Voters hate to be played for suckers, and we will act against our own self-interests to punish someone we think is acting unfairly. (Footnote fans can see for example here and Stealth Democracy, both by Prof. John Hibbing).
These instincts are on display in the current health care debate – some of the most successful Republican attacks are those that complain of back room deals and closed-door meetings. It is worth recalling that Senator Brown (R-MA) effectively killed health care reform the day he was sworn in – yet as a state legislator he voted for a health care reform bill that was more liberal than the legislation his election tanked. Senator Brown’s election had little to do with the substance of legislation and a lot to do with how Washington is seen as producing that substance.
With this in mind, I offer some unsolicited advice for those participating in Thursday’s health care meeting with the President.
Don’t Rant. Ranting makes you look like you’re more interested in making a point than in solving a problem. Americans hire elected officials to solve problems, we hire pundits to rant. If you want to rant get a TV or radio show, if you want to lead stop ranting.
Agree. Surely there are points of agreement – agree to them. A handful of professional ranters and their fans aside, no one thinks that Democrats or Republicans have a monopoly on good ideas or that the other side is pure evil, plain and simple.
Admit to Agreement. As a corollary to the previous suggestion, if you’ve supported something in the past, support it now or provide a rational explanation as to why you changed your mind. The numbers of ideas that both sides have embraced and disowned is stunning. Senator Lieberman was for expanding Medicare before he was against it, Senator Grassley supported an individual mandate to buy health insurance before he opposed it.
Don’t Aha!. As a corollary to the previous suggestion(s), don’t engage in Aha! politics. The President and Democratic leaders should not waive around transcripts of Fox News interviews and scream “but aren’t these your words, on your network, didn’t we just trap you like a fox in a box?!” That looks, and is, petty. It also doesn’t make anyone confess and result in a Pauline Conversion – it makes them defensive and push back. Instead, ask good questions and listen respectfully to the answers. Keep handing the opposition rope, they’ll do the rest.
Americans want health care reform. Survey after survey finds they (we) like most of the elements of even the liberal Democratic bills. Americans also want leadership that appears to be, and is, honest and forthright. And they (we) will punish elected officials who are seen as school-boy bullies, cheaters, or weak followers. Anyone who wants to win in November will increase their chances by supporting health care reform and behaving like adults. Abandoning either reform or adult behavior will lower the odds of re-election.