Friday, December 21, 2007

What Happened?

Any time, these days, I see a New York friend for the first time in a while, there's a conversation we always have. It begins, "What's up with Spitzer? He has really screwed the pooch," with about half the time "on this immigrant thing" appended.

I mean, look at it. The guy comes out with a proposal to allow undocumented immigrants to get drivers licenses, a proposal that is, to coin a phrase, politically right, legally right, morally right, right on the merits. But how does he do it? He doesn't consult with his allies in the immigrant world or in the legislature, doesn't even give them advance notice. Nor does he make any effort to defuse the opposition. He never met with the Daily News editorial board before the press conference announcing the proposal. Clergy? They'd be an easy sell on this but no one from the governor's office even tried. And he certainly didn't line up business allies. Dollars to donuts, nobody even did a vote count.

And then? And then? When the pushback gets too intense he announces he's got a deal with Homeland Security for their ok on a two-tier system where undocumented folks could get special licenses valid in New York only and not usable as IDs. Again, no consultation with immigration advocates or Ds in the legislature, some of whom had put their necks out considerably for his original proposal. The Daily News is still "No sale." So, once more without counsulting with anyone, he drops the whole thing. Net result: undocumented immigrants are still driving without licenses and scared to cooperate with police or emergency services. The Senate Rs see Spitzer as weakened and vulnerable, that mandate is looking pretty frayed at this point. The public sees a loser. And Spitzer's friends and allies see a man on whom they can't rely.

OK, honestly, everyone in NY politics has this conversation. But here's my original contribution.

This is exactly how a prosectuor handles things. You don't try to recruit allies on the jury before the trial, or neutralize a hostile judge. That would be seriously illegal. You don't come into the courtroom with a coalition, you come in with a case. That you've worked out with a few trusted colleagues and subordiantes. And if the case out not to be a winner? You try to settle. No settlement? Then drop it, and move on to the next one. Very smart, very sensible ... if you're a prosecutor.

Unfortunately, the fallacy of sunk costs is not a fallacy in politics. Once you're invested in something, you can't back off without seriously weakening your credibility down the line. (N.B.: this argument is often applied in cases where it's wrong; doesn't mean there aren't cases where it's right.) In politics the merits of a case matter much less than who's on which side of it. Practical politics is about 90 percent about relationships. You need to build up your allies and peel off your enemies. The notion of a leader who directly represents the people and doesn't need to accomodate established interests is a very attractive one. For better or worse (mostly better, IMHO), American politics doesn't generally allow for that. It's not a high school debate, it's not a chess game, it's not -- maybe Spitzer has learned by now -- a court case. Being right on the merits is helpful. Having a winning coalition is essential.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Other Cromwell

So I read in the LRB that Henry VIII's great minister Thomas Cromwell "created a number of 'courts' (effectively, ministries), specialized in function, which were independent of the Exchequer and ... symbolic of impersonal, institutional continuity." Why would he want to do that?

It's a more general problem one runs across reading history. How did the individuals serving and composing the various dynasties replace their own personal interests with the interests of the "impersonal, instituional continuity" of the states they served? Unquestionably they did: states in the pre-modern period pursued consistent objectives over periods well longer than a human lifetime.

Who knows? But I speculate that one important motivator was hatred. Hard to imagine why they would have wanted some future sovereign to thrive but easy to imagine that they would have wanted rivals, present and future, to go down. A purely selfish motivation that is yet impersonal and extends beyond the personal existence of the hater: and we can, if we are honest, recognize it in ourselves.