific previous very large-scale executive experience is the only correlate I could ever find with subsequent Presidential experience . This is correlation, not an empirical demonstration of causality, but strikes me as sensible.

One practical lesson that I believe operational experience teaches people is that you always need a lot more margin for error in any plan than you would rationally believe. In this light, Obama’s decision to push for a health care reform plan that could be threatened by losing one seat in the senate is what is troubling. You couldn’t predict this specific event, but it was always safe to assume that something would go wrong as the legislative process dragged on. It is my theory that his lack of executive experience is showing here, just as it did on cap-and-trade.

Now, it’s possible that there was no realistic alternative available as he was setting out on this a year ago – in effect, he had to go for broke, because there was no 80-vote alternative that he considered to be in any way worthwhile, and all we’re seeing now is that the coin came up tails for him on a bet that was smart at the time. Or, as I said, it might be that he has some way to pull a rabbit out of the hat now. Events will show us whether or not that is true. But barring these alternatives, it seems to me that Ross Douthat offers good advice: basically, take half a loaf and get on with things.

I say this not as a partisan, but as an American. I don’t know anybody who supports the status quo health care finance system in the U.S. Reform is required, and what is likely more important than the specifics of the first step is that we get underway on what will, if we’re lucky, be iterative reform in which we have a political system that can learn from experience.

Sensing just how much reform is possible, and getting a nation to go along with you is one mark of a statesman. FDR, Churchill and Reagan all had this mysterious ability (and good luck) – they were each able to reconcile the eternal tensions of a society, as manifest in the specifics of their time and place, inside one mind. I believe that Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich were able to do this only in productive tension with one another; in combination, they produced pretty good governance. As per Ross’s comments, I suspect that we will discover during 2010 whether Obama is able to do this, or will require tension with a more conservative congress.