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“A Naïve View Of Politics”: The Poison-The-Well Myth, And How Politics Really Works

There are certainly some serious critiques of President Obama’s new immigration policy. It could encourage more illegal immigration in the long run. It may be another step toward an imperial presidency, detached from Congress. It definitely could have been executed less cynically, given that Mr. Obama all but admitted he delayed the announcement until after the midterms, in an (unsuccessful) effort to help Democrats on the ballot.

But there is also one critique that’s getting a lot of attention and isn’t so serious.

It’s the “poison the well” argument — the notion that Mr. Obama’s executive action to shield as many as five million people from deportation will prevent a bigger immigration bill from passing Congress and maybe prevent a whole bunch of other legislation, too.

John Boehner, the speaker of the House, and Senator Mitch McConnell, the next majority leader, have both used the phrase “poison the well.” A spokesman for Mr. Boehner said the move by Mr. Obama would “ruin the chances for congressional action on this issue and many others.” While maybe we should excuse politicians for trying to score political points, neutral commentators have picked up the argument, too. It’s one of those ideas that has the aura of sober-minded political analysis.

Obviously, we can’t run the final two years of the Obama presidency multiple times under different circumstances and see what happens in each. So it’s impossible to know for certain how any one action affects the course of events. But there are all kinds of reasons to believe that the poison-the-well theory is based on a naïve view of politics. And understanding why it’s wrong helps illuminate how politics really does work.

Whatever you may think of today’s politicians, they are highly successful people who have climbed to the top of a competitive profession. Most of the time, they make decisions that are in their interests — whether political interests or policy interests. A few notable exceptions aside (like Newt Gingrich’s infamous pique in 1995 over getting a bad seat on Air Force One), they do not make major decisions the way a small child would, based mostly on whether someone else is being nice or mean to them.

If you ask political scientists what they consider to be the biggest misconceptions about politics, you’ll often hear a version of the Nice-Mean Fallacy. The Obama presidency has offered a particularly rich set of examples. It’s true that Mr. Obama and his White House haven’t done a very good job of building relationships with Congress, and it’s true that the administration’s aloofness has probably hurt its effectiveness in some ways.

But consider the recent president whose relationship skills are often contrasted with Mr. Obama’s: Bill Clinton. Many members of Congress really did seem to prefer Mr. Clinton’s personality to Mr. Obama’s. And yet which of the two presidents failed to keep Democrats united on a major health care bill and thus failed to pass one? And which president held onto every single congressional Democrat he needed to pass such a bill?

Were the roles reversed, we no doubt would hear tales about how the gregarious president used his people skills to pass the biggest expansion of the safety net in a generation while the distant, professorial one failed. In truth, congressional Democrats weren’t making decisions based on either Mr. Clinton’s or Mr. Obama’s personality. They were making them based on bigger issues.

The Democratic Party of the early 1990s included more conservative Southerners than the 2009-10 version of the party, for example. The 2009-10 Democrats were also more desperate to succeed, remembering the disappointment of the Clinton bill and probably aware that economic inequality had worsened over the intervening decades. The Democrats stuck together because they believed doing so was in their interest.

Republicans have done the same in the Obama presidency. From the beginning, Mr. McConnell has understood that Republicans could veto Mr. Obama’s promise to be a bipartisan bridge-builder. “It’s either bipartisan or it isn’t,” Mr. McConnell said in 2010, explaining his caucus’s united opposition to the health care bill. No wonder that Republicans didn’t bite when the White House suggested adding medical-malpractice reform to the bill.

Many Republicans voters back this stance. Polls show that most want their leaders to stand on principle rather than to compromise. Democratic voters are fonder of compromise.

The story on an immigration overhaul has been similar. Some Republicans leaders see a bill as in their interests — helping them with Latino voters — and the Senate passed such a bill, 68-32, last year. Yet most House Republicans have philosophical objections and have few Latino voters in their district. House leaders have refused to bring the bill to the floor.

To accept the poison-the-well argument is to believe, first, that Republicans would have passed an immigration bill if Mr. Obama had not acted. This seems unlikely but not totally out of the question: Perhaps more Republicans want to show they can compromise now that they control both chambers, hoping their presidential nominee can win swing voters in 2016. In that case, an immigration bill might be more feasible in 2015 than it was in 2013.

But the poison-the-well theory then requires a second belief, too: That even if an immigration bill were in Republican interests, they would refuse to pass one, out of spite from Mr. Obama’s executive action. This belief seems strangely dismissive of Republicans’ instinct for self-preservation. It also conflicts with the history of both parties.

On the same day in August 1981 that President Ronald Reagan threatened to fire striking air traffic controllers, many Senate Democrats voted for his tax cut, and House Democrats did the same the next day. Mr. Clinton and congressional Republicans, less than a year after impeachment, collaborated on a sprawling bank deregulation bill in 1999. A few years later, many congressional Democrats voted for the Homeland Security Act even as President George W. Bush was calling them soft on terrorism.

In each of these cases, politicians voted with their interests, not their feelings. There is every reason to believe the same will happen over the next two years.

Some of the same Republicans worrying aloud about poisoned wells no doubt understand this reality. But they continue making the point partly because it helps unify the party on a divisive issue. “It’s a way the G.O.P. can achieve consensus,” as Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political scientist and Upshot contributor, says. “They’re internally divided on policy on immigration but agree on a process critique of Obama’s actions.”

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio may be on one side of some big immigration questions and conservative House Republicans may be on the other, but they can come together on metaphorical well water. Which is to say that politicians generally act in their interests, even when doing so involves pretending otherwise.



November 28, 2014 - Posted by | Congress, Immigration Reform, Politics | , , , , , , ,

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