Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Better For Thou, Perhaps

Don't blame the 12 "regulars" of "The Chris Matthews Show," whom last week agreed that the better campaign position for both Democrats and Republicans would be, in Matthews' words, "compromise..... on party priorities like Medicare or tax rates."

It's a dumb question. Which priorities- Medicare, tax rates, or something(s) else? Judging from the transcript (here), we weren't told. But we do know that two- NBC's Kelly O'Donnell and HDNet's Dan Rather- of the four in-studio guests made no sense. A third, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, made a good point- and didn't answer the question. The fourth got it exactly right. The relevant portion of the program's transcript:

Usually we bottom line things with The Matthews Meter, 12 of our regulars. But let's start there this week. We asked the meter, which includes Kelly here, what will be the better political position for both parties to prepare for 2012, hold firm for your party's priorities like Medicare or tax rates, or compromise to get a deal? Well, it's unanimous, unusually. All 12 say compromise is the smarter presidential politics for both parties.

Kelly, explain that because so far you've seen the Republicans holding hard: no taxes, dismantle Medicare; Democrats holding back, not ready to make a deal. You're saying they're smart, both of them, to get in there and deal.

Ms. KELLY O'DONNELL (NBC Capitol Hill Correspondent): Well, compromise becomes very attractive in the 11th hour of the final day, and that's when people can begin to claim victory, they can define victory, and appear as if they are working together. Independents appreciate that. Most people live with a lot of compromises in their lives, and they find out that you can get along if you do that. It's just in the early stages it's most difficult, but those lawmakers who've got experience know that's where you've got to get. The newer ones are the most resistant.

MATTHEWS: Do you think the politics are there for the Democrats to actually cut into the bone of government spending, for the Republicans to actually raise taxes?

Mr. DAN RATHER (HDNet Global Correspondent): No. I think in the end everybody's kicking the can down the road, led by the president himself, who's kicking the can down the road in issue after issue. That--and Kelly's hit right on it, what this is about is listening very carefully, what do the independents and swing voters--who, after all, are going to decide the next cycle--what do they want? They've spoken in the polls that what they'd like to have is, you know, some sort of compromise. That's what they'll wind up with. A deal will get done because everybody's looking toward the 2012...

MATTHEWS: OK. So you say a deal.

Rachel, where are you on this?

Ms. RACHEL MADDOW (Host, "The Rachel Maddow Show" MSNBC): Well, I think when Kelly said we have to get past the primaries in order to start talking about this reality, the independent voters, that's key. And the primaries are going to take a long time on the Republican side.


Ms. MADDOW: The last Gallup poll on the debt ceiling vote at the first week of May, end of the first week of May, 8 percent of Republicans, 8 percent, said they wanted their member of Congress to vote to raise the debt ceiling. Eight.

MATTHEWS: Just to--just to raise the debt ceiling.

Ms. MADDOW: Just to raise the debt ceiling. So we...

MATTHEWS: So they don't even want to--they wouldn't even go for a package of cuts and tax increases to get to that. They don't even want to raise the debt.

Ms. MADDOW: No. The--I mean, at this point you don't--you don't want to ask--you don't want the next question to be, `What would you like to set on fire?' I mean, when you're that extreme in your approach to it, anybody who's trying to woo Republican voters in the Republican primaries right now has no room on that topic.

MATTHEWS: Unbelievable. For the other--is that true, Michael, that they'd rather not even--they'd rather risk the government losing its credit rating and risk the government going into some kind of default rather than agreeing to the things you have to agree to in a compromise?

Mr. MICHAEL GERSON (Columnist, The Washington Post): I think Republican leaders understand the importance of a debt limit increase. I think they're likely to get some kind of discretionary spending deal. They're not going to deal with entitlements and tax increases and other things, they're just going to try to get past this. I--the grand deal, I think Obama would benefit most from. It would take the spending issue off the table going into a re-election campaign.

MATTHEWS: Yeah. So you agree that a compromise would be good for the Dems?

Mr. GERSON: It would be good for Obama.


Mr. GERSON: It would require him to take on entitlements and throw most of his coalition under the bus, which I think would be very difficult.

Rather- probably the greatest broadcast journalist of his generation- suggests the familiar bromide that independents and "swing voters" decide elections, implying that the two groups are synonymous. Rather (pun intended), many independents are not swing voters but instead liberals or (more often) conservatives and are likely to vote for the party that more indentifies with those values.

No matter. When Kelly O'Donnell notes "the newer ones are the most resistant," she unwittingly argued against herself. The newer ones, not having the advantage of incumbency, were the ones most recently elected in part by appealing with a specific ideological agenda (or at least orientation) to voters. They know, for the most part, how to win in this environment.

And some of them did it by attacking what they contended were cuts in Medicare in President Obama's health care plan. Others did it specifically by alleging their opponents wanted to cut Medicare. These victorious candidates posing as defenders of that health care program for the elderly were Republicans. It seems like such a long time ago that the party which now wants to end the program at that time criticized Democrats for wanting to weaken it. Paradoxical, ironic, counter-intuitive, or all three- but true.

Some of these guys and gals won by seeming to stand up for Medicare. Now Kelly O'Donnell and Dan Rather seem to believe that the Democratic Party, which would be a permanent minority party were it not responsible for maintaining the strength of Medicare and Social Security through the generations, should compromise on its "priorities."

Somebody got it right, though, because not every Democrat would suffer by meeting the GOP halfway on entitlements:

MATTHEWS: Yeah. So you agree that a compromise would be good for the Dems?

Mr. GERSON: It would be good for Obama.


Mr. GERSON: It would require him to take on entitlements and throw most of his coalition under the bus, which I think would be very difficult.

Most of that coalition, Washington Post columnist Gerson at least seems to understand, would suffer (being under a bus may be as uncomfortable as hearing the cliche) from voting to cut Medicare. It could come from a loosening of ties to the party's raison d'etre- the preservation of the social safety net- or from specific attacks upon incumbent Democrats by the Republicans who will challenge them in the fall of 2012. Long-term, Republicans can undermine entitlements; the party exists by calling for tax cuts, and then more tax cuts, and then even more tax cuts, and is continually revitalized by its corporate base.

When a compromise is reached- on Medicare, tax cuts, or whatever- the President, who presides over it all and commands broad media coverage whenever chooses, will reap some political benefit. The political blowback from the elderly and those who realize they will be elderly one day will be borne by the lesser members of his party. These Democrats would be better served by adopting Minority Leader Pelosi's line, “It is a flag we’ve planted that we will protect and defend. We have a plan. It’s called Medicare." "Get in there and deal," as K. O'Donnell counsels, and the Democrats obliterate Pelosi's message.

"Get in there and deal" and most Democrats will be damaged, some in the near term and some well beyond Mr. Obama's time.

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