The Pacto por Mexico: a political grand bargain
Political grand bargains are growing rarer in the world. Whether this is attributed to radicalization, polarization, or the “end of power” (due to an increasing number of mobile and independent stakeholders)[i], the fact is that incumbents whose parties do not control a majority in Congress are increasingly incapable of getting truly ambitious reforms or policy programs passed into law.
Against this backdrop, what President Peña Nieto achieved during his first day in office certainly stood out. The Pacto por Mexico—“an ambitious consensus-based package of reforms…, aimed at putting the country back on a path of prosperity”, according to the OECD—attracted the global spotlight not just because of its ambitious policy content, but also as an example of politicians willing to compromise. As the Wall Street Journal reported in August 2013, “at a time when politicians in Washington struggle to agree on anything, their Mexican counterparts—who spent the past dozen years locked in bruising battles—sit down almost daily to talk about thorny issues.” The pact and the reforms bolstered optimistic expectations which quickly translated into talk of a “Mexican Moment.”
At this point, much has been written about the policy and political implications of the commitments set forth by the Pacto. But, despite its centrality to the Peña Nieto Administration, very little has been discussed about the implications, and potential costs, of how the Pacto came to be.
Recent scandals and stagnant economic growth, pundits claim, explain why recent polls have attributed to President Peña Nieto a historically high low of approval rates. Naturally, this explanation makes sense: it is only logical that scandals, in general, curb presidential approval—and that a series of scandals curb presidential approval significantly.
But the explanation seems incomplete. What about the Pacto por Mexico? Is the most important platform of at least the first three years of the presidency now irrelevant to presidential job approval and popularity?
I sustain that it’s not—that, in fact, the Pacto por Mexico (or more importantly, the way it came to be) is a significant factor in explaining why President Peña Nieto, despite passing such important reforms, is so unpopular at the moment. In this brief paper, I argue that unpopularity is, in part, an opportunity cost of the Pacto—or, to be more precise, of the way that, being a negotiated Pact, it came to be.
Consultation-driven bargaining vs confrontation-driven “going public”
In his seminal study on presidential communication, Samuel Kernell suggests that there are two essential presidential strategies that “have never been particularly compatible styles of leadership”: confrontation-driven “going public” and consultation-driven bargaining.[ii]
Going public entails “seeking the aid of a third party—the public—to force other politicians to accept his (the president’s) preferences” (p.27). To be sure, this is not to be confused with merely communicating initiatives, decisions, policies, or results to the public. Going public is, rather, the use of presidential communication as a political weapon, seeking to impose (public political) costs for noncompliance to the opposition regarding non-valence, or wedge, issues.[iii] It entails public posturing, as it fixes the President´s stance on key issues on which there is significant disagreement, and thus limits, if not completely shatters, his capacity to bargain. Having drawn a line in the sand, when a president goes public, the political rewards of getting his way are vast; but so are the consequences of “losing”. President Bush’s “60 cities in 60 days campaigns” to reform the US social security system and President Fox’s attempt to get the Mexican congress to approve his fiscal reform—both of which entailed public appeals to pressure opposition parties into agreement—are salient examples of going public [iv][v][vi].
Political bargaining, on the other hand, involves traditional, direct negotiation with political leaders from the opposition behind closed doors. As such, President Peña Nieto´s Pacto por Mexico, is a perfect example of this political strategy at work. Consider, for example, what Santiago Creel, a former Secretary of the Interior and PAN (major opposition political party) presidential candidate who participated in the Pacto por Mexico talks, said to the Wall Street Journal: “First, we agreed negotiations must always remain private.” Or, as Jesus Zambrano, the leader of the other major political party at the moment put it, “the key was to give the benefit of doubt to the adversary”. Clearly, the potential political rewards of winning intense public debates across a set of issues were sacrificed for the sake of being able to actually negotiate behind closed doors.
Whether going public or bargaining is the more effective or desirable alternative is debatable. With an increasing number of stakeholders actively participating in the public sphere, Mexico seems on the way towards, to use Kernell’s original terms, individualized pluralism. Mexican media had grown more democratized and independent [vii] even before the rise of social media and civil society is growing more plural, active and powerful. [viii]This would suggest, according to Kernell, that a going public approach might be more effective. On the other hand, power in Mexico is still highly concentrated (institutionalized pluralism, under Kernell’s terms). For example, the ban for re-election of current members of the executive and legislative branch at all levels (federal, state, and municipal) weakens the ties between Congress members and their constituents and instead strengthens the ties between Congress members and party leaders[ix], thus incentivizing power concentration. Under institutionalized pluralism, Kernell suggests, bargaining tends to be more effective.
Altogether, Kernell’s theory is useful in understanding the alternative to bargaining (i.e. definining its opportunity cost as not going public). [x]But it remains completely mute about what the consequences of bargaining anything broader than a single issue campaign. In the particular case of the much-celebrated Pacto por Mexico, a platform which cut across almost all relevant issues in the Mexican public sphere, the election of bargaining over going public as the way of achieving it certainly seems consequential.
The opportunity costs of a GRAND bargain
Schattsneider famously argued that “at the root of all politics is the universal language of conflict.”[xi] In his view, conflict—and, thus, democratic politics—consists of a few individuals fighting publicly in front of an audience (the public) that is irresistibly attracted to conflict and, on the basis of conflict, gets to decide who the winners are. Desirable or not, then, any lack of conflict constitutes a political void that gets inevitably filled with conflict. The implication is clear: no matter how salient or relevant they are, public non-conflicts—such as the Pacto por Mexico–are eventually displaced by conflicts at the public sphere, drawing away the attention of the media, key stakeholders, and the general public. Without conflict to sustain them, no matter how much the positive results of the pact or its ensuing reforms might be repeated and emphasized, they seem to be destined not to stick in the public consciousness.
Without the tension of conflict to guide the attention of the public, President Peña Nieto might have temporarily lost the capacity to define the terms of conflict, to delineate what the alternatives are about—what Schattsneider, in his classic work, called the supreme instrument of power. “He who determines what politics (or conflict) is about runs the country”, reads one of his most famous lines. Under this parameter, the cost of opportunity of Peña Nieto’s grand bargain has been remarkable.
On a more personal level, by making the Pacto the heart of the first three years of his Administration, President Peña Nieto, knowingly or not, forsook the opportunity to publicly show—not tell—what his priorities and values are through high stakes political conflict. To be able to sit at a far-reaching negotiating table, he rejected the opportunity to name a villain to fight. With no public villain to fight, he lost the chance of being perceived as a true savior or hero[xii].
Altogether, the historically low approval ratings should seem no surprise. But, before condemning the Pact, consider again that political grand bargains are growing rarer in the world—a world that is growing more adept and used to going public.
Moreover, the Pact for Mexico is now extinct and President Peña Nieto will be in office for three more years. Opportunities to switch gears and go public still abound.
The author would like to thank Alejandro Orozco, Josué Escobedo, and Alfredo Velasco from FTI Consulting for their valuable ideas and contributions to this essay.
[i] Naim, Moises. 2014. The end of power: from boardrooms to battlefields and churches to states, why being in charge isn’t what it used to be. Basic Books.
[ii] Kernell, Samuel. 2006. Going public: New strategies of presidential leadership. CQ Press.
[iii] A valence issue is a political issue about which voters will usually share a common preference. Prosperity is a common valence issue. For a detailed discussion on valence issues in politics, see Green (2007).
[iv] Lujambio, Alonso and Martínez, Jaime. 2002. “Gobierno dividido, estrategia presidencial y opinión pública. Un intento de clarificación conceptual.” VII Congreso Iberoamericano de Derecho Constitucional. Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas de la UNAM. Ciudad de México
[v] Aguilar, Rubén and Castañeda, Jorge. 2007. La diferencia: radiografía de un sexenio. México: Grijalbo Mondadori.
[vi] Edwards, George C. Governing by campaigning: The politics of the Bush presidency. Pearson PTR, 2008.
[vii] Lawson, Chappell. 2002. Building the fourth estate: Democratization and the rise of a free press in Mexico. Univ of California Press.
[viii] Wada, Takeshi. “Who are the active and central actors in the ‘rising civil society’in Mexico?.” Social Movement Studies 13, no. 1 (2014): 127-157.
[ix] Lujambio, Alonso and Vives, Horacio. 2000. El poder compartido: un ensayo sobre la democratización mexicana. México DF: Ed. Océano
[x] While there were some issue differences between the parties that played out in public, the tone of both the presidency and the opposition can easily be characterized as low-key. With the Pacto por Mexico as the political driving force, single issue discussions were seen as subordinated to the broader consensus.
[xi] Schattschneider, Elmer E..1975. The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. Wadsworth. CENGAGE Learning.
[xii] McKee, Robert. 1999. Story: substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting. New York: Harper Collins.