Monday, December 21, 2009

Leadership IS Making Sausage

Sure, it was pretty ugly watching the Senate Democrats lurch their way to the 60 votes necessary to pass a health care bill this week. But Paul Krugman is sooooo wrong when he self-righteously derides the process as dysfunctional in his Monday NY Times column.

Krugman's definition of a functional legislature is one that passes bills he likes.

In his rant against the filibuster, he fails to understand that if fewer than 60 votes were required, as he proposes, the last handful would have been just as tough to get, whether the necessary number was 51 or 53 or whatever.

The very visible process of horse-trading and negotiation that we have witnessed illustrates both (1) the essence of legislating in a representative democracy and (2) the agonies of adaptive leadership.

The Essence of Representative Democracy. If Krugman had spent a little more time the real world and less in academia, he would better understand that no issue, health care or climate change or Afghanistan is discrete. Everything is connected to everything else. (I am not defending the Republicans, who apparently made a conscious choice to opt out, despite the President's apparent willingness to make it worthwhile for them, at least some of them, to get in the game. I was disappointed to see that Senator Snowe did not hang in there and swallow the Rube Goldberg machine that emerged in the Senate.)

Despite Krugman's perspective, there are good, decent Members of Congress who care about other priorities more than they do about covering the uninsured. They are not sinners; they just have other, often just as noble, higher priorities. So they see their responsibility in the health care battle to let others worry about the details, while they figure out how they can use health care and their role in it to advance causes they care more deeply about, like, for example, making sure that no taxpayer funds pay for abortions or getting funding for folks who have been poisoned in Montana or even picking up points on the Republican side by voting "no" in order to keep the lines of communication open in order to get some Republican support for some issues like the climate change bill or the financial regulation reform bill, which may not have the necessary 60 Democratic votes.

The Agonies of Adaptive Leadership. Adaptation, making progress, moving forward to a new reality, is difficult because it requires people to choose between what is of the essence and must be preserved, and what is expendable and can be left behind. Every Member of the Senate cared about some potential piece of the package more than others. But all the Democrats, or the vast majority of them, cared numero uno about insuring the 30 million uninsured. For those, like Senator Nelson, who cared about making certain that no taxpayer funds were spent for abortion more than he cared about insuring the uninsured, it was easy for him to hold out until he had pushed the drafters on his numero uno as far as they could go without losing left-leaning Senators. And for those left-leaners, Senator Sanders and his ilk, they had to go through the difficult process of deciding what they cared about the most, and then sacrificing other priorities in its behalf.

It was a perfectly functional, if painful and messy journey. The final bill embodied a fair conglomeration of the most treasured values of the 60 Members needed for passage.

Prioritizing what you care about, disappointing some constituencies - no one likes to go through that process, which, if you are writing a column for the NY Times and teaching at Princeton, you rarely have to do.