No common sense in politics

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, January 16, 2013


In responding to a question about his government’s position on gun control, President Obama commented that he hoped “common sense” would prevail when his administration presents a proposal to Congress.  The remarks, made at the last press conference of his first term held yesterday in Washington, summarize Obama’s approach to negotiations with Republicans during his first term and underline the reasons why he has failed to make significant progress in negotiations with Republicans to increase the debt ceiling and cut spending to balance the budget.


Experienced politicians do not put their hopes on “common sense” when advancing their ideological agendas.  Common sense, after all, is common only to those who share the same ideology. For people who believe in abortion rights, pro-choice positions are common sense. For those who believe abortion is murder, the only common sense solution is protecting the life of unborn children.  Peace advocates believe that war is anything but common sense, while foreign affairs hawks think that armed conflict today might build a stronger and lasting peace tomorrow.  Even when it comes to gun control, there is wide disagreement on what constitutes common sense. Many people believe that the right to bear arms should not apply to semi-automatic or other powerful weapons. Others believe that guns—no matter how powerful—do not kill people, people kill people. Politicians represent the diverse views that exist in society and the political process consists of negotiating agreements that can attract majority support.


The result of negotiations depends on a number of factors.  The ideological breakdown in the composition of congress, rules and regulations that constrain majorities, the national mood on a particular subject, and the proximity of elections influence the result of negotiations.  The capacity to negotiate, bargain and extract concessions from political opponents also matters.  Skillful politicians play their hands to extract concessions that their initial negotiating positions would allow them to obtain. The art of political deal making requires politicians to leave behind the notion that common sense matters at the negotiating table.  In fact, politics require politicians to maneuver in such a way as to make their positions be perceived as the common sense positions. Because reasonable people disagree over contentious issues, politicians must attempt to convince public opinion that their preferred positions are morally superior and more convenient for society.


Though Obama made his comments about gun control legislation, the crux of his argument can be applied to the way he has approached public policy debates and ideological issues.  For Obama, negotiations and bargaining are more about the objective value of the arguments and the facts than about political and ideological positions. The president often confounds politics with science.  In his view, an argument should be evaluated by his scientific value and not by the ideological views of those sitting at the bargaining table. However, policy discussions often involve many unknowns about the true effects and results of reforms. The margin of error of the scientific predictions is too large to make credible assertions about the intended effects of the proposed policies.  As a result, policy makers often use ideology to inform their decisions and apply their own ideological bias to narrow the margin of the error in the direction more compatible with their own beliefs. Science can certainly inform politics, but policy design and implementation cannot exclusively rely on scientific estimations. Politics influence the way policy making is conducted. Thus, common sense does not necessarily mean the same to everyone nor does it have to be present in policy debates and political discussions.


During Obama’s first term, Democrats in Congress regularly complained that President Obama made too many concessions to Republicans but still failed to get Republicans to support his proposals.  Democratic leaders contrasted Obama’s consensus-building discourse with former President George W. Bush friendly but more ideological negotiating positions. If Bush was friendly in his approach, he made few ideological concessions to the opposition.  Obama often assumes a tougher public discourse in defense of his positions, but makes far more concessions when negotiating with Republicans. Democrats complain that Bush’s strategy was more successful in advancing the Republican agenda.  Republicans often point to Obama’s aggressive campaign rhetoric as evidence of his unwillingness to compromise. Moreover, because Obama’s most important legislation from his first term, the comprehensive health care reform, was passed without a single Republican voting in favor, Republicans regularly accuse Obama of lack of bipartisanship.


As he prepares to deliver his first state of the union address of his second term, President Obama needs to strategically decide his priorities for the next four years, but he also needs to adopt a negotiating stance on the two most important issues his administration will face in the next few weeks, mandatory spending cuts and the debt ceiling.  Only if the President abandons the hope that “common sense” will prevail, then his moderate positions on these two pressing issues will have a chance to be become the winning position in the bargaining process that has already began with Republicans in Congress.