Friday, November 19, 2004

Wedgin' It 

Jonathan Chait, brother of Bonassus reader Daniel Chait, is also a Los Angeles Times columnist. In today's piece, Chait suggests that Democrats seek to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts as a first step in reconfiguring the party to appeal to "moral issues" voters.

Setting aside whether this is a good idea, policy-wise (I'm married to an artist, so I'll recuse myself on this issue), there's a bigger question worth asking: Will this possibly do any good?

The answer: no frickin' way. Not only (as Kevin Drum argues here) will Republicans gleefully join Democrats in voting to remove NEA funding (or even its existence), but they'll make certain that they get full credit for the move. A Republican member of the Appropriations Committee will get to be the one who offers a showy floor amendment to remove the funding. That's what the power of holding a committee chair buys you.

Drum points out that an effective Kulturkampf strategy forces the opposition to make a difficult choice, which Chait's proposal will not accomplish. It's a good point, and one that I've struggled with a bit. Most of the good "wedge" issues I've been able to come up with require a Republican to overreach, something that's pretty tough for Democrats to accomplish without a mind control device or incriminating photos. I've half-jokingly endorsed a "Save Halloween" strategy, but even this proposal, which might actually meet the "tough choice" and "requires no miraculous GOP missteps" criteria, would be tough to force into the public consciousness without control of either chamber of Congress or the Presidency.

To reiterate, then, a good wedge strategy must:

1) Force Republicans to choose between two groups of voters in the coalition that supported them, e.g. the Christian Right and libertarians.

2) Not require any specific action by Republicans except the taking of a position on an issue.

3) Appeal strongly enough to the media or to specific interest groups that Democrats can force Republicans to take a public stance on the issue without being able to force floor votes in either chamber of Congress.

Note that there is nothing here about feasibility of enactment into law, nor anything about the quality of resultant public policy.

Am I missing anything here?

UPDATE: Jason Barnosky argues that pork barrel politics make Republicans leery of cutting the NEA. Fair enough, but as I've argued in the comments to this post, that hasn't stopped them from making grand gestures in this direction in the past. On the other hand, Republicans did put caps on the per-state allocation of NEA grants a couple of years ago, suggesting that Red-Staters are making a concerted effort to push some NEA pork their constituents' way.

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