Monday, August 10, 2015

Of Ceilings, Floors, and Hooks

Anyone remember HillaryCare?  

Back in the 90’s, Hillary Clinton was put in charge of developing a proposal for a national health care system.  She and her group came up with a hideously complicated proposal that went exactly nowhere, and that delayed progress by twenty years.

The merits of her proposal were considerable.  It reflected a nuanced understanding of the health care system and of the various interests represented within it.  But it only made sense if enacted as a whole, as written. It was so pre-engineered that it didn’t allow for the compromises inherent in the political process.  By building in compromises from the start, Clinton left the legislative branch with no way to assert its presence except a Great Refusal.  What was intended as a floor became a ceiling, and the process of compromise proved too much for it to bear.  It never even came to a floor vote.

(I saw the same dynamic of floors and ceilings with my recent foray into househunting.  When the realtor asks you your range, and you say “x to x plus fifty,” she hears “x plus 100 and up.”)

Now she’s coming out with a complicated, nuanced, tightly pre-engineered proposal for public higher education.  And I’ve got that same sinking feeling I had back when Dave Grohl was still with his first band.

As with HillaryCare, the higher ed proposal reflects serious thought by people who have spent time studying reality.  It requires states to increase their support for public colleges, in order to prevent them from simply replacing state money with federal.  For the public four-year sector, that’s a great idea.  (For community colleges, the news is more mixed.  In many states, community colleges derive as much or more support from local counties or districts as from the state.  Addressing the state while letting the county or district off the hook would create issues.)  It has a built-in work requirement for students, to address public concerns about subsidized loafing.  It allows Pell grants to be used for living expenses, and it puts some pressure on colleges to improve their results, as defined by some pretty reductionist metrics.  That’s par for the course.

But it lacks a hook, it’s heavy with details, and it’s a sitting duck in Congress.  

Clinton made the same mistake here that she made in the 90’s.  She pre-compromised, as if getting the nuances right out of the gate would make the proposal compromise-proof.  That’s simply not how the process works.  By now, I would have expected her to know that.  

Details matter, but you can’t lead with them.  You need to lead with a clear and appealing hook, and address the details as you go.  

“Free community college” isn’t a perfect idea, but it’s a clear one.  And because it’s a goal, rather than a method, it allows for horse-trading of methods in service of the goal.  In other words, it’s possible that an idea like that could command attention in the legislative branch, and emerge in a form that would still do some good.  Clinton’s intricate, pre-compromised, I-thought-of-everything-even-if-I-didn’t package would likely fall victim to the same fate that her health care proposal did.  And if it didn’t, its lack of a clear hook would make it easy to water down to meaninglessness.

That’s not an argument against details, exactly; it’s an argument for putting details in the service of a clear purpose, and foregrounding the purpose.  Be strong on the purpose, and flexible on the details.  Insist on every detail, and you won’t get a single one.

Hillary Clinton is a smart, experienced political professional surrounded by smart, experienced political people.  You’d think that twenty years of hindsight would have had some benefit.  Say what you will about Dave Grohl’s first band, but at least it could write a hook.