Mean It

A thought today about complexity and politics.

The American people right now are not in a mood to trust any political plan, proposal or policy that seems complicated—highly involved, technical, full of phased-in elements and glide paths and Part C’s.

They are against complexity not because they don’t think life is complex. They know it’s complex. They know it because they live it every day. They assume public policy issues are also complicated. They know there are facts they don’t know, which probably have to be factored in as policy is developed. But more and more they recoil from complicated, lengthy, abstruse proposals.


Because they think—they assume, at this point, reflexively—that slithery, slippery professional politicians are using and inventing complications to obfuscate and confuse. They think politicians are using complexity to create great clouds in which they can make their escape, like a cartoon character, like Road Runner.

They think modern politicians hide in complexity. They think politicians evade responsibility with it. We can’t do the right thing, it’s too complicated! Americans don’t trust “comprehensive plans,” because they don’t trust the comprehensive planners.

This, I think, is the essential problem with Congress’s immigration proposals. All the phased-in-partial-assimilation-glide-paths-to-guest-worker-status stuff seems like a big 500-page con. It’s all too complicated to be understood by anyone who’s not a tenured political science professor with a second degree in accounting.

What people will trust, and understand, is this: We will close the border tomorrow, and then figure it out from there.

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People resist complicated proposals for realistic reasons.

First, they have a natural and healthy skepticism toward the political class. They think the Senate and House are in effect using public anxiety about our collapsed borders to sneak in—I use that term deliberately—their own party-favoring addendums and amendments. People sense Washington is using public concern as a plaything to get what will serve the political class.

Second, people know that while much of life is complicated, some of it is simple, such as what you can see with your eyes. They would believe a bill that closed the borders worked when they saw that it worked. They will know when the border has been closed. No one will be coming across it. It will be adequately patrolled. Those seeking illegal entry will be turned away.

No one, on the other hand, believes he will be able to know with certainty whether a phased-in guest-worker plan is working in the short term, or the long term either. They’ll only know if it was a disaster after the disaster is done. And they will have to rely for some of their data on government figures—about which they will be dubious, for one of the great modern American understandings is that statistics don’t lie but liars use statistics.

And the third reason is they know everyone in Washington is not trustworthy in terms of basic normal human commitment on the immigration issue. They’re not reliable.

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The other day Rep. Tom Tancredo won a straw vote. A small vote, but, as Tom Tancredo is not exactly a longtime famous Republican party leader, it was interesting. Why would Republican voters choose Mr. Tancredo? Because they know where his heart is on immigration: Stop it, now. It’s where he’s been for years. He was out there alone on the issue. Now some have joined him. But you know where his heart is and his position is clear.
The irony is that this makes Mr. Tancredo one of the few among Republicans who would be given some leeway by his voters in fashioning an ultimate immigration plan. Why? Because they know he’d be doing his best. Because he means it. They know this because of his past: He was doing his best when there was nothing in it. He’s committed to getting as much progress as possible. Which means his supporters would give him flexibility. They’d even allow him to get complicated. “If he gets complex, you must have to.”

Democrats have the same problem on the same issue—who believes a word Hillary Clinton says when she speaks of immigration?—and on more.

Democrats use complexity as a thing to hide behind when they talk about taxes. Republicans can say, and can mean, “I hate taxes and will cut them.” Democrats can’t say that, because they don’t hate taxes and in fact will raise them. Though they will not say it. They will say, “Tax cuts on the top 10% of income earners are nonprogressive and unhelpful, and I will cut their tax cut, or hike their taxes, and in turn make commensurate cuts on the taxes of the most deserving lower income taxpayers, though not in a way that will negatively impact the deficit.”

When voters hear this they know exactly what it means: We will raise taxes.

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What is the answer to the public’s skepticism about complexity, and a modern leader’s need to look at complicated problems in a way that sometimes involves complicated solutions?

Mr. Tancredo knows. Ronald Reagan knew. Mean it.

Reagan’s overhaul of the tax system in 1986 was rather complicated. It wasn’t complicated for tax policy, but it was complicated for normal humans trying to figure out what they owe. Why did Reagan’s base support a complicated plan? Because they knew Reagan meant it. They knew Reagan hated taxes, built his career in part on opposing high taxes, pushed for lower taxes, had cut them in his career. They trusted Reagan to get the best deal he could. The base did not doubt his sincerity. They didn’t think he was using the tax issue to finagle advantages for his party. Because he wasn’t.

It has been said in politics that sincerity is everything, and once you can fake it you can do anything. But people can tell when you’re faking sincerity—on immigration, on taxes, on our very safety as a nation. Faking it isn’t working anymore.

Message to political leaders: You better mean it, or they’ll never let you do your phased-in multitiered comprehensive plan anymore

Absent sincerity, the future is simplicity.