Wonks can be useful people. Having studied the deep innards of public policy, wonks are essential to constructing programs that can function as desired. They help write complicated laws. But whereas wonks may know all the parts that make a clock work, they are usually not good at selling the clock. You need marketers for that.
Politicians are the marketers. They tell ordinary people what’s great about their proposals. When they have to drag a wonk onto the stage to explain something — or have to play the wonk themselves — they’re in trouble.
Enter section 1325, part of Title 8 of the U.S. Code. You still here? Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro is pushing the idea of getting rid of section 1325. Doing so would make it no longer a criminal offense to be an unauthorized immigrant in the U.S. It would, however, still be a civil offense. As proposals go, this is dumb on a number of levels, above all the political one.
Castro was mayor of San Antonio, America’s seventh biggest city. It surprises me that this savvy, polished, and pragmatic Texas politician would propose this kind of tinkering with the law.
Why on Earth would he, in effect, decriminalize illegal border crossings when Americans are so concerned about illegal immigration?
Preet Bharara asked that of Castro on his popular podcast. Castro elucidated: Decriminalizing illegal entry but leaving it as a civic infraction would not prevent an undocumented immigrant from being deported. (The online wonks offered similar explanations.)
The scary part is that Castro and other Democrats who endorsed his idea apparently think that the great American non-wonk majority will hear this as a moderate salve for the crisis at the border — as something that makes entering the country illegally still illegal but just a little less so. If it’s not going to make that huge a difference, why even push something that sounds like a relaxation of border controls?
Let’s move on to Medicare for All. Sure, polls show large numbers of Americans liking the idea. But when asked about whether they want a new health care system that would end the private coverage — which a true Medicare for All plan would do — large numbers say they don’t. And these are largely the same people.
Guess what. The public doesn’t do wonkery. Bernie Sanders insists that once the American people understand the savings of his plan, they won’t mind paying higher taxes and losing their coverage through work. Furthermore, many aren’t especially happy with their private coverage.
The above may be true. That doesn’t mean that the public can follow along. (Alternatively, everyone could be required to take a night class on health care economics.) And however Americans feel about their private insurance, they may not be ready to dive into the great unknown.
Wouldn’t strengthening the Affordable Care Act and adding a public option — a government-run health plan that would compete with private plans — be the easier sell? Joe Biden is championing the idea.
Other Democratic candidates promoting Medicare for All have panned Biden’s public option proposal as not radical enough. But they have very short memories.
The public option was originally part of the ACA bill and had to be yanked out because even some Democrats were afraid to support it. The Wall Street Journal opinion pages, meanwhile, have burst into flames with warnings that a public option would destroy the private health insurance industry.
Wonks adjust the wheels and gears of public policy. When they’re done, they should go home and let the politicians take over. If politicians can’t sell their idea to ordinary people, the idea is in trouble.