Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

It Depends on the Meaning of "Good Faith"

NLT readers might be interested in this exchange I’ve had with Josh Patashnik of the New Republic. It began when he posted the following on TNR’s "The Plank":

Mark Schmitt has a terrific piece up today (joining Jonathan Alter’s from earlier in the week) responding to Paul Krugman’s "Obama-is-naïve" column). Schmitt, in particular, does a very good job of explaining why Obama’s decision to make unity and partisan reconciliation such a central theme of his candidacy is itself a strategic decision. (As Obama told Noam Scheiber, "I’m not interested in good government for the sake of good government. There were times when patronage politics worked pretty well for the down and out. ... That’s not true anymore. When I say I want to change politics, it’s precisely because I want to make sure people have health care.") Schmitt discusses the mechanism by which this works:

"What I find fascinating about his language about unity and cross-partisanship is that it is not premised on finding Republicans who agree with him, but on taking in good faith the language and positions of actual conservatism--people who don’t agree with him. ... One way to deal with [conservative] bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows."

I think this is right. If there’s common ground to be found between good-faith liberals and conservatives, Obama’s approach will find it; if Schmitt is correct and there isn’t, Democrats are in a much stronger position to take their arguments to the voters. It’s unclear what the downside is. And it’s also true that polarization isn’t ideologically neutral. As Obama recognizes, it favors conservatives--or, rather, favors a certain cynical, nihilistic strain of conservatism that wants not only to limit the size of government, but (for reasons almost passing understanding) to impair its capacity for performing even governmental functions broadly recognized as necessary. In a political system that is (appropriately) biased toward the status quo, polarization--which makes it all but impossible to develop the consensus required for any important policy change--plays into the hands of those who rejoice at the thought of a paralyzed, ineffective federal government.

I replied:

I’m a conservative who would be interested in finding common ground with liberals. The fear is that the only way to demonstrate to Mr. Patashnik that I’m a good-faith conservative is to be an unconservative conservative. No sooner does he extend an invitation to sit down at the big table and bargain in good faith than he dismisses Bill Kristol’s 1994 rejoinder to Hillarycare as cynical and nihilistic. The scorched-earth barbarism Kristol advocated included making health insurance more portable, limiting insurers’ ability to deny coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions, and reducing paperwork costs by creating a standardized claims form. Decent and reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom or adequacy of such proposals. They can hardly do so, however, if the price of the ticket to participate in the debate is to first confess that we conservatives are all either ideologues or stooges for rapacious corporations. If Patashnik wants to see good faith, he’ll have to show some.

Josh responded:

Thanks for your response above--I think it helps illustrate what I regard as the difference between good-faith and bad-faith political behavior (though this is straying a bit from the original topic of my post). I assure you I do not believe that "the only way to demonstrate to Mr. Patashnik that I’m a good-faith conservative is to be an unconservative conservative." Here’s what I think constitutes good-faith negotiation: one takes a public position and then sits down at the bargaining table representing that position, making a genuine (though not necessarily successful) attempt to reach an agreement acceptable to all parties. The outcome of the negotiation will depend entirely on the preferences of the actors involved. Someone like Ron Paul, for instance, could engage in good-faith negotiation and still almost never reach agreement with anybody.

Why I regard Kristol’s infamous health-care memo as an example of bad-faith politics is that he urged Republicans specifically to avoid this kind of bargaining. He did so not primarily because he believed Democrats had bad ideas about health care (which, obviously, is an entirely reasonable position and one that could be represented in good faith at the negotiating table), but because, as he wrote, he opposed even consensus-based health-care reform on the grounds that if the government demonstrated an ability to respond well to the health-care crisis, it would restore middle-class faith in the efficacy of government, harming the long-term political prospects of Republicans. This is the essence of bad-faith politics: one refuses to engage in substantive negotiation, even when agreement might be had, for reasons unrelated to the policy issue at stake--valuing gridlock for its own sake. (Democrats can be, and have been, guilty of it too.)

The problem with this type of behavior is that our system of government accords substantial power to political minorities to thwart the will of the majority; minorities abuse this power when they oppose legislation on non-substantive grounds.


Thank you for clarifying and elaborating your ideas. It appears that before liberals and conservatives can have good-faith negotiations over policy issues, we need to have good-faith meta-negotiations over what distinguishes good-faith from bad-faith negotiating. According to the 1994 Bill Kristol essay you link to, his position was that "the passage of the Clinton health care plan IN ANY FORM" would "guarantee an unprecedented federal intrusion into the economy" and "signal the rebirth of centralized welfare-state policy." To say that such a position is an example of bad-faith politics (not to mention cynical and nihilistic) is to say that Kristol’s viewpoint was not merely wrong, but illegitimate. You’re banging the gavel and ruling him out of order: We’re here to make a "genuine attempt to reach an agreement acceptable to all parties" regarding national health policy, not to talk about the proper size and scope of government. Since that question is "unrelated to the policy issue at stake," Kristol was guilty of "valuing gridlock for its own sake."

Obviously, the power to limit "what we’re here to talk about" is very important. Saying that those of us who dispute the chair’s rulings about what we can and can’t discuss are negotiating in bad faith is a dubious way to encourage constructive engagement around the big table. Conservatives and liberals should have equal rights to object to what they regard as a camel’s nose under the tent. Kristol’s opposition in 1994 to Clinton’s health care plan in any form was identical, in this regard, to Democrats’ opposition in 2005 to privatized Social Security accounts in any form. If I understand your position correctly, however, Kristol demonstrated bad faith when he encouraged Republicans who had minorities in both houses of Congress and had just lost a presidential election to refuse to yield on the basic question about expanding the scope of government, but Democrats who were in the minority in both houses of Congress and had just lost a presidential election were acting in the only honorable way they could by refusing to yield on the basic question of reducing the scope of government.

Josh, perhaps one way of shedding light on this question would be to expand your statement that Democrats, too, have been guilty of valuing gridlock for its own sake. You regard the Democrats’ posture on Social Security in 2005 as a non-example of such intransigence. What would be a good - and, therefore, illuminating - example?


Bill: I think your last question gets to the heart of the matter. There are some Democrats (I am not one of them) who believe Social Security is just fine and doesn’t need to be changed; for them to refuse to engage with the Bush administration in 2005 was perfectly acceptable, since they had no interest in any reform in the first place. (Similarly, there are some conservatives who simply do not believe the state has any role to play in expanding access to medical care; for them to refuse to negotiate with Democrats is fine--there’s a clear contrast there and one can take the issue to the voters to settle.)

What is potentially troubling to me is Democrats who agreed that Social Security needed to be reformed, but still refused to sit down at the negotiating table because they thought gridlock would be to their political advantage. I think one has to distinguish between conversation-broadening (which seems perfectly legitimate) and refusal to bargain (which does not). That is, I think it would have been acceptable for Democrats to say, "We won’t agree to reform Social Security unless you (for example) agree to expand health-insurance coverage and the Earned Income Tax Credit". Similarly it would have been acceptable for Republicans in 1993 to have said, "We won’t agree to spend more on health care unless you cut spending on programs X, Y, and Z." This is how bargaining in politics should work.

What constitutes bad faith, in my opinion, is when one refuses to engage in this process in the first place, either publicly or privately. In my view (perhaps I’m wrong; this version of the story has sort of attained the status of lore on the center-left), this is what Kristol was urging Republicans to do in 1993, because he thought it would help Republicans politically. To the extent that Democrats in 2005 refused to even discuss what they would demand in exchange for making changes to Social Security, they deserve equal condemnation.

I guess I should also clarify that I’m not so hopelessly naive as to expect that government would ever really function according to these rules--I’m just trying to establish how I think the process ought to work in the abstract.

Voegeli, in what is, so far, the final entry in this dialogue:

Josh: It’s an interesting and important question, no? When politicians sit down to negotiate about a particular public policy question they are always going to have three other things in mind. First, there will be other policy questions. The positions you take and the deal you strike over Issue A could affect your negotiating position over Issues X, Y and Z, often in ways that are difficult to foresee but important not to be surprised by. Second, there will be ideological questions about whether a particular deal or position strengthens or weakens a general disposition to a whole range of policy issues. Third, there will be electoral questions about how your negotiating position will help you and your party win the next election and the ones beyond it. Furthermore, not only is the public policy issue on the table related to each of these other kinds of questions, but they are all related to one another. So it’s always complicated.

The ethical question is at what point a politician’s or activist’s attention to all these related questions causes his conduct in the debate over the public policy issue on the table to cross the line from being realistic and legitimate to being cynical and illegitimate. Let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that the center-left legend is true, and Bill Kristol really did urge Republicans in 1993 to refuse to avoid any constructive engagement with Pres. Clinton on health care for the sole purpose of helping Republicans win subsequent elections. I don’t think such a posture is self-evidently nihilistic. Politics ain’t beanbag, and everything a politician wants to do or prevent will be aided by winning elections and gaining power, and harmed by losing elections and power. Furthermore, since everything is ultimately up to the voters, there was nothing to prevent the Democrats from counterpunching against the Kristol position, appealing to the voters to punish the Republicans for being obstructionists, misrepresenting the Clinton plan, and offering no alternatives of their own. It’s not Kristol’s fault that Democrats either didn’t make or couldn’t sell this argument.

There is one asymmetry worth noting. It’s much harder, politically, to dissolve an entitlement program than to create one. Republicans knew that if they offered to make "health care that’s always there" a social insurance obligation in exchange for spending cuts in other social welfare programs, the new entitlement program would exist forever, while the spending cuts would be ephemeral. The Republicans who took Kristol’s advice in 1993 had these other policy battles and ideological and electoral issues in mind. Realism verges into cynicism when every policy question is refracted into an electoral one, so that governance is completely devoured by politics. At that point, everything in politics is reduced to winning elections, and the only reason to win elections is to win more elections, which is a clear-cut example of nihilism. I don’t think the 1993 Republicans’ efforts against Clinton’s health care proposals were circular in this way. They wanted to limit the socpe of government and prevent an expansion that would be politically irreversible and would promote the expansion of the welfare state in other ways. That’s a contestable political objective, but not an illegitimate one.

Discussions - 1 Comment

I am of a firm belief that if the United States at its inception were proposed today to the modern day citizens of the United States, it would be rejected because of its lack of socialist benefits (health care and the like).

Marx must be smiling.

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