Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Capitol capital strategy for smoking out the loyal opposition

Let's say that you are the Speaker of the House or the President of the Senate.

Let's also say that you think the State ought to issue some bonds to finance roads, transit and schools for the first time in three years. This requires a 3/5 vote, so Republicans must vote for the bond.

Finally, let's say that the growing specter of the gubernatorial election leads to increasing calculation by Republican strategists to vote against any bond, based on the hope that a Republican candidate will beat the Democratic incumbent.

What can you do to either (a) put the pressure on Republicans to vote for the bond or (b) educate the electorate that the Republicans are to blame for the lack of a bond?

That's the dilemna facing Speaker Madigan, President Jones, their respective staffers and strategists and Governor Blagojevich and his team.

On the policy side, it's almost certainly the right thing to do to issue a bond and finance some transit, school and road projects. Governor Blagojevich tends to frame the debate in terms of generating construction jobs, but I think the more compelling policy reason for the bond is the investment in our infrastructure that benefits all of us. I'd say there's a rather strong consensus that the State should implement a capital plan this year.

So, how can the Democrats leverage that very strong consensus on the need for a capital plan to either force Republicans to support one or successfully assign blame to them for the lack of a capital plan emerging?

There's a tremendous amount of civic education that accompanies any attempt to cast blame on the GOP. The requirement for a 3/5 legislative vote in both chambers for any capital bill is not widely known, so it isn't widely known (among the electorate) that Republicans have a veto over any capital bill. That suggests that the average voter will likely blame the incumbent just as much as the Republican legislators for the lack of a capital bill -- to the extent any average voter is moved by the lack of a capital bill.

However, the best way to explain that dynamic to voters is to force a vote on a capital bill and give Republican legislators an opportunity to either implement a bill or vote against it.

'No' votes are crucial for any Democratic attempt to blame the Republicans for the lack of a capital bill. If there is no vote on a capital bill, it's very hard to make the case that the Republicans are at fault. If there is a roll call, it's a bit easier.

With a roll call, Republicans must calculate the extent to which they will be blamed by presumably unhappy voters with the roads not paved, the transit not expanded and the schools not built. And with the message discipline that the Blagojevich campaign has shown, it's certainly conceivable that they will figure out how to successfully pin blame on the 'do-nothing Republicans.'

I think that's why the Blagojevich Administration is so energetically selling the projects in the proposed capital plan -- if they can successfully convey to voters that the Republican legislators are denying them something they want (this road, this particular bridge, that particular school), then the legislators might need to defer to the governor's Democratic-friendly plan in order to avoid a local backlash. It's hard to do, because they are trying to make people feel like the Republicans might take something away from them that they don't actually already have.

It reminds me of an old psychological trick. Let's say you've got a 100 dollar bill in your pocket. Someone approaches you and offers to flip a coin -- if you win, you get $100, and if you lose, you have to give them your $100. Generally, people shy away from those 50-50 odds, because they feel like they at risk of losing something.

Now, imagine you are walking down the street and you find a $100 bill on the street. Before you pick it up, someone else steps on it, and offers to flip a coin -- if you win, you get the $100 bill on the street and if you lose, he gets it. Generally, people are more open to that game, because they don't feel they are at risk of losing something they have.

It's illogical, since the odds are the same, but people are not fully rational. In other words, people are more averse to losing something of value than they are attracted to the possibility of winning something, even when the odds are exactly the same. It just depends on how people perceive the game -- possible losing something important (very bad) or possibly gaining something important (pretty good, but not nearly as bad as losing something).

Somehow, Blagojevich and the Dems must convey to people that they are at risk of losing something of value -- the specific projects in the capital plan -- in order to bring Republicans on board or generate a base of angry voters who blame the legislators who voted no to take away their projects.

And I think it's easier to do that with roll call votes. Maybe that makes the Democrats appear weak or unable to deliver, but I think it's better to lose a vote because of Republican opposition and attempt to make that issue a significant part of the general election debate.

1 comment:

respectful said...

If the building plan is weighted toward projects in Democrat districts, how can Rod credibly build pressure on GOP legislators whose constituents don't stand to gain much anyway? If voters decide to "throw the bums out," couldn't that threaten the majority?

BTW, during the two years that Madigan was Minority Leader, he refused to allow any Dem votes for any bonds. Was he wrong then? Or is he wrong now to blame Republicans for doing what he did when he was in their shoes?