Lindsey Graham went on Face the Nation today to trot out one of his favorite metaphors:

“If you want to have a chance of passing START, you better start over and do it in the next Congress, because this lame duck has been poisoned,” Graham told CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer.

“The last two weeks have been an absolutely excruciating exercise. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ a controversial topic – some say the civil rights issue of our generation, others say battlefield effectiveness – was passed in the lame-duck session without one amendment being offered,” Graham said.

This is the same guy who warned that the healthcare bill would poison the well for immigration, climate, closing Guantanamo, and the year 2010. It’s a favorite phrase of Lindsey Graham’s. And it’s totally bogus.

It’s bogus because it’s based in a view of politics like marriage counseling, where to get anything done the participants need to trust each other and share common goals, and offenses or betrayals can be paralyzing. When Lindsey Graham talks about poisoning the well, the implication is that Republicans may want to get things done that Democrats want too, but be unable to make them happen because they’re not feeling good about Democrats.

We’d get much further in analyzing what happens in Congress if we started from the premise that most members, most of the time, are acting rationally in the pursuit of one of two goals:

#1. Personal advancement (re-election, election to higher office, popularity, media attention, other job prospects, money, personal power and influence)
#2. Political achievement (passage of legislation they believe in, stopping legislation they don’t believe in, advancing their party or faction, moving voters towards their ideology)

A lot of political scientists would say we can explain politicians behavior with just #1, but I think #2 explains some votes and actions #1 doesn’t. What I think is counterproductive is to try to understand politicians’ behavior by reference to

(#3). Sense to trust, comity, comeraderie

No question that senators do petty or inconsistent things – witness Joe Lieberman’s flip against lowering Medicaid eligibility or John McCain’s flip against repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – but there tends to be a goal. For example, (not a stretch) Lieberman wants media attention and he wants to make himself the guy you have to negotiate with. McCain wants media attention, he wants to advance the Republican Party at the expense of Democrats, and he wants to personally make Obama miserable.

What I would defy you to come up with is an example from the past two years of a Senator who really wanted to do something but didn’t because someone “poisoned the well” – hurt their feelings, bruised their pride, or lost their trust. The Senate does not run on trust. That’s why it’s frustrating to see Obama keep pre-emptively conceding things in hopes that it will shake something loose from Republicans, which it hasn’t, or make him look more reasonable in the media, which doesn’t seem to be working.

To return to the example at hand, by now we can figure each of the 100 senators has some opinion (weak or strong) about whether the START treaty should be passed. I find it hard to believe that that many of them really believe in their heart of hearts that this treaty, backed by all the GOP ex-Secretaries of State, hurts national security, but maybe some do. Each of the 42 GOP senators is weighing the relative importance of whether START is good for the US, whether its passage would make Democrats look good, whether blocking it would make the GOP look bad, whether supporting it would hurt him/her with the GOP base, whether blocking it would hurt him/her with swing voters, etc..

Any given senator either wants to vote for START or wants to vote against it.

The way to change a senator’s calculus is to change the real or perceived costs and benefits of each vote. You can do that from the outside by demonstrating public or elite support or opposition to the treaty. You can do that from the inside by offering something in exchange for the vote (language changes, other legislation, appropriations, etc). But it’s not something you do by making them feel good or bad about themselves or about you.

If Lindsey Graham had said “My colleagues and I re so against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal that I’ll only vote for START if DADT stays in place,” that would have been more honest (the time to say that would have been before DADT passed).

But Republicans are in a special spot because DADT repeal is popular (as, I imagine, is START), and Congress and Congressional Democrats are not, so GOP arguments on everything amount to “Why are we voting on anything after there was an election? Why are we voting in the same month as Christmas? Why can’t we offer amendments to repeal Obamacare? Why are you making us vote on things that are supported by interest groups?”

Thus…”this lame duck has been poisoned.”

(Previous unnecessary exegeses here and here)


One thought on “WHAT IS LINDSEY GRAHAM TALKING ABOUT? (or “Poison Duck?”)

  1. Pingback: BLAST FROM THE PAST: RET-JOE-SPECTIVE « Little Wild Bouquet

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