One of the more common areas of discussion among political professionals is the phenomenon of low-information voters. These are folks who care about the country and its future, but choose not to keep up on current events, due to some combination of feeling busy, apathetic, and frustrated. Political pros find these Americans difficult to reach – and at times, easy to manipulate – precisely because they’re disengaged and far behind the curve.
The point isn’t that low-information voters are dumb, but rather, that they’re ignorant. In focus groups, you’ll hear these same folks express poorly thought out opinions based on vague “something I heard on the news” observations.
But what happens when we move past low-information voters and start looking at low-information politicians? Ezra Klein relayed an incredible exchange from last week about the ongoing fiscal debate in Washington.
Would it matter, one reporter asked the veteran legislator, if the president were to put chained-CPI – a policy that reconfigures the way the government measures inflation and thus slows the growth of Social Security benefits – on the table?
“Absolutely,” the legislator said. “That’s serious.”
Another reporter jumped in. “But it is on the table! They tell us three times a day that they want to do chained-CPI.”
“Who wants to do it?” said the legislator.
“The president,” replied the reporter.
“I’d love to see it,” laughed the legislator.
In other words, an elected member of Congress – a “veteran legislator,” not some freshman who’s only been in office a couple of months – wants to see President Obama endorse a “serious” policy like chained-CPI as part of a larger debt-reduction package, but the lawmaker has absolutely no idea that Obama has already endorsed chained-CPI as part of a larger debt-reduction package. Indeed, in this case, the Republican lawmaker was so incredulous, he or she laughed at reality, as if it couldn’t possibly be true.
So, is it fair to say Washington debates would be less ridiculous if low-information Republican lawmakers were simply brought up to speed on the basics? Would compromise be easier if GOP officials had some clue as to what President Obama is, in reality, offering?
Well, no, probably not.
Jon Chait reminds us of the classic Upton Sinclair line: “It is impossible to make a man understand something if his livelihood depends on not understanding it.”
As this is applied to the ongoing political debates in DC, Republicans seem ignorant to a jaw-dropping degree about some of the basics, but even if they suddenly became more informed, it’s likely they’d come up with new reasons not to govern constructively with the White House.
Indeed, we don’t have to speculate to know this is true. Over the weekend, Ezra highlighted concerns raised by Mike Murphy, one of the top political consultants in the Republican Party, who said President Obama could reach a bipartisan deal with Republicans if only he endorsed chained CPI, apparently unaware that Obama has already done this.
Reminded of the facts, Murphy dug in, saying Obama endorsed means testing, but “refused” chained CPI. This is factually incorrect, too – indeed, it’s the exact opposite of reality – and when this was brought to his attention, Murphy switched gears, saying chained CPI is a “small beans gimmick” and Republicans just aren’t able to “trust” the White House.
Keep in mind, Murphy’s no dummy, but his line of argument is literally incoherent. He wants Obama to endorse a policy. Told that Obama already endorsed that policy, Murphy denies it. Presented with proof, Murphy decides the policy he supports isn’t so great after all.
So what does Murphy recommend? That Obama “earn trust” with Republicans by “first” agreeing to spending cuts. But in our reality, Obama already embraced about $1.5 trillion in spending cuts in 2011, with no accompanying revenue. In other words, Murphy believes the way out of the current mess is for the president to give Republicans 100% of what they want, accepting another cuts-only package.
Ezra’s bottom line rings true: Republicans have effectively eliminated the possibility of compromise, since they “just want to get the White House to implement their agenda in return for nothing.”