MATT: You did a piece called “Which problem does your third party solve?” critiquing my piece “The third-party stump speech we need.” Let me tell you what I think the answer to your question is. The problem that I’m hoping a third force will solve is that right now there’s a void in the debate, and we don’t get from either side — in my view — policies proposed that are equal to the magnitude of the challenges we face across a whole set of issues that are needed for American renewal. And if you can’t get that, for different reasons, from either party, you need some third official force to come in and try and change the debate to see if we can develop a constituency for the set of bolder ideas we need in a global era.
Only a third force can do that. And I’m not arguing that it’s some fantasy speech by an Aaron Sorkin-like figure that galvanizes the public and everything becomes beautiful. I see it as the beginning of the hard work of politics by trying to arouse a constituency around issues that don’t even have a chance to get discussed today, because neither side will discuss them.
EZRA: I’m not against people standing up and making speeches about the scale of the problem, about the solutions we need given the scale of the problems. Both of our jobs are to do that. Nevertheless, I think that it is important for people like you and me, who work with words and have a tendency to overstate their power, to offer our readers a more realistic view of what are the impediments to more aggressive governance from either side.
Your model of politics in the piece is that the way you build a constituency for an issue is some politician, preferably a presidential candidate, emerges and gives a series of addresses with solutions equal to the scale of the problems. To some degree, a lot of your proposals have been floated.
And my basic point is that there’s no evidence, zero, that the type of grand speech which you laid out in your column and in your speech dramatically do change public opinion. Change is a very, very tough thing in our political system, and it is mediated in very hard ways by Congress, by the regulatory agencies and by the American people themselves. And the idea that we can do this in a top-down way, where some billionaire-funded third-party candidate just gives a speech that technocrats will like and things will really change, that’s just not a plausible theory of politics.
MATT: Here’s where I disagree. First, my model is something like the Perot campaign in 1992. I don’t view this as a speech, I view this as a campaign, and it could be the beginning of a broader third-party movement. I think the only practical way something like this will happen in 2012 is at the presidential level. But I expect to be writing soon on ideas that folks have about how to build a broader party. But what Perot did in ’92 — and there were aspects of his personality that were a little nutty — was to run a campaign on the rising debt and deficits and the inability of Washington to deal with that. He bought the half-hour of ad time, went through with the charts and graphs. And early in the campaign he was actually ahead in a bunch of polls. He was a very erratic personality, but he won about 20 percent of the vote. I know from working in the Clinton White House at OMB from the first day, the fact that Perot proved that 20 percent of the country cared about this fundamentally changed what the White House did on fiscal policy.
So what you’re saying about there not being a plausible theory of politics where this kind of campaign can begin to activate a constituency, I think that’s wrong. It’s happened before, as Perot shows, and conditions today are much worse for the middle class and for the sets of issues that need broader attention. And I think the opening for a candidate from the “radical center,” not inhibited by the current interest groups and litmus tests ideologically on both sides, is much bigger than 20 percent. Obviously it depends on the right kind of campaign being run — I’m not looking for a Donald Trump vanity campaign — but if you had a candidate or candidates who emerged who were talking about the kinds of things I tried to lay out in that stump speech, there’s a chance to build a constituency.
So it’s not avoiding the politics, it’s trying to change public opinion and develop a constituency so it changes what we actually do as a matter of public policy.
EZRA: What we’re talking about here are two different things. What you’re talking about a political scientist would call agenda-setting power. And so you’re saying if you have a politician run on a more radical, deficit-reducing, technocratic platform — there’s more than that to your agenda, but that’s a big chunk — that this will have agenda-setting power in important ways. And I wouldn’t say for a moment that if you put someone with billion dollars behind him on the national stage that he won’t get people to listen to his or her message. That isn’t the argument here.
I’m asking what happens next. Let’s say they get elected. Your billionaire candidate emerges, self-funds his candidacy and wins — they could also become a spoiler, which I think is a much more likely outcome, but let’s leave that aside for a minute — he or she would slam into the same old impediments. A great test case of this was in California, where Arnold Schwarzenegger ran a campaign very much like the one you’re talking about. A lot of his argument was: Look, I’m rich, I’m famous, I’m not beholden to anybody. And he got nothing done, in part because he had no constituency. Because the way you get things done isn’t not being beholden to anybody and telling Congress that you guys are all terrible and you’ve been doing a terrible job for all these years, and now we’re gonna come in and change it. You come in and you do that and it sounds good and you get nothing done and you leave office and you’re poll numbers are 25 percent. Perot never had to actually try and move a bill.
What we keep doing in this country is getting fed up and pulling on that lever of the president. Get someone better. Get somebody from another party. Get somebody from a third party. We want this to be something we can fix through the presidency, and my basic argument to you is that we cannot fix this through the presidency.
There’s a lack of appreciation for the complexity of the system and a desire to get this done in a way that’s appealing and exciting and that keeps failing. The only reason I take issue with your piece is because I think it distracts from the type of work people need to do to make the system better, which is not the fun work of changing the presidency, but the tough work — and the boring work, to some degree — of changing the Congress, and changing the way the regulatory agencies work, and changing the way the Federal Reserve functions and the amount of attention people give to it. And I just don’t think that we can do that by continuing to look for a more eloquent person who reflects our personal vision of politics more inspirationally.
MATT: First, I want to agree with you on the idea that you have to do the constituency-building if you want to change anything. I see a third-party candidacy as the opening round in the long-term effort to make this happen. I don’t think there’s any more powerful advocacy platform to launch something like this. So that’s one thing.
Schwarzenegger, I don’t think he’s a good model, because he was only rhetorically a fit with the kind of casting we’re talking about. He positioned himself as the ‘I’m not owned by anybody, I’m only yours, blah-blah-blah-blah,’ but he didn’t offer a single hard choice in the campaign, he just wanted to become governor. I understand that. That’s generally the purpose of people who run for high office. But he wasn’t trying to change public opinion and build a constituency for things that the state might need to do. And so the fact that he ended up failing in that regard doesn’t seem to me like a test case.
EZRA: Can I jump in on this for one second?
EZRA: Because I think he gets more to the heart of what we’re talking about. Let me put it more directly. There’s no evidence that presidents are capable of substantially changing public opinion. I know that sounds crazy to people, but it’s true. There is reams of political science on this. You just cannot find evidence in polling that presidents are able to substantially change political opinion. We have the most persuasive men in the nation. And they come in and they just get destroyed.
And this is true for Reagan. By the end of his presidency, defense spending was held in lower esteem than social spending . It was true for Clinton on a ton of issues, health care being a great example of that. It’s been true for Obama on stimulus, on health care, on Afghanistan. And it was true for George W. Bush on essentially everything.
This is actually the core disagreement we have. Your vision of this is that you need somebody who’s sufficiently committed to using the rhetorical tools of a national campaign for the presidency to change the people’s minds. Then you’ll get the public to overrun the obstacles and impediments to change. And what I’m saying is that we have an enormous amount of evidence in which different people from different political parties, in different ways, have attempted that. And again and again and again and again and again, that has failed and then these presidents have trimmed their sails and tried to govern a little bit more moderately.
But there’s nothing in your article that accounts for the failure of that strategy. There’s no reason for me to see that it’ll turn out differently. What it really sounds to me like what happened is you have somebody making an argument that is very appealing to left technocrats. Maybe they would get 15 or 20 percent, mostly drawn from the left, and act as a spoiler candidacy. But even if that didn’t happen, there’s just no way that the speeches will work.
MATT: What’s your answer then of how we actually solve these problems?
Take education. If we have eight years of Obama and Arne Duncan, my argument has always been that they are by far the most interesting leaders we’ve had at the federal level on education in decades. But the outer limits of their ambition are demonstrably unequal to the educational challenge the country faces. So what should be our response to that? If I’m hearing you right, our response should be, look, they’re dealing with the real world, there are lot of issues . . .
EZRA: I don’t think you’re hearing me right at all, actually.
EZRA: What I’m saying is that the problem is centered in Congress, because Congress is ultimately the institution with the power here. The president can do very little of this on his own. And I’d say that the first problem in Congress is a catalytic and toxic mixture of increasing party polarization and discipline with anti-majoritarian rules, largely in the Senate, though not exclusively the filibuster, you have a number of them in different parts of the government.
But fundamentally, the first step to what you’re talking about, before even getting anybody convinced of what needs to be done, is making it possible to do things. Making it possible for parties to govern.
MATT: So what’s the Ezra Klein view of how that can happen?
EZRA: Right now I think both parties have a tendency to govern for when they’re in the minority. They are more concerned about when they are going to be in the minority than [about] what they can do when they’re in the majority. But your argument, as I understand it, is some billionaire should get up and run for office. I mean, you’ve written in The Post about how billionaires can save the country.
MATT: It doesn’t have to be. I think that Americans Elect are likely to create a system where you wouldn’t have to be a billionaire.
EZRA: Well, if I were advising billionaires on what to do and there was a billionaire who wanted to see us having substantial policy of change, I would have them focus a lot of attention, in the way Peterson has, on deficit reduction, on some of these procedural issues, actually, like the filibuster.
MATT: Scrapping the filibuster is in my campaign stump speech!
EZRA: But I want to be really clear here. My answer is super unsatisfying. It is horrible. It is depressing. It makes you think nothing will happen for a long time. But that’s because that’s true. I mean, when you say what’s your answer, I don’t have an inspiring answer. I don’t have a something easy to get up and give a beautiful speech on. I’ve heard politicians give beautiful speeches. And I am sure — I’ve now looked at the literature to back this up — I am sure that those speeches are not going to bring change. Not the sort of change that you want, not the sort of change that I want. I am sure that if your guy got elected, he or she would come in and go to Congress and say, I want $50 billion for universal pre-K, and I want a transaction tax for the financial industry, and I want to make our health care system more like Singapore’s, and I want an energy tax that moves the corporate and payroll taxes over to carbon. And Congress would laugh at them, and that would be that. Because the president is not a king and he’s not a dictator.
And so my answer is that unfortunately, we have to do this hard, unpleasant, incremental work of making things better piece by piece, 5 percent, 10 percent of the time. And you know what? If that’s not equal to the scale of our challenges, well, the reality is that our institutions are unequal to the scale of our challenges. And that’s a hard thing to explain. But that’s why I spend so much time trying to explain it, and why I fight efforts to tell people that a third-party president can sweep in and solve our problems.
MATT: A couple of responses. First, what’s so fascinating about this, as we keep peeling it away, getting closer to the core, is that you’re more of a, what’s the word I would put on it, a kind of. . .
MATT: You’re a structural pessimist, which I agree that there is good cause for being. But I am. . .
EZRA: A rhetorical optimist?
MATT: It’s not just rhetorical — that diminishes what I’m talking about. Because I’m talking about that as a way to begin to try and galvanize the organizing and the party building, or movement building, that is needed. So I’m saying maybe there’s a leader that’s trying to lay this out.
EZRA: I haven’t heard you offer a proposal for what that party building is, what that organizing is.
MATT: I need to work on it. I don’t have the full answer today.
EZRA: When you write that, then you probably won’t hear these criticisms from me. As long as it’s just a speech . . .
MATT: It’s not. I was on deadline.
MATT: There are a lot of people, a lot of business leaders in particular, who are structural pessimists for the very reason you are. And I guess I don’t want to accept that. This has been going on for a long time. When I wrote [the book] “The 2% Solution” — that was eight years ago — it was in a third-party terrain.
I understand that politicians are incremental and that politics tends to be incremental. So there’s always some level of rhetoric-reality gap. But I think the pace of change today, and the risk this poses to the middle class, means that the old-style, modest, incremental politics can’t help us adapt quickly enough. Our institutions aren’t fit. We agree on that.
To meet these challenges, the question I put to myself is: What would it take to shake things up in a way that gives us a chance to try and topple some of these obstacles? And that’s why I’ve got scrapping the filibuster in this mythical candidate’s agenda, because there are these structural problems. But I feel like you’re letting yourself off too easy by saying that your “answer” is unsatisfying because it’s basically pessimistic structuralism, if we’re calling it that.
EZRA: It’s important to make this distinction, though. It doesn’t say this thing can’t be changed. What it says is this: People in this country have different roles in the political process. And you and I have a particular one. And our particular one is to inform people, to try to explain to people how things are working and how they’re not working, and to give them a realistic idea of why. I talk to business leaders, too, and I talk to a lot of people in American politics. I talk to a lot of politicians. I talk to pundits. I talk to cable news people. I talk to all of them. And I almost never meet the structural pessimist, actually. All I meet, as far as I can tell, are people who think we just need more “leadership.” We need a president willing to stand up and fight. We need a leader who will finally take advantage of the moment and push this country forward. We need somebody willing to make the tough choices. And I find it borderline irresponsible.
And what I’m saying here is when we in the media tell people that if only a president would give the speech, if only the president would say the thing, get his message right, or if only the third-party person would do that, it would change, we’re lying to them. We are saying something that gets them to put their focus and their money and their energy and their time into a theory of change that won’t work. And if that money and that energy and that time was going into a different theory of change, a theory of change that was more based around our political system than it was based around just swapping presidents in and out, I wouldn’t be a structural pessimist. I’d be an optimist, because I think that campaigns like that change things.
We have changed the filibuster, to take one example, significantly, four or five times in this country. Originally, you couldn’t end it under any circumstances. There was no rule for closure. 1917 you get two-thirds closure, you can shut it off with two-thirds of the Senate. 1975, that brings you down to three-fifths. That’s a really big deal right there. We changed it dramatically, because were working on it, because people were really upset about it. We took down the House Rules Committee. When John F. Kennedy came into office, he and Lyndon Johnson basically destroyed the power of the House Rules Committee, or at least the power of southern conservatives on the House Rules Committee to bottle up civil rights bills. And you would not have had Lyndon Johnson’s triumph if they hadn’t done that.
So my point to you, and my point in general, is that when we keep giving people this easy version of change, this “We need a better speech,” “We need leaders who will fight for you,” “We need politics that looks more like it does in the final 10 minutes of ‘The West Wing,’ ”we are not getting that that theory of change isn’t ultimately going to work.
MATT: But that’s a caricature of what I’m talking about. I believe we need something that is much deeper. To me what you’re saying is an argument for adding the rest of the Ezra Klein political reform agenda to my third-party campaign. Because when have you heard a presidential candidate saying, one of the things we have to do in this country is end the filibuster?
EZRA: Let’s say Matt Miller ran on his own agenda, ran on his own speech, got elected, then went to the Senate and said, hey, you guys don’t know me and I ran against both of you. I ran against you, Democrats, because you don’t go far enough, and I ran against you, Republicans, because you’re hopelessly in the wrong direction. Now I would like you to change your rules and give up all your power over legislation. I would like you to change the rules of a minority, to protect you and make sure you didn’t stop what I want to do and what my party, if it had a majority, would want to do. I would like you to substantially change the way things work around here. And they would say, no, I will not do that, there’s no way.
And so my point is that if people want to change things, they need to push where the actual pressure points are.
MATT: So are you going to be critiquing Obama for not running on that if he doesn’t mention that? He’s never mentioned eliminating it, has he?
EZRA: I’ve critiqued everybody on the filibuster, continuously. I think there’s hardly a political writer in this country who’s written more on the filibuster than I have.
You can go back to the Newsweek piece I did, “What Happened If Congress Stops Working?” Now I’ll say that I think it’s going be very, very difficult, but I would love to see it eliminated on a six-year phase out in a bipartisan way. If the two parties say, look, we both agree the country isn’t working, it isn’t running, we both agree that our agenda is better. And somebody should be able to make this different if the American people were willing to give them a shot it at it.
So we agree that six years or eight years from today, when we have no idea who will be in political power, the filibuster is gone. I think that’s the right way to do it. I’m not sure we have the six years or eight years, but I think in some ways it would be a safer way to do it, because otherwise it’ll look like a power grab and there will be a really large counterreaction. But nevertheless, that’s been my position for a long time.
That’s where I’ve spent my time as a writer, trying to convince people of that. And that’s my point, that I don’t think people should be spending their time trying to convince folks that they just need a new presidential candidate to just give a more radical version of the agenda. I think they need to be actually trying to refocus people on what is wrong in the system. And I don’t think it’s that people are not offering ambitious enough platforms.
MATT: But let me ask you this. Just on that issue, which I admire your focus on, do you think that the likelihood of it happening would not be different if it were at the center of a third-party campaign explaining to people that part of why nothing gets done or that we can’t do things that are equal to our challenges is because of X, Y and Z in the rules, and this is one of them? If a candidate emerged and they were talking about this as one of the centerpieces of what had to change for us to be able to address our problems, I would think that that would increase the probability of it changing, if they won on it. Even if they didn’t win, they would change the nature of the entire conversation.
EZRA: No. You can run out the theory all sorts of ways, but certainly I don’t think Ralph Nader running on campaign finance reform or changing the amount of greed in politics changes it very much. I think it ended up going in the opposite direction. I think third-party candidacies in some ways can be helpful, but can be very, very, very unpredictable, obviously. And I think the actual answer is that I think it would affect the likelihood of this almost zero. I mean, it would be interesting if you had somebody relevant running a third-party campaign based on an attack on the filibuster. I think that would be pretty interesting.
MATT: Well, if the . . .
EZRA: But of course, I would think that the filibuster would be one thing in many, because nobody’s going to rally behind a third-party candidate arguing for procedural reforms in the United States Congress.
MATT: If that candidate emerges and they include this in their agenda, I think you’d have a different view. That’s just my view. And I think you’d feel hopeful.
EZRA: Maybe I’ll be wrong. But I don’t see any reason I would have a different view of that. I just don’t think it would matter much. Because again, you have to think about where the pressure point is. This is what I keep coming back to. It’s in the Senate. What would be a more interesting proposal to me is how is your third party going to begin running primary candidates, or at least running third-party challengers in Senate campaigns. And that eventually we’ll get enough people as a voting block and it’ll destroy this. That would be plausible to me.
MATT: Well, we disagree because of the nature of the Perot example, which was clearly a formative experience for me. [laughs]
EZRA: Well, and Perot’s lesson is unclear. But one thing you keep not quite wanting to get into — and in your speech, you dismissed this in a way I thought very unpersuasive — is that it can backfire dramatically. So Perot’s a formative example for you because it helped elect an administration you really liked. But for a lot of other people, Nader was a formative example. And that did not lead to a lower budget deficit and it did not lead to a more equitable political sphere. When you had somebody doing a somewhat more ambitious and radical version than somebody else was doing, it led to the election of the other guy.
MATT: I take that seriously. And my view of that is, I think the terrain is so wide open that it would not be somebody tinkering at the edges the way that Nader was.
EZRA: But tinkering at the edges from Nader almost allowed Gore to win. [If] somebody who did a better job took 15 percent, then 10 percent of that was from one party or the other, that would throw the election without a doubt.
MATT: I think we have don’t have any idea exactly what would happen. And there’s clearly risk involved in it. And I’ve come to the view that the need to try and accelerate past the very modest incrementalism that we have is high enough that it’s worth taking that risk. But I understand it’s a risk.
EZRA: But you don’t admit the risk in your piece. You write there’s little risk of a Nader result, that a handful of votes can throw the election to someone that voters can’t abide.
MATT: I believe that.
EZRA: And you just admitted it with me, though, there is really a very real risk of a result that throws the election to a candidate most of the voters can’t abide.
MATT: I don’t think you can say that with confidence. I can’t, because I think the terrain is so wide open.
EZRA: But wait. I just really want to be clear — let’s say that Barack Obama runs against Rick Perry and against Matt Miller’s candidate. Do you think there is no risk in a world where Matt Miller’s candidate gets 22 percent of the vote, a remarkable showing, and throws the election to Rick Perry? You don’t think that is a risk at all? That doesn’t seem to me to be plausible.
MATT: I just don’t know the answer.
EZRA: Even if you don’t know the answer, it sounds to me like you’re saying, yeah, that’s a risk. I don’t know which way it’ll go, but I think it’s certainly a risk that clearly could happen. “No” is the answer in which that’s not a risk.
MATT: I don’t think we have a world without risk.
EZRA: No, absolutely not. But you need to face up to that a little bit more. And I think that’s all the more true because, as far as I can tell, your platform is one shared by most of the policy people in the Obama administration. To use one example, you’ve written very favorably about Gene Sperling in the past. How much of this do you really think he disagrees with?
MATT: A lot.
MATT: Yes. I don’t want to pick on Gene or any administration member in particular, but let me try to talk about the White House and the president. The risk aversion that comes with power means you won’t propose things even if you think in your heart they’re the right direction for the country. And if you’re not willing to propose them, that’s what leaves the void that to me is one of the major problems of our politics.
And to get back to the point you raised before. I agree with you. This is all about how do you change public opinion. My goal is to try and change public opinion in ways that would make it possible for us to enact an agenda that would help renew the nation in a host of ways that are talked about in my speech. Dan Yankelovich, the pollster, has this great line. He says: We’ve become incredibly good over the decades in measuring every little tremor of change in public opinion. But we do nothing, and know little about, how to improve the quality of pubic opinion.
And I would say that both the Schwarzenegger campaign and the Obama campaign in 2008 offered very little on policies that would involve short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. So I’d like you to think about the risk that if we don’t have something like what I’m advocating, the pseudo-solutions that are on offer will never have a chance to build a constituency for the real results that we think we want.
EZRA: We’ll have to leave it there.