All politics is local and as such local incentives matter most.
Most of us do things we think will avoid pain or that we think will help us get what we want. Policymakers are no different. Understanding this helps explain the fiscal cliff action nonsense and should inform how advocates pursue their goals.
It is probably fair to say that America is united in thinking the fiscal cliff is stupid. It’s stupid metaphor for a stupid problem that shouldn’t exist to begin with. If these dingbats, most of whom appear to have learned the art of politics from Veruca Salt, just did the right thing to begin with we wouldn’t be in this mess. The challenge is that there is no abstract national political or policy "right answer” and if there were it wouldn’t matter. Congress is not a national body; it is a collection of local interests in the same room.
Policy in this country is made by a collection of elected officials from a wide range of backgrounds, from vastly different parts of the country, holding a myriad of religious beliefs, and with varying levels of intellect and relevant experience. These elected officials do not represent “America” in the abstract - the only person who can lay claim to that is the President, and since he is prevented from running for another term he can do as he pleases without caring what those who elected him think. Senators represent their specific states and Representatives their specific districts. Policymakers are elected by a specific group of people for specific reasons and tasked with specific responsibilities. Additionally, policymakers tend to reflect their constituencies, they come from and reflect the values of the communities they represent (not all the views and values of all of the constituents, but increasingly more and more of them). Policymakers are not all-seeing and all-knowing clear-eyed balancers of interests who once elected rise above the rabble and rumble; policymakers tend to be people who are like the people they are elected to represent and tend to behave that way.
As such, rather than thinking about policy in a broad national ‘what makes the most sense in the aggregate’ sense, it makes more sense to think about policymaking as a series of specific local officials making decisions based on specific local incentives. This is precisely the point made by the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, by Jonathan Allen in Politico, and Nate Silver in the New York Times. Politics, as the late Speaker Tip O’Neill put it, is local.
The lesson for advocates is clear:
Determine which policymakers you need to take what actions to win (find power);
Learn what power on your issue is afraid of losing and what they would like to gain (fear of loss is better;
Identify local messages that speak to that risk of loss or promise of gain;
Find local messengers who can deliver that message and to whom power will listen; and
Focus on those local efforts.