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Ezra Klein on "Flip-Floppers"

Ezra Klein:

What ‘left’ and ‘right’ really mean: Perhaps my biggest frustration with the U.S. news media (and yes, I am a card-carrying member) is that we permit the two parties to decide what is “left” and what is “right.” The way it works, roughly, is that anything Democrats support becomes “left,” and everything Republicans support becomes “right.” But that makes “left” and “right” descriptions of where the two parties stand at any given moment rather than descriptions of the philosophies, ideologies or ideas that animate, or should animate, political debates…. [T]hat leaves ordinary voters in a bit of a tough spot.

The reality is that most Americans aren’t policy wonks. They don’t sit down with think-tank papers or economic studies and puzzle over whether it’s better to address the free-rider problem in health care through automatic enrollment or the individual mandate. Instead, they outsource those questions to the political actors — both elected and unelected — they trust.

Unfortunately, those political actors aren’t worthy of their trust. They’re trying to win elections, not points for intellectual consistency. So the voters who trust them get taken for a ride.

Consider the partywide flips and flops of just the past few years:

  • Supporting a temporary, deficit-financed payroll-tax cut as a stimulus measure in 2009, as Republican Sen. John McCain and every one of his colleagues did, put you on the right. Supporting a temporary, deficit-financed payroll tax-cut in late 2011 put you on the left. Supporting it in early 2012 could have put you on either side.

  • Supporting an individual mandate as a way to solve the health-care system’s free-rider problem between 1991 and 2007 put you on the right. Doing so after 2010 put you on the left.

  • Supporting a system in which total carbon emissions would be capped and permits traded as a way of moving toward clean energy using the power of market pricing could have put you on either the left or right between 2000 and 2008. After 2009, it put you squarely on the left.

  • Caring about short-term deficits between 2001 and 2008 put you on the left. Caring about them between 2008 and 2012 put you on the right….

  • Supporting large cuts to Medicare in the context of universal health-care reform puts you on the left, as every Democrat who voted for the Affordable Care Act found out during the 2010 election. Supporting large cuts to Medicare in the context of deficit reduction puts you on the right, as Republicans found out in the 1990s, and then again after voting for Representative Paul Ryan’s proposed budget in 2011….

So we have four substantive policy flip-flops by the Republicans, and two by the Democrats. Except that the lost substantive policy flip-flop for each--Medicare--isn't a policy flip-flop at all: Democrats have always been in favor of universal coverage and always thought (when they dared) that it made little sense for the social insurance system to give much more generous benefits to the old than to the rest; Republicans have always been in favor of tax cuts for the rich and always thought (when they dared) that it made little sense to tax the rich in order for the government to pay for health care for the old. So we are down to three to one. And then, lower down, we get this:

I don’t particularly mind flip-flops. Consistency is an overrated virtue. But honesty isn’t. In many of these cases, the parties changed policy when it was politically convenient to do so, not when conditions changed and new information came to light. There are exceptions, of course. It’s reasonable to worry about short-term deficits during an economic expansion and consider them necessary during a recession. That’s Economics 101.

OK. So Ezra Klein has three substantive policy flip-flop by Republicans, and zero by Democrats. And these examples support Ezra's language that "the parties"--not the Republican Party, "the parties"--"changed policy when it was politically convenient to do so, not when conditions changed and new information came to light."

But the Democratic Party changed policy when conditions changed, and new information came to light.

Now if Ezra were focusing on political and legislative strategy:

  • Favoring an expansive view of executive authority between 2001 and 2008 put you on the right. Doing so since 2009 has, in most cases, put you on the left….

  • Decrying the filibuster and considering drastic changes to the Senate rulebook to curb it between 2001 and 2008 put you on the right, particularly if you were exercised over judicial nominations. Since 2009, decrying the filibuster and considering reforms to curb it has put you on the left.

I would have no beef with his piece (save that there are some virtuous actors who have been consistently for less senatorial gridlock and consistently against quod principi placuit legis habit vigorem, and it would have been nice to recognize them).

But there are differences in honesty and intellectual consistency as far as their commitment to substantive policies are between the two parties.

And by not stressing those differences, in my view Ezra contributes to a problem.

After all, the reality is that most Americans aren’t policy wonks. They don’t sit down with think-tank papers or economic studies or follow the twists and turns of political and policy debate. Instead, they outsource those questions to the journalistic actors they trust. Are those journalistic actors worthy of their trust?

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

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