Windows of Opportunity

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones has a great call to arms for anyone – left or right – who is dissatisfied with the debt deal:

Public opinion is everything. Ronald Reagan was successful because public opinion supported him: he wanted to cut taxes and raise defense spending and so did big chunks of the public. He was leading in a direction that they already wanted to go.

But no matter how many times we try to kid ourselves with one poll result or another, liberals just don’t have that advantage. The public is mostly in favor of raising taxes on the rich — though I suspect its support is pretty soft — but on the bigger issues they mostly aren’t on our side. They think deficits are bad, they don’t trust Keynesian economics, they don’t want a higher IRS bill (who does, after all?), and they believe the federal government is spending too much on stuff they don’t really understand. Conservatives have just flat out won this debate in recent decades, and until that changes we’re not going to be able to make much progress.

Drum has a sizable audience: plenty of conservatives are upset with the way the deal shook out and wouldn’t chalk it up as a wind, just as many liberals and leftists would probably share Drum’s dour assessment.

The problem for either side is indeed public opinion.  There are certain policy positions you can and can’t “sell” to the public at large.  The Mackinac Center, a Michigan-based free market think tank, calls it the Overton Policy Window: for every range of possible outcomes for public policy issues, there are a subset which the public is willing to accept at a given time (or, more accurately, what politicians feel the public is willing to accept).

Drum is really talking about the need to move the Overton window in order to win political battles.  That’s a good way to keep activists motivated after a legislative battle that ends with so much dissatisfaction and compromise.

It’s also something good to keep in mind to those addressing Tea Party activists in the coming months.  For example, I spoke to a conservative columnist the other day who bemoaned the fact that while there are plenty of inside-the-beltway organizations eager to use the grassroots muscle of the tea partiers to advance an agenda, there are few telling them that a compromise might be, politically, the best thing that gets passed.  He was technically right about the need for real leaders to provide more a constructive focus for passionate advocates.  That type of communications will always be doomed, though, unless it’s accompanied by a roadmap to better outcomes in the future.  People don’t want their leaders to tell them what can’t be done; they want leaders ready to change the world – if not today, then tomorrow.

As both Republican and Democrat leaders look to keep their respective bases motivated, it will be important to keep this in mind when discussing the recent debt deal.  Instead of portraying the compromise as a victory, each side must discuss the debt issue in terms of reframing the policy window.

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