The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The problem with covering policy as politics

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Here's the problem with coming up with policy ideas in Washington: It's not enough to go to the media  and say, "Here's an idea we think might make things better." You have to come up with the reason that Congress might pass your idea to make things better, or else the media will ignore it as just one more DOA white paper.

Typically, there are two ways to do that. The first is you sell the idea as new, whether or not it actually is. That typically buys you at least a few days of coverage. An idea that's new is at least an idea you can say Congress hasn't rejected yet. And hope springs eternal!

The other is that you can frame it as a compromise. That's what the White House is doing today. They've got a corporate tax plan that they've mostly proposed before, and a set of job-creation ideas that they've mostly proposed before, and they're putting them together and selling the package as a compromise. Republicans get corporate tax reform, which they say they want, and Democrats get more spending on jobs.

As usual, though, Republicans aren't interested in what the White House says they want. "This proposal allows President Obama to support President Obama's position on taxes and President Obama's position on spending while leaving small businesses and American families behind," says Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.

That last bit is a reference to individual tax reform, which splits Democrats and Republicans because Democrats won't agree to an overhaul that doesn't raise taxes on high earners, and Republicans won't agree to an overhaul that raises taxes at all.

The Republican response, in other words, is to immediately move the conversation back to the policy where there's no chance for agreement. That's not what you do when you want to get to "yes." It's what you do when you want to remain at "no."

That's the problem with subjecting every single policy idea to this political test: If the opposition party doesn't want to cut a deal, there won't be a deal. And if all coverage of policy is colored by that core political decision, then there'll never be real pressure on them to make a deal, either.

But there's an alternative world on offer, one where the coverage of new policy ideas leaves their political future alone and focuses, at least at the outset, on whether they're good ideas. If they're bad ideas, then the conversation should end there. If they are good ideas, and people know that, then perhaps the knowledge will move a few Republican senators, or even — unlikely as it is — the public, and a policy that began with no evident path to passage will find a way forward.

It's a bit early to say whether the White House's corporate tax overhaul and job-creation plans are good ideas. All we have right now are broad-brush previews, and the tax plan, in particular, needs some key details filled out. But it'd be nice to see these proposals covered in terms of whether they make sense for the economy rather than in terms of whether Republicans will accept them before they've even read them.