We are now deep in the season of red vs. blue team politics and election strategy. I had hoped to join the tax extension policy fray but last Thursday Senate Majority Leader Reid announced that he would not bring a bill to the Senate floor until after the election, killing the issue for the next six weeks. Even if the House votes on a bill soon, that will be just for show. The real action will happen after the election, although we don’t know precisely when. I will therefore save my policy comments for later and instead describe my confusion about this season’s blue team political strategy and how it interacts with economic policy.

I usually analyze and try to describe how policy gets made, subject to political and election constraints. This close to an election, politics dominates everything, so I’ll look at partisan election strategies and how policy influences it.

Please don’t assume the following analysis means that I think the substance of the issue is unimportant. On the contrary, I assume that policymakers on both sides of this debate feel passionately about their substantive views in this battle, and that they are thinking strategically so they can achieve their desired policy outcome and maximize their team’s chances in the upcoming election. The teams’ strategies serve these two goals.

While I didn’t anticipate it, after the fact I understood the President/Speaker/Majority Leader’s decision to press forward on health care despite overwhelming public opposition. I think blue team leaders decided the policy victory was worth risking some Democratic seats in the midterm election. While I argued against and still strongly oppose the resulting laws, at the same time I respect their willingness to risk their Congressional majorities for a long-term policy goal.

Here are several more recent strategic actions from the blue team leaders that confuse me.

Choosing to fight about taxes

In 1996 President Clinton and Congressional Democrats had a policy theme for the election: “Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment.” They repeated those same six words, in that order, thousands of times. As a young member of the opposing red team it was infuriating because it worked. Democrats looked for every opportunity to set up votes to draw bright partisan contrasts on those four subjects. They didn’t say what they wanted to do for Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment. They were instead signaling, “These four things are important to Democrats. If they are important to you, vote for Democrats.” They were smart to choose four policy areas that align center-left. The natural political coalitions on each of the first three involve spending more government money, and that excludes the right. The usual policy solution associated with the environment is more regulation, which again mostly excludes the right. By picking partisan fights on those policy areas in an election year, President Clinton made sure his team had home field advantage in the election-policy debate.

In American politics taxes are traditionally a center-right coalition. Tax fights tend to unify Republicans and split Democrats. Elected Republicans like arguing about taxes because they instinctively feel they are on “their turf,” much as elected Democrats correctly feel they have the natural political advantage arguing about Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment.

Of course both sides have arguments they can make on the other team’s turf. Democrats play class warfare or attack unpopular industries (tobacco, Big Oil, health plans, Wall Street, multinational firms) when fighting about taxes. When fighting about education, Republicans push policies that split poor inner-city families from teachers’ unions. Sometimes you can fight almost to a draw on the other team’s turf.

But from an election standpoint, why bother? Of course the economy is front-and-center, but economy does not equal taxes. Why not pick election-year fights on topics that play to your party’s natural alliances and political advantage? A tax fight in this election season was inevitable – we knew this nine years ago when, forced by the Byrd rule, we (red team) set the sunset date at December 31st, 2010 during Senate consideration of the 2001 Bush tax cut bill. While the substantive fight during Fall 2010 was therefore inevitable, the blue team leaders could have downplayed it. They could have signaled several months ago that taxes would be dealt with in a lame duck session after the election. Republicans would have tried to pick a pre-election fight on the issue but would have once again been mostly ignored by the press. And since the majority party controls the floor, Republicans would have had little opportunity to elevate the fight. Democrats could have easily replied, “We said we’ll deal with that later.”

In my experience, Republicans like to debate taxes more than almost anything else, especially before an election. I don’t understand why the President chose to elevate a tax fight to the #1 issue in this electoral cycle. If the 2010 elections are about economics, wouldn’t the blue team instead have been advantaged by a sustained fight over education spending or a partisan split over “Wall Street fat cats vs. real Americans?”

Choosing a specific policy argument where the other side probably wins the center

In the tax extension debate the blue team’s bumper sticker says “Republicans want to help their rich friends and blow out the deficit.” The red team’s says “Don’t raise taxes in a weak economy.” Class warfare may rally the Democratic base but in the center it’s awfully hard to beat “Don’t raise taxes in a weak economy.” The red team has this time won the center with their arguments. The blue team should have anticipated this. I know my insider friends on the red team did, and they couldn’t figure out why the blue team leaders chose to elevate this specific tax fight when the economy is so weak. Why didn’t they quietly agree to a one or two-year extension and have this fight when the economy is stronger?

Teeing up a big fight, watching your team split, continuing the fight, then folding

The sequence of events was:

  1. The President picks a big fight on the tax extension and highlights the partisan split;
  2. a handful of Senate Democrats signal they’re not onboard; (first warning)
  3. the Speaker says “the Senate will go first;” (second warning)
  4. the President doubles down on the fight and elevates the conflict by making it the centerpiece of his election-cycle argument;
  5. the President’s just-resigned budget director guts the President’s argument in his first New York Times column; (third warning)
  6. (same day as #5) the President proposes “new” policies that are ignored by both sides; (confusion reigns)
  7. Members return from August recess;
  8. 30 House Democrats bail on the President’s position; (final blow)
  9. Senate Democrats delay the vote until after the election.

That’s not poor coordination, it’s a total absence of coordination. Going into a highly partisan conflict on the other team’s turf, you either make sure your team is unified first, or when you figure out they’re not, you concede or switch topics quickly. We have seen a strategy and an alliance slowly collapse over a several month period. I don’t understand how the blue team leaders could allow that to happen.

Trying to make the small business lending bill bigger than it is

This one I sort of understand. The President and his allies are losing the small business argument as the red team pounds away about impending tax increases on successful small business owners. Blue team leaders and their allies therefore took a small bill that Republicans opposed and tried to make it a big deal. It’s not a bad move as long as the substantive claim is at least somewhat convincing. But the small business lending bill is tiny and will have a trivially small economic impact. It didn’t take long for the press to figure this out, helped by the small business lobby (NFIB) and Congressional Republicans. I see why the President’s team tried to do this, but I wonder if internally anyone said, “Uh, guys, this isn’t a credible argument.” Because it wasn’t from the start. They should have known it would at best be a weak counter to the Republican small business arguments. Maybe they played the only card they had, knowing it was weak.

Attacking Republicans for not having a policy agenda that differed from that of President Bush

I understand the political logic of this if it’s a one-move game. Congressional Republicans don’t call these the “Bush tax cuts,” and their lack of a positive policy agenda made them vulnerable to the blue team attack “We Democrats want to go forward to a successful future, they want to return to the failed past.”

But political battle includes reacting to the other team’s moves and anticipating your opponents’ reactions. Now that House Republicans have released a policy agenda of their own, both components of this attack are invalid. Never mind what’s in the plan – the “no plan but Bush’s” attack is now ineffective. Didn’t the blue team leaders anticipate this Republican response after Leader Boehner telegraphed it repeatedly over the past two months? If they did, where’s their counter-move now that Republicans have rebuffed their initial attack with a perfectly predictable move? It’s like playing checkers with a child before he learns double jumps.

Proposing a new stimulus-but-it’s-not and having it fizzle in the same week

Two months before Election Day, when the economy swamps all other issues, the President proposes three “new” economic policies and everyone in both parties ignores them. That’s embarrassing. Republicans don’t even bother attacking these policies because the President’s purported allies in the Congressional majority ignore the “new” ideas. What was the strategic purpose of proposing $50 B more infrastructure spending, immediate business expensing, and a recycled R&D tax credit proposal in early September? Was this an attempt to put Republicans on the defensive? To give Democrats something they could be for while they opposed preventing tax increases on small businesses? Was it an attempt to move toward Republicans and propose something they might accept, anticipating a House Republican majority? To shape press coverage in September? It failed at each one of these goals. Whatever the President’s goals with his early-September proposals, we can safely conclude that his goal was not to be ignored. On a smaller note, in his press conference the President seemed surprised by the question “Is this another stimulus?” He should have been ready for that one.

I’ll conclude by summarizing the main lines of blue team attack and where they stand today:

  • “Republicans hate small business and are blocking this good lending bill.” – The President signed the bill into law, nullifying this attack.
  • “Republicans want to give tax cuts to their rich friends and blow out the deficit.” – The bill was delayed until after the election by Democrats, some of whom sided with Republicans. Republicans’ response is “Don’t raise taxes in a weak economy.”
  • “Republicans have no policy agenda except Bush’s.” – This was nullified by the new House Republican Pledge to America.

Several external forces are working to tilt the election day playing field from blue to red. At the same time, the moves made by each team’s leaders in the weeks leading up to Election Day can matter a lot. Either I’m missing something big or the blue team’s leaders are making repeated unforced errors.

(photo credit: Bruce Turner)