Controversial II

by Jonathan Bernstein

Ezra Klein complains that Republicans are much better at manipulating the media, referring to the fact that reconciliation wasn't considered controversial when Bush and the GOP employed it for tax cuts in 2003:

Because Democrats weren't complaining. The tax cuts might have been controversial, but they weren't creative enough to polarize the procedure the Bush administration was using to pass them.

But some of the credit for that has to go to the Bush administration, which took seriously the need to institutionalize reconciliation when they were strong and popular rather than weakened...[B]y using it for his popular first round of tax cuts, Bush normalized it such that Democrats couldn't really complain when he used it for his much more controversial second round of tax cuts.

Wrong!  The Democrats certainly could have attacked the procedures under which the Bush tax bill was passed, even the second one.  Had they made a stink about it, they could even have forced lots of media attention on the idea.  But...look, maybe I'm just cranky today, but I'd say that they didn't, because it would have been incredibly stupid to do so.  In fact, what the Democrats did was attack the tax cuts as being giveaways to the rich, which gave them an issue to run on in 2004, 2006, and 2008, and good rhetoric to use once they won the Congress and eventually the presidency.  And I don't think they had much trouble getting that message out.

Look, the minority party gets to have talking points.  Those talking points are going to make it to the public via the news media, and they are going to affect coverage.  About a quarter of the nation will instantly adopt those talking points (and, in most cases, think they've always believed them...I've seen this happen to both conservatives and liberals, and it's an amazing effect).  That's just how it works.  If a party chooses to waste those talking points by constructing an ineffective and brittle straw man, why should partisans of the other party object to that?

As Jonathan Chait and Nate SIlver point out, Republican whining about the size of the bill and the process are having no effect at all on the popularity of health care reform; if anything, opposition may have peaked right at the new year, two months ago, before Brown and reconciliation.  While Republicans have the attention of the nation on this topic (more or less -- of course, most people don't follow this stuff closely), they're trying to convince people of an argument that will be stale and dated the day after Obama signs the bill (should that happen), while the Democrats arguments in favor of reform will generally still be relevant to voters in November and in 2012.  And a large part of that is because Democrats are using arguments based on reality, while the GOP, er...isn't.  That doesn't prohibit their ideas from getting exposure in the press, but it does limit how successful they will be.

No one cares about procedure, even real procedural abuses.  If the GOP wants to base its last-stand opposition to the most important piece of legislation in a generation on tall tales about procedure, the Democrats shouldn't be anxious.  They should be very, very happy.