Understanding politics is hard.

The problem is that modern-day politicians have two very different tasks.  First, they must maintain their current positions.  After all, anyone’s first duty at work is to avoid getting fired.  For most of us, that means arriving on time, looking presentable, treating co-workers and clients with respect, and doing whatever we’ve been told by our bosses.  For politicians, keeping their jobs means getting reelected.

The other task is to actually run the country: negotiate, compromise, vote, lead, etc.

Of course, as anyone who regularly reads or watches the news can tell you, those two tasks are very different–and in fact, sometimes contradictory.  Getting reelected requires that politicians spend as much time as possible in their home states, raise lots of money, give lots of passionate “no-holds-barred” speeches, and look good on television.  Running the country requires that politicians spend time in Washington, work closely with people that they disagree with, compromise their most dearly held positions, and work long hours behind the scenes polishing drafts of arcane bills.

This creates a situation where everything that a politician says or does has to be geared towards two very different audiences.  Take the current budget battles in Washington.  At the beginning of any bargain, both parties stake out unrealistic positions, and negotiate to a compromise that they can both live with.  You don’t actually expect to pay half price for a new car, any more than the dealer expects you to pay full sticker price–those are opening bids, and you both know it.  Politicians do the same thing in their own bargains: each side starts out with a long list of things that they want, and then they compromise down to something in the middle.

But here’s where that second audience comes in.  Because politicians don’t just stake out positions for the sake of the compromise; they stake out positions that they can run on next election cycle.  For example, Ted Cruz wants to say that he led the charge against Obamacare, so he gives a pointless 21 hour speech on the Senate floor.  And these positions aren’t just staked out in speeches; sometimes they are staked out in press leaks about how the negotiations are going.  After all, both sides want their constituencies to view them as tough negotiators who refused to compromise on the most important points.

So how are we to interpret the hard-line stances taken by Republicans during these budget negotiations?  Are they actually opening bids that they understand are unrealistic?  In that case, we shouldn’t pay too much attention to them, unless you’re really into the nitty-gritty of budget negotiations.  Or are these positions grandstanding for hyper-conservative political constituencies?  In that case, we really ought to be somewhat worried; after all, many of those constituencies will view compromise as defeat.

We don’t know.  And moreover, the answer varies from politician to politician; some politicians are only laying out hard-line position to improve a future compromise, while others will refuse to vote for any compromise at all.  But because both types of people want to be seen as “reasonable leaders with firm principals”, both types will end up saying and doing the same thing… until the end when they have to either agree on a compromise or blow up the negotiations.

All of which is to say that I really have no idea what’s going to happen with the current budget negotiations.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried.  But I still hope that there are more politicians, even Republican politicians, interested in getting something done than who are purely interested in grandstanding for the home audience.

  5 Responses to “Bargaining and Grandstanding”

  1. I don’t know if I agree that their first duty is to keep their job. Many of them have careers outside of politics, or else are independently wealthy and don’t need a job, or else can easily get jobs given the fact that they were in congress. So why are they IN congress? For the purpose of moving the country in their desired direction.

    That doesn’t necessarily make them any less partisan or extremist. They may not be grandstanding for the base… they may BE the base. But I think that letting politicians off the hook for doing their jobs well just to keep their jobs. Politician is a very different job than almost any other…

    • Ah, but here’s the thing: let’s say that you have a greater goal from being in politics. You want to save the environment, or lower regulations, or serve the interests of a particular business community, or whatever.

      You can’t continue to pursue that larger goal, in the long-run, if you get voted out of office. Which means that even if you have a greater goal in mind, staying in office has to be a top priority for you. Perhaps not your only priority–in such a case, every once in awhile an issue will come up that forces you to choose between staying in office or serving your greater goal. But those moments–while they make for good Hollywood drama–are actually extremely rare.

      Yes, there are some Congressmen that are planning on retiring, or are using Congress as a stepping stone to something else (usually either a lucrative job as a lobbyist, or another political office). But those are by far the minority. If we assume that the top priority of members of Congress is to stay in office, that assumption will be wrong occasionally–but not very often.

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