I love this point by Jonathan Cohn today about Affordable Care Act implementation and electoral incentives:
As Greg Sargent writes, congressional Democrats demanding information about implementation are doing precisely what they should be doing: Performing their constitutional role as overseers. The same goes for the many federal and state officials who are sitting up at night, sweating over all the things that might go wrong. They’re nervous because anybody launching such a large, important initiative should be nervous. Yes, both are also looking out for their own political interests—so what else is new? The tough questions are part of the implementation process as it’s supposed to work.
That’s exactly correct. Cohn compares it to the build-up for the Iraq War, when (most) Republicans in Congress acted as cheerleaders for the administration rather than as constructive critics, and that’s exactly correct, too.
This gets to one of the things that I’ve written about a lot lately: the broken Republican Party, and why it is broken. Here’s the thing: politicians are, by nature, paranoid; they’re ‘fraidy cats, astonishingly good at sniffing out any threat to their jobs and cravenly adjusting to avoid potential electoral disaster. A lot of people mistakenly think that’s a failing of democratic governance, but it’s not; to the contrary, it’s essential. Not only does it keep politicians interested in doing what constituents think they want (one important facet of representation), but it also makes incumbent officeholders desperate to avoid policy disasters.
See, you know and I know that the typical Member of the House in the typical district is almost certainly going to win reelection, as is the typical senator. We’ve seen the statistics. We know about partisanship, and we know that constituents don’t really pay close attention to the news — they won’t even know if most politicians make even fairly large errors. But speak to a politician, and you’ll realize that they don’t believe it. They remember the time that so-and-so seemed safe and then suddenly lost. They know about the time that one member seemed safe but was suddenly endangered by redistricting and the time another member seemed safe but did something that sparked a challenge from a terrific, unexpected candidate. The electoral incentive is strong. Stronger than, objectively, it should be.
The problem for the GOP, however, is that their politicians don’t seem to be acting on that incentive, or at least not consistently. Part of this is the well-covered transfer of the natural politicians’ paranoia from the general election to renomination. It’s more or less equally irrational (for all the hype, there have only been a handful of successful primary challenges in the last few cycles), but the effects aren’t quite as beneficial. Still, that can’t be all of it; after all, policy disasters could hurt Republicans in primaries, too. Even if it was a fully certified “conservative” policy going in.
So I’m not sure why Republican politicians have acted as they have. Perhaps it’s that the gravy train for unemployed Republican officials is so appealing just now that they don’t mind losing; perhaps they’ve swallowed their own rhetoric about not being professional politicians. I don’t know.
But I do know that a healthy self-interest for self-preservation among politicians is one of the chief engines that keeps the political system moving in the right direction. So, yup, Cohn and Sargent are right: Democratic politicians and other Democrats who want to see themselves and Democrats in general do well in 2014 and 2016 should be pushing hard for successful ACA implementation. Even if that generates a bit of negative buzz right now.