The nature of the ‘stalemate’

I generally find Steven Pearlstein’s columns worthwhile, but his piece yesterday left me scratching my head, wondering if he’s watching the same Washington policymakers I am.

There was, for example, this lazy both-sides-are-always-to-blame observation that’s at odds with reality.

These days, Washington is stuck in a nasty Nash equilibrium. The two dominant parties — the anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-government wing of the Republican Party, and the raise-taxes-on-the-rich-but-don’t-touch-my-entitlement wing of the Democratic Party — have fought each other to stalemate. Every few weeks or so, some event or deadline comes along that appears to hold out the prospect that one side or the other might prevail and thereby break the deadlock. But, in the end, nothing really gets resolved, nobody wins and the stalemate continues.

This is a fairly obvious “false equivalencies” problem. Pearlstein is, of course, half right — the Republican Party is dominated by anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-government policymakers at every level of government. Moderates have been run out of the GOP, and compromise has been deemed a dirty word. But Pearlstein’s take on Democrats runs counter to everything we’ve seen all year.

Pearlstein sees Dems as refusing to compromise on entitlements. We know that’s not true because, well, Dems have been to willing compromise on entitlements. Not only was President Obama prepare to accept major changes to entitlements in the so-called “grand bargain” that Republicans rejected, but more recently, super-committee Democrats were willing to strike a deal with the GOP — entitlement reforms for tax revenue. Republicans refused.

Indeed, even now, with the fight over a payroll tax break at center stage, Republicans asked Democrats to make two concessions: no surtax on the very wealthy and an expedited decision on Keystone XL. Dems accepted both demands — only to find Republicans balk at the tax deal anyway.

This is no small error on Pearlstein’s part. It’s true that gridlocked Washington constantly ends up in stalemates in which “nothing really gets resolved,” but it’s imperative that journalists and voters understand why these conditions persist. Those who chalk it up to “both sides” being reluctant to accept concessions are ignoring readily-available facts.

What’s worse, Pearlstein pivots from this mistake to endorse Howard Schultz’s idea for a donor boycott in which well-intentioned people refuse to make any campaign contributions until the parties start working together.

I don’t know what’s gotten into Pearlstein — he’s usually more sensible — but it only takes a minute to think through how misguided this idea is.

Schultz and his cooperating business leaders are demanding that policymakers work on a policy agenda that the Obama White House and many Democrats have already endorsed. But instead of supporting those who agree with them, Schultz & Co. are punishing their own allies by refusing to offer them financial support.

If these wealthy folks said, “We’ll only donate to candidates who agree to pursue our preferred agenda,” that would certainly make sense. It might even create an incentive for policymakers (“I want the contributions, so I should be more open to the kind of compromise the business leaders are demanding”).

But that’s not what they’re up to, preferring instead to withhold support from everyone, no matter how willing they are to compromise, no matter how much they agree with a sensible policy agenda. They only people on Capitol Hill delighted by this donor-boycott effort are those who disagree with Schultz and his partners’ ideas.

For that matter, as Ezra Klein explained yesterday, Schultz’s initiative ironically “gives the more extreme elements of the political system sole responsibility for feeding it, and as such, encourages politicians to rely on them, and govern in a way that keeps them happy.”

I’m at a loss to understand why Pearlstein, or anyone else frustrated by DC’s dysfunction, would find this praiseworthy.