In Search of Uncontroversial Policy Wins

Not every issue wreaks havoc. By taking on less divisive problems, politicians could make real progress without spurring outrage.

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President Bush hoped to transform the Middle East and end tyranny on planet earth. One of the leading items on his domestic agenda: the privatization of Social Security. President Obama passed a controversial reimagining of the American health care system. In retirement, President Clinton sought to take on AIDS in Africa, while Al Gore set his sights on climate change. And Republicans, led by Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), are endeavoring to transform America's system of entitlements. It's perfectly understandable that politicians take on issues that they regard to be most important. But wouldn't it be great if more high profile politicos aimed lower too?

Take Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor who yearns to stay relevant. What if she surprised everyone by taking up a relatively uncontroversial issue like patent reform. Given a couple weeks to study up, she could start talking about how the status quo is hated by innovators and does damage to countless small entrepreneurs. The issue could be framed in very tea party friendly ways, and the attendant policy solutions needn't alienate anyone save a small group of patent trolls.

For some reason, it sounds implausible.

But why?

Palin possesses the celebrity to draw attention to any issue and rally some people behind it. There is no requirement that she chooses only issues that polarize. Advancing an uncontroversial but useful reform would help the country and boost her credibility among the many Americans who think she's unfit to govern.

And she's got the time.

This isn't a call for Republicans and Democrats to get together in the spirit of bipartisanship and compromise. The big fights of the day are inevitably going to be waged. But surely there are some reforms worth passing in the meantime that don't pertain to subjects of intense ideological disagreement.

Call it low-hanging fruit, or quick wins. Or think baseball. Are our highest profile pols spending all their time swinging for the fences, when occasional lead-off singles and sacrifice flies would add up to more runs?

Perhaps there's just not enough incentive for sacrifice fly hitters. In other words, maybe it's partly the fault of the press. Are we ignoring the politicians who already do this sort of thing? Or perhaps it's a lack of imagination. I've suggested patents as a promising issue. Are there others out there? Let's start a running list.

Is it possible, circa 2011, to arrive at 75 percent consensus that certain things just make sense -- and then to do them? It seems as though the answer is no and that we're consigned to needlessly suboptimal policy as result.

But why? I'd like to understand where the incentive structure is going wrong, and then figure out how to change it.

Any ideas?

Image credit: Flickr user Adie Reed
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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