The occasion of Arlen Specter’s death has given the political press a nice opening to launch into one of their favorite themes - celebrating “moderation”, scolding partisans, and wringing their hands about the shrinking number of noble Centrist politicians.
I am not sure why it is that the press seems to care more about politicians’ relative positions on the ideological spectrum than their actual issue positions. Maybe it is because political reporters don’t feel comfortable writing about policy or offering substantive judgments on the merits of competing policies. Maybe it’s that too many reporters are only able to look at policy-making through the horse race lens. But whatever it is, this line of argument is super annoying.
Outcomes matter. Relative positions do not. There is nothing virtuous about being moderate for moderation’s sake.
In fact, rather than lionizing the remaining centrist politicians, we need to be much more critical of them. In a more polarized legislature, centrists have more power than ever to cut deals and shape legislation to their liking. Too many reporters want to praise them just for supplying the votes to make bills pass, while ignoring the actual merits of the concessions they extract in exchange for their votes.
This is a problem, because much of the time the concessions they ask for are stupid. One example of this was the 2009 Recovery Act. Here is NPR remembering Specter’s role in the stimulus negotiations:
“It’s sort of an occupational hazard of mine to be stuck in the middle, and I will support my party when I can, but it’s a matter of conscience that I may have to disagree,” he said.
One of those disagreements came in 2009 when Specter was one of only three Republicans to vote for President Obama’s stimulus — a vote that so infuriated his own party that polls showed Specter could not survive his next Republican primary. So, with support from Obama, he switched parties, only to be defeated in the Democratic primary.
When you only look at the stimulus vote through the lens of relative political positions, Specter’s actions come across quite favorably. The Democrats wanted to pass the stimulus, the Republicans didn’t, but Specter crossed the aisle to do the right thing. He’s a hero!
When you look at his actions on the merits – what did he ask for when he found himself in such an extremely powerful position to shape the legislation? did it make the stimulus more effective or less effective? – Specter looks terrible.
Specter, Nelson, and Snowe used their power to insert the AMT patch into the stimulus, wasting about $70 billion of the bill on something that was not stimulative at all, and to lop a nice round $100 billion off the bill, for no better reason than that doing less seemed more moderate than doing more.
But doing less was not substantively better than doing more! The model underlying the argument for fiscal stimulus said we needed around $2 trillion to get us back to full employment. For political reasons, that number got chopped down in Congress due to sticker shock. But it was always the case that making the stimulus better meant making it bigger.
Plenty of Republicans didn’t buy the whole concept of fiscal stimulus – the need to run a big deficit in a depressed economy. Specter did buy it, and that’s presumably why he voted for the bill. But do you realize how crazy that makes Specter’s negotiating position? If you’re going by the model, a higher price tag makes the bill better and a lower price tag makes it worse.
Specter, Snowe and Nelson had a ton of power to make the bill better, and they chose to make it worse.
Valuing “moderation” in the sense of legislation that’s equidistant between the two parties, rather than legislation that actually works correctly to solve problems, is a truly bizarre political creed.