Network vs. cluster politicians

President Barack Obama and Senator Ted Kennedy...

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David Brooks writes today about the criticism that President Obama has received this week, from Paul Krugman and countless others, over the tax compromise that he made with the GOP.  Brooks defines the President as a ‘Network’ liberal, and his liberal critics as ‘Cluster’ liberals:

“Cluster liberals (like cluster conservatives) view politics as a battle between implacable opponents. As a result, they believe victory is achieved through maximum unity. Psychologically, they tend to value loyalty and solidarity. They tend to angle toward situations in which philosophical lines are clearly drawn and partisan might can be bluntly applied. Network liberals share the same goals and emerge from the same movement. But they tend to believe — the nation being as diverse as it is and the Constitution saying what it does — that politics is a complex jockeying of ideas and interests. They believe progress is achieved by leaders savvy enough to build coalitions. Psychologically, network liberals are comfortable with weak ties; they are comfortable building relationships with people they disagree with. This contrast is not between lefties and moderates. It’s a contrast between different theories of how politics is done. Ted Kennedy was a network liberal, willing to stray from his preferences in negotiation with George W. Bush or John McCain. Most House Democrats, by contrast, are cluster liberals. They come from safe seats, have a poor feel for the wider electorate and work in an institution where politics is a war of all against all.”

Brooks is trapped in the fuzzy center, with the vanishing moderates.  His analysis of the political climate today is crystal clear, and he is exactly right, the President did achieve a victory with this tax compromise.  The problem with politicians that give no quarter is that the major problems we face demand compromise and cooperation.  The President wants to tackle comprehensive tax reform in the Spring; progress on that difficult issue will be hindered by cluster politicians.  The main reasons I originally became a supporter of the President, after his 2004 Convention speech, were that I saw a Great Communicator in the mold of Reagan, and a network politician willing to work across the aisle.  This is the perfect opportunity for the President to play to his strengths.

With the 2012 election approaching, Paul Krugman is right about one thing: many Republicans will be working to sabotage the President because they think that will deliver the White House to the GOP.  The problem with the GOP game plan is that the American people will not stand for two years of stalemate.  GOP opposition to the Health Bill for 9/11 workers is the perfect case in point.


Politicians behaving like adults: triangulation and tax policy

David Frum is one of the rare Conservatives that I take at face value, especially after his response to the passage of Health Care, Waterloo:

“We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat. There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible.”

He wrote another recent essay, after the mid-term elections, in which he meditated on the lessons that Conservatives have failed to learn:

“The U.S. political system is not a parliamentary system. Power is usually divided. The system is sustained by habits of cooperation, accepted limits on the use of power, implicit restraints on the use of rhetoric. In recent years, however, those restraints have faded and the system has delivered one failure after another, from the intelligence failures detailed in the 9/11 report to the stimulus that failed to adequately reduce unemployment, through frustrating wars and a financial crash. The message we hear from some Republicans — “this is no time for compromise” — threatens to extend the failures of governance for at least two more years. These failures serve nobody’s interest, and the national interest least of all.”

Yesterday, President Obama forged a compromise with the GOP on tax policy which extends all Bush era tax rates for two years, but also extends unemployment benefits, adds a temporary payroll tax cut to help the working class and continues tax breaks for parents and students.  He gave up on a promise to end the tax cuts for the richest Americans, in return for gains aimed at the Middle Class.  This is, according to observers, “messy, combustible and painful” bipartisanship, President Obama plunging “headlong into the political calculus known as triangulation.”  What can we make of this?  What does it portend for the future?

Certainly, the President recognizes that the 2012 election is not going to be won through obstructionism and ideological purity, but rather through compromise and policy.  David Frum also recognizes this, and is trying to push the GOP to remove themselves from their closed information systems (FOX), appreciate the power of government safety nets like social security, and move from obstructionism towards clear policy and compromise:

“If Republicans reject Obama-style fiscal stimulus, what do they advocate instead? A monetarist might recommend more money creation, even at the risk of inflation: “quantitative easing,” as it’s called. Yet leading voices in the Republican Party have convinced themselves that the country is on the verge of hyperinflation — a Weimar moment, says Glenn Beck. But if fiscal stimulus leads to socialism, and quantitative easing leads to Nazism, what on earth are we supposed to do? Cut the budget? But we won’t do that either! On Sean Hannity’s radio show, the Republican House leader John Boehner announced just before the election that one of his first priorities would be the repeal of the Obama Medicare cuts.”

How much will the GOP work with the President and Democrats during the next two years, leading up to the Election?  The President campaigned as someone who could cut through the old ways of Washington, and work with Republicans. However for the last two years, as Frum wrote, Republicans “would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles.”  This tax policy is a compromise won by the White House, and a departure point for both parties going forward.

The Tea Party base of the party demands strict ideological purity, but Independents want the parties to work together.  The 2012 Presidential election will partly come down to how successful each party is in reaching those Independents.  Will the President be able to channel Bill Clinton and win a resounding re-election victory?  The pace of the economic recovery will play a big role in that, but so will the level of leadership that comes from the White House.