This comment from reader mmuller23 on the by-now-notorious CHEERS study raises an important point that is worth elevating here. On the Senate Dems’ efforts to stall Johnson’s nomination, he/she says:

Somehow it has more the feel of an easy media stunt than the rational approach to policy making we (liberals) like to take pride in.

My initial reaction to this is: Argh.

To flesh that out a bit:

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  1. Yes, it’s probably true that the CHEERS research would not have harmed any kids that were not already going to be harmed — the study was to consist of filming practices that were already taking place in these homes. And it’s also true that the results of the study might have played some small role in building the case against pesticides (though the funding by the American Chemistry Council makes me skeptical). So, judged purely on utilitarian grounds — the "rational approach to policy making we (liberals) like to take pride in" — bullying Johnson into scrapping CHEERS probably did more harm than good. This could be debated, but let’s grant it for the sake of argument.
  2. So what?

This is a classic case of what The Reapers call "policy literalism." They write:

In politics, a legislative defeat can either be a win or a loss. A legislative loss can be considered a win if it has increased a movement’s power, energy, and influence over the long-term. Witness the religious right’s successful effort to ban partial-birth abortions. The proposal succeeded only after several failed attempts. Because it was anchored to core values, not technical policy specs, the initial defeats of the ban on partial-birth abortions paved the way for eventual victory.

The serial losses on Rio, Kyoto, CAFE, and McCain-Lieberman were not framed in ways that increase the environmental community’s power through each successive defeat. That’s because, when those proposals were crafted, environmentalists weren’t thinking about what we get out of each defeat. We were only thinking about what we get out of them if they succeed. It’s this mentality that must be overthrown if we are to craft proposals that generate the power we need to succeed at a legislative level.

The "rational approach to policy" is a myth spawned by the era of technocratic liberal dominance from the post-war period through the late 70s. Even in that period I suspect it was the exception. Most Beltway battles are symbolic. They are about values and power.

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Partial-birth abortions are exceedingly rare. But that didn’t stop the anti-choice movement from seizing on the issue and pushing it into public view at every opportunity. It worked for them as a political tool, even when they lost the individual legislative battles. It positioned pro-choicers as barbarous and provided the anti-choice crowd with a wedge via which they could make restrictions on choice socially acceptable.

Boxer and Nelson picked this relatively inconsequential study to make their stand for political reasons, not because of some rational, utilitarian assessment of the study itself. It showed that Dems are willing to stand up to the Bush administration; that the administration is not omnipotent; that the environmental lobby holds the safety of children paramount; that pesticides are poisons that should be banned or replaced, not further studied.

It was a "political stunt," yes, but 98% of what goes on in D.C. consists of political stunts — most people just call it "politics." It’s time progressives get over their fussy self-righteousness about this stuff and get in the game. Make the stunts work.

Boxer and Nelson just pulled off an extraordinarily skillful piece of political showmanship, one that incrementally strengthened the environmental movement and the Democratic Party in preparation for the next fight. Good on ’em.

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