David Roberts is deeply pessimistic about the chances that a renewable energy standard will be making it though Congress anytime soon. (Can’t say I blame him.) And the primary culprit is the Republicans’ descent into total self-serving political nihilism:
Few people on the center left — and I include both Obama and Reid in this — seem able to get their heads around what the GOP has become. They keep thinking there are policy compromises so obviously in the public interest that Republicans will feel a sense of shame and call a time out on partisan warfare. By now, though, it should be clear beyond all doubt that Republicans have no interest in doing so.
Flagging Obama’s “if I said the sky was blue, they’d say no” line in last week’s speech, Blue Texan over at Firedoglake says all this should have been obvious after the stimulus vote in early 2009.
So my question is: why did the White House let Max Baucus screw around for most of 2009 trying to win Republican support for health care reform?
Okay, some thoughts. First off, I completely agree that the Republicans are solely focused on destroying Obama and the Democrats come November, the well-being of the country be damned. But I don’t think the problem here is that Obama, or anyone else, didn’t “get it” until just recently.
The health care fight is actually a good example: Even if Obama and the Democrats had gone into 2009 with the assumption they wouldn’t get one Republican vote, would this have actually changed anything at all? I don’t think it would have. At the end of the day, the Senate works the way it works, and Obama and the Democrats needed sixty votes to pass anything — and corralling sixty politicians of the same party around a single voting position on a contentious issue is a lot harder than corralling only forty. Had the Democrats gone in with a “ram it down the GOP’s throat” strategy, that might have been emotionally satisfying for the liberal base; but lose just one centrist Dem and the whole thing turns into an embarrassing legislative route. Not to mention, no health reform at all.
Either that, or they would’ve had to go back to the negotiating table to retrieve those recalcitrant centrists. Or try to peel off a moderate Republican as a replacement vote. And we’re right back to the grinding months of negotiations we, you know, actually had.
Which isn’t to say I think it’s obvious Obama, Reid & Co. picked the right legislative strategy. I just don’t think it’s at all obvious they picked the wrong one, either. I think there are risks in either direction. This kind legislative chess is really, really hard to figure out, and counterfactuals after the fact are of little to no help.
But per Blue Texan, lots of disaffected liberals and leftists clearly do think it’s obvious the Democrats and the White House picked the wrong grand strategy by going in with a willingness to negotiate. I think the mistake being made here is that we all often tend to think of “the American public” as the equivalent of a single person, only much bigger. We all know we shouldn’t, but we do anyway. So we talk as if the public has one particular and definable collective personality, which can be reliably appealed to by certain forms of rhetoric and/or political strategy. Thus, if you can convince “the American public” that the Republicans really are nihilists, you’ll get them on your side.
But the public isn’t really like that — it’s a hugely complex, fickle and self-contradictory beast, and there’s no guarantee that Americans will react to rhetorical aggressiveness or throw-down political fights in the way Democrats (or Republicans) want. Those strategies could blow up in the Democrats’ face — making them look petty, unreasonable, or petulant — depending on lots of factors, including how well the Republicans themselves play the politics. Simply “getting” what the Republicans are about doesn’t automatically suggest any strategy for countering the problem.
In other words, maybe Obama really has understood the Republicans’ nihilism from the beginning. Because everything he and the Democratic leadership have done so far isn’t necessarily strategically inconsistent with that realization.