Now Is An Acceptable (and Possibly the Only) Time for the Democrats to Be Suckers

[Note to readers: My most recent Verdict column, "Another Attempt to Find Optimism in American Politics," was published yesterday.  My column today here on Dorf on Law addresses a different topic, but I do hope that many of you will read the Verdict piece as well.]

by Neil H. Buchanan

The indispensable website (which just helped me replace the word essential with indispensable) offers the following synonyms for the word "sucker": chump, dupe, fool, gull, patsy, sap, stooge.  In turn, the entry for "patsy" includes (among others): doormat, sitting duck, pushover, sap, schmuck, and easy mark.

Last week, The New York Times published an op-ed by Columbia Law professor Tim Wu with the wonderful title: "Quantifying Liberal Suckerdom."  The piece summarizes an interesting little study by Wu's Columbia colleague Kristen Underhill and two co-authors that attempts to measure whether and how much liberals are pushovers, saps, dupes, fools, and easy marks.

The study is of a type now popular in the academic literature that tries to extract information from an unlikely angle and then run with the results.  Here, the claim is that conservatives in Congress outright reject liberal policies whereas liberals accept conservative policies so long as there is a sunset, i.e., the law includes an expiration date.  The difference between those two approaches, apparently, is the difference between being shrewd and being a sucker.

Probably the most well known example of a law with a sunset provision is the Economic Growth And Tax Relief Reconciliation Act 2001, which (with a 2003 add-on) became known as the Bush Tax Cuts.  Similarly, the non-business reductions in the highly regressive 2017 Trump/Republican tax cut bills are sunsetted in 2025, turning a bill that was already stroking the rich to an extraordinary degree into even more of an exercise in Reverse Robin Hood politics half of a decade from now.

As someone who has been bemoaning liberals' patsy-hood for years, I admit that my attraction to Wu's article (and the study that he cites) might reek of confirmation bias.  I am dubious about the study's reasoning, however, even though I am absolutely sure that Democrats too often allow themselves to be played for dupes.

At the end of this column, I will compare what Democrats are doing with respect to the COVID-19 situation with what Republicans would be doing if the roles were reversed.  But first, it is helpful to think in some depth about political suckerdom.

I am skeptical of the motivating hypothesis of the Underhill article, which essentially assumes that agreeing to sunsets is per se evidence of weakness.  This does have a certain intuitive appeal: Republicans say "Never!" while Democrats say "Let's give it a chance and revisit the question with more evidence."  That sounds like ideologues versus technocrats, but so what?  Is it actually foolish to allow time-limited experiments in policies that one dislikes?

Well, it all depends on the alternatives.  If liberals do not like the Bush tax cuts but do not have the votes to outright block them, then what is their best play?  They could pull in some "yes to permanent change" votes by saying, "Hey, what if this turns out badly?  You know how difficult it is to affirmatively repeal laws that have no sunset, so let's make sure that this is not automatically renewed and requires action by a future Congress to allow it to continue."

We know, of course, that many sunsetted laws are automatically renewed without much of a fight.  Although it is not exactly the same thing, the Affordable Care Act contains several provisions (notably the so-called Cadillac Tax) that Congress kept delaying.  In some cases, that repeated action can go on and on, and in some cases (again, like the Cadillac Tax), Congress eventually enacts permanent legislation.

But again, so what?  What made the Bush tax cuts such a problem was not the sunset clauses but the Obama team's refusal to use the approaching sunset dates (first in 2010 and then, after a two-year extension that created what we now know as the "fiscal cliff" in 2012) for hardball purposes.  Had they been willing to threaten to allow the tax cuts to sunset, they could have (and should have) driven a harder bargain to get the Republicans to give up more at the bargaining table.

As soon as Republicans passed their abomination of a tax law in 2017, they immediately set about trying to enact a follow-on to make the non-business tax cuts permanent, but Democrats simply refused, and Republicans did not have the will to do it themselves (when they were in the majority in both houses before the 2018 midterms) and have not made much of a deal of it since then.

When 2025 comes along, of course, there will be another fiscal cliff of sorts (assuming, contrary to my expectations, that we will have anything resembling our current form of government by then, as opposed to a de facto dictatorship under either Trump or whoever emerges from the post-mortem fight among Republicans to replace their expired Dear Leader).  We will then see whether Democrats play hardball or are cowed into "preventing tax increases" again.

I am thus not at all saying that Democrats are not chumps or doormats.  Instead, I simply do not see how the creation of sunsets is evidence of their suckerdom.  Sunsets actually increase the possibility of turning a losing hand into a winning one, but Democrats' problem is that they then do not know how to play a winning hand, even when they have dealt it to themselves.

Again, Wu is hardly the only person to have noted that Democrats are regularly played for suckers.  Phrases like "the Democrats' defensive crouch" have entered the vernacular of political analysis for a reason.  Indeed, one reason that people like me continue to resist the idea that Bill Clinton's presidency was a success is that his entire approach -- captured in the infamous "triangulation" concept -- was to reject his own party's positions and then negotiate against himself before finally giving Republicans nearly everything they wanted.

What was especially pathetic about that approach is that it was clear that Clinton believed that Republicans would appreciate his "moderation and bipartisanship" and would respond in kind, when in reality Republicans took Clinton for a fool and knew that they could push ever harder.  This carried through to the Obama years, when the neo-triangulator in the Oval Office continued to try to show his reasonableness -- by, for example, putting Chuck Hagel and Robert Gates in his cabinet and rejecting single-payer even as a starting point for negotiations in what led to the ACA.

And Republicans rewarded Obama by being reasonable in return, right?  Well, to recycle one of my favorite quotes, the neoliberal economist Brad DeLong put it this way:
"Barack Obama rolls into office with Mitt Romney’s health care policy, with John McCain’s climate policy, with Bill Clinton’s tax policy, and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy.  And did George H.W. Bush, did Mitt Romney, did John McCain say a single good word about anything Barack Obama ever did over the course of eight solid years? No, they fucking did not."
And remember that the first Bush, McCain, and Romney are among those whom the pundit class describes as the Republicans' wise statesmen, not the Gingrich/McConnell/Tea Party/Trump types who formed the uncompromising strategy that allowed them to block nearly everything Obama wanted to do -- and to unanimously refuse to support those things that they could not block, allowing them to decry the Democrats for being "my way or the highway" partisans.

Among those who have been calling Democrats patsies for years, Paul Krugman has been especially effective in criticizing Obama's caving on fiscal deficits, with 2010 being the year in which the president and most of his party all agreed that cutting spending in the midst of a still-very-weak economy was a brilliant idea.  And now that Republicans have shown that they do not actually care about the deficit when their guy sits in the White House, Obama and his people look even more like dupes than they did at the time.

And to return to the political issue with which I have a deep love/hate relationship, recall that Obama's first response to the Republicans' use of the debt ceiling statute as a weapon involved giving them what they wanted, creating "the sequester" and all of the fiscal drag that that created.  It is true that Obama later took a hard line on Republicans' repeated efforts to take the economy hostage via threats to allow the debt ceiling to become binding, which simply shows that Democrats are not always so easily gulled -- and that they can win when they play tough.

Shortly after the 2016 election, I wrote a column for Verdict, "The Infrastructure-for-Voting-Rights Quid Pro Quo," in which (at a time when the term quid pro quo had not yet become inextricably tied to Trump's impeachment) I argued that Democrats should play hardball on infrastructure and demand that Trump and the Republicans agree to reverse (or at least reduce) their voter suppression efforts in exchange for Democrats' agreeing to vote for an infrastructure bill.

At the time, we did not know that "infrastructure" was going to become a punch line in nearly every rundown of the ways in which Trump fails to follow through on his big promises.  The worry was that Democrats have very good reasons to want to increase infrastructure spending -- both on the merits and in terms of being seen as voting for something that voters like -- which might encourage them simply to sign on to an infrastructure plan (assuming, as we did at the time, that some Republican anti-government hardliners would resist a multi-trillion dollar spending scheme) without negotiating for anything in return.

While I viewed (and still view) voting rights as the most important thing that Democrats should be trying to protect and expand, the broader point was that they should try to get something from Trump and the Republicans in exchange for their willingness to go along with a Trumpian initiative -- even one that they like.

This, in turn, would put Democrats in the difficult position of refusing to go along with something that was positively good for the economy (and for construction workers in particular) for what could be characterized as nakedly cynical reasons.  But that, of course, is exactly what Republicans had done during the Obama years, deliberately dragging down the economy and then (with shocking success) blaming Obama for years of excruciatingly slow, slogging recovery.

In other words, would Democrats be willing to shoot some hostages in order to get what they want (or even threaten to do so)?  Because cynicism is not symmetric in U.S. politics, the answer is almost always no.

Which brings us up to the present day.  Congress this week passed a bipartisan, $8.3 billion bill to provide emergency funds to fight the COVID-19 coronavirus, "which is more than triple the size of the White House’s budget request from last week."  As the House Appropriations Committee's Democratic chairwoman Nita Lowey put it:
"Congress is acting with the seriousness and sense of urgency the coronavirus threat demands.  While we all ardently hope that this public health emergency does not worsen, House Democrats will not hesitate to act again if we must augment this funding with more resources."
All of which is good and responsible.  It does, however, make one wonder what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would have done if the roles were reversed.  We know, for example, that he refused in 2016 to take a bipartisan stand in exposing Russia's interference in the election, threatening Obama by saying that he (McConnell) would denounce anything Obama did as pure politics.  And our democracy's death was thus all but guaranteed.

What about death in the literal human life-and-death sense, rather than the political sense?  What would McConnell be willing to do regarding COVID-19 or something like it, if Hillary Clinton were president today?  Remember that it is an election year, and doing anything that makes it appear that the government can respond effectively to a health crisis (or to anything at all) not only undermines the Republicans' entire worldview but would assist Clinton's reelection efforts.

McConnell might have had reason to give this one a pass, what with the threatened global pandemic and all, to try to avoid being blamed for the deaths of possibly tens of millions of Americans.  But he knows that the other side can always be blamed, even when he is absolutely the one who makes bad things happen.  I am glad that we will probably never know what McConnell would induce the Republicans to do in something like this situation, because I do not think that there is a bar so low that he would not happily limbo under it.

In short, sometimes Democrats truly have no choice but to refuse to play as dirty as Republicans, because Democrats have consciences.  Giving in is not always a matter of being suckers, but of being human.  None of this, however, is to let Democrats off the hook for their decades-long -- and continuing apace with the elevation of Joe Biden as their leaders' choice in 2020 -- capitulations to Republicans' framing of the issues.

The Democrats have been played again and again.  Right now, however, I am glad that they are not playing politics and have actually insisted on improving how the Trump-led government responds to a possible public health apocalypse.  We were almost certainly not going to see that kind of leadership (or humanity) from Mitch McConnell and his minions.