There are few dilemmas as uncomfortable as what psychologists call a double approach-avoidance conflict, a situation in which there are two desirable goals, but achieving either one comes with a painful cost. Democrats running for U.S. House and Senate seats in 2014 are in the grip of one right now, and it is a lulu.
First described by social psychologist Kurt Lewin, the dilemma for a person caught in this type of conflict is that approaching one desirable goal increases the pain that comes with that goal. But moving toward the other desirable goal only produces a different kind of pain. It’s like being stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, but twice as bad.
Life is full of such conflicts, such as having to choose between accepting a great job offer in an undesirable location or keeping a stinker of a job in a great town to live in. If one of the factors clearly outweighs the others – if the job offer includes a salary that it would be insane to refuse – then the net gain outweighs the net pain, and it is easier to accept the pain as an unfortunate part of the deal, make the decision, and move on.
But when the pain and the gain are closely balanced, vacillation and indecision result. If the image of a squirrel trying to cross a busy road comes to mind, then you have the basic idea of the stress levels that can be involved.
Now consider the dilemma facing the Democrats who rammed Obamacare through even in the face of massive public opposition. They are flanked on one side by millions of really ticked off voters. But on the other side stands the colossal ego and potential vengeance of Barack Obama.
How quickly political fortunes can change. Before the actual launch of Obamacare, the Democrats were riding tall in the political saddle, chewing nails and passing rhetorical barbed wire to fence in the GOP for 2014. The Democrats did not want to negotiate over Obamacare in the recent budget battle, and they didn’t have to. The pain of the government slowdown was felt by others, not by them; and, besides, they could always blame the Republicans and count on their allies in the media to back them up.
But now the voters know what was in Obamacare, and they know – or will know by Election Day in 2014 – that the Democrats were willing to shut down the government and shut veterans out of open-air monuments in order to defend the train wreck that will forever bear Obama’s name. So now, as they prepare to face voters who have lost their coverage or whose premiums have doubled or tripled, the most sensible choice for the Democrats is to work with the Republicans and ease the pain of Obamacare in order to save their own hides on Election Day.
But saving their own political hides brings Democrats face to face with Barack Obama’s legendary narcissism, and they know all too well what the Obama administration has done to harass and intimidate grassroots conservative groups that ran afoul of Obama’s outsized ego. Vulnerable Democrats have to be trembling like a hound dog passing a peach pit at the thought of what he would do to his own followers who turned on him.
Yet staying in Obama’s good graces brings them face to face with voters who are who are just this side of picking up pitchforks and torches. And those voters are right to be riled up, not only because Obamacare is a catastrophically bad law – and even Obama’s allies in the media cannot hide that fact now – but because of the stunning arrogance and skullduggery involved in passing it. If the Republicans don’t run major ads featuring Nancy Pelosi saying that we had to pass the bill so that we could find out what was in it, then they should consider giving up politics.
There are three classic triggers for anger – threats to resources, threats to freedom of choice, and perception of unfairness – and Obamacare makes every one of them a potential campaign ad for the GOP. First, the fines and skyrocketing premiums are a threat to the resources of families. Second, it limits the options of voters as they lose their own plans and are forced to choose from those approved by the Democrats. Finally, the whole process reeks of unfairness, not just because big contributors get exemptions, but because Obama and the Democrats knowingly lied to the people about being able to keep their doctors and health plans if they wanted to.
Democrats who try to escape the wrath of the voters by abandoning Obamacare will endure the wrath of Obama. Those who stay with Obama will be ridden out of town on a rail by the voters. The only hope the Democrats have of being pulled from the horns of this dilemma would be a Republican blunder big enough to make people forget Obamacare.
But what are the chances of that?