Public policy: home runs vs. small-ball


In baseball, as in public policy, it’s important to remember that there are two ways to play the game: home runs or small-ball.

Time to think “outside the park?”

In late July, the 2010 MLB All-Star game marked the end of the first-half of the baseball season.  Coincidently, so too did it mark the end of the first-half of the Obama Administration’s legislative season.  Financial reform and an unemployment benefits extension both made it to the president’s desk, ending a legislative push that has included the ARRA stimulus, student loan funding reform, healthcare reform, a new START treaty with Russia, two Supreme Court Justices appointed, and a slew of smaller initiatives (including about 1000 renamed post-offices – full list here).  However, with Senate Majority Leader Reid declaring that the Senate is settling for a much smaller energy bill, it appears that the legislative process is about out of gas for the season – at least until after elections this fall.  Many Democrats view this as essentially the end of any chance for substantive policy to come out of our government, with many Republicans happily agreeing.  It’s here that we – public policy advocates of all stripes – can turn to professional baseball for a little help on what we do now.

Baseball – two philosophies

Mark Teixeira is a baseball player.  In 2003, he started in the majors with the Texas Rangers, and quickly began establishing himself as a hitter with serious firepower, crushing the long-ball 26, 38 and 43 times, respectively, his first three seasons in the league.  By that time, he had also established himself as a great defensive player as well, winning a golden glove for his efforts in the 2005 season.  He was eventually signed by the New York Yankees in 2008, and proceeded to add to his already notable accomplishments by recently making it into a rather exclusive club of players who have hit 20+ home runs each of their first eight seasons.

Joe Mauer is a baseball player.  During his time with the Minnesota Twins over the past six years, he has established himself as perhaps the most dominant hitter on the team, as well as one of the best in the league.  He holds the record for highest batting average in the history of his position (catcher), is the first catcher to ever win the batting title twice, and the first catcher in history to lead the entire league in batting average.

Two players – two versions of how to play the game: home runs and small ball.  What’s important to note is how both ways produce success for their teams, though in very different situations.  Teixeira smashes the ball, clears out the bases, and gives his opponents heartburn.  He uses not a bat, but rather a sledgehammer, and swings for the fences – sometimes multiple times per game.  Much of national public policy in the past 20 months has been like Teixeira – huge, far-ranging, and inducing no small amount of stomach-churn in the stomachs of the other team.

Mauer, on the other hand, is like John Henry – working constantly, continuously, on making contact with the ball, and always moving forward.  He has a goal, but he’s not grabbing a sledgehammer – it’s more like he’s working with a shovel.  Life after the mid-term elections seems more likely to be Joe Mauer’s small-ball – finding smaller, but equally important issues, and pushing through to consensus and passage of policy initiatives, except that these initiatives will likely involve less overall coherence and more collaboration with folks who are now on the bench.

Technically, all baseballs are the same size

Mr. October 2010 meets Mr. November 2012

Most baseball fans view the second-half of the season as the time when a team’s narrative shows up – the worst-to-first ’87 Twins, the dominant ’99 Yankees, the ’98 Cards when McGuire was on “the chase” – wiping away earlier flops or triumphs.  So too will the next 20 months define the public policy legacy of the Obama administration.  Will the Democrats and Republicans find common ground and the elusive sense of bipartisanship in the policy realm that has heretofore been conspicuously missing?  Will government – and new policy implementation – completely shut down as they did during the earlier days of the Clinton administration?  Or will something different occur – a mixed political mandate for both parties, creating a mixed policy mandate for members of the government, each fumbling for coherence until the yet-unknown 2012 administration begins the process all over again?  What do you think?