Posted by: Jeff | November 18, 2010

Why Governance and Bipartisanship Don’t Go Together (But Obama Had to Try Anyway)

Greg Sargent has an interesting catch from Richard Wolffe’s new book on the Obama presidency thus far. In an interview excerpt on page 75, Obama appears to more or less acknowledge that the Republicans rolled him on health care reform by pretending to be interested in compromise:

That amounts to an admission that Dems were foolish to let Republicans draw out the process as long as possible, since their game plan was clearly to damage Dems by persuading people that government remained broken, that Obama had failed to change Washington, and that he wasn’t properly focused on fixing the economy…

I still don’t get why it’s not more broadly accepted that the quest for bipartisan support in particular was one of the main things that led to health reform becoming such a political liability for Dems. It allowed the process to drag on months longer than it had to, which directly led to the failure to pass reform before Scott Brown’s election to the Senate. Brown’s victory then allowed Republicans to argue that health reform had been repudiated by the American people before it had even passed, and forced Dems to use reconciliation to pass reform — which in turn allowed Republicans to further sour the public on the process.

I think this is on the money, but I think we should distinguish a few things here. What this tells us is that, had Democrats taken a hard partisan line on health care reform, they probably could’ve gotten it passed quicker. And I do think that would’ve improved the public’s perception of the legislation itself. (Which isn’t that bad as it is.)

But would it have improved the public’s perception of Obama and the Democrats — particularly in regards to the election that just occurred? Well, maybe. But maybe not. Remember that what dragged them down was the perception they weren’t fixing the economy. But simply getting health care reform done more quickly wouldn’t have necessarily given them any more opportunities to address that issue. The votes in the Senate were what they were, and my take is that the stimulus basically sucked up whatever enthusiasm moderate-to-conservative Democrats may have had for deficit spending to boost the economy. In fact, passing health care reform more quickly might have made electoral prospects even worse for Obama and his party; instead of spending months and months trying to pass health care reform, they very well could’ve spent months and months passing nothing at all.

I also doubt that quicker passage would’ve improved the content of health care reform. Obama still would’ve had to cut a deal with the pharmaceutical industry, and there still would’ve been no public option — again, because the votes in the Senate were what they were. (Even before Scott Brown got elected.)

Last point, and this may be the most important. Liberal and leftwing critics have been making this critique of the Democrats’ health care reform strategy for a while. And this quote from Wolffe’s book may very well inspire them to once again pound the table and ask why oh why didn’t Obama listen to them from the outset, and go into the reform push treating the Republicans as a hostile roadblock rather than potential negotiating partners? And the answer, of course, is that Obama doesn’t answer to the liberal and leftwing commentariat — he answers to the voters. And the voters, I think, made it abundantly clear they wanted to see bipartisanship and the two parties working together.

The problem, of course, is that over the last two years the Republicans found themselves in a minority position, where it was in their political self-interest to see Obama and the Democrats fail. On top of that, the Republicans have now been pretty much taken over by southern and rural white conservatives — hands-down the most bullheaded, juvenile, vindictive and self-pitying demographic in the country. (I’m sorry, but it’s true.) Under those conditions, any attempt to work together with the Republicans was guaranteed to lead to stagnation and inaction.

But American voters tend to be naive and ill-informed, and thus don’t recognize that their demands for both effective action and bipartisanship are mutually exclusive. And this naivete isn’t limited to the broad mushy middle or the politically unaware; it extends to pretty liberal and attentive voters as well. I mean, just look at Jon Stewart. He has an interview with Obama in which he criticizes him for not pushing harder on health care reform — for acquiescing to a deal with big pharma and to the death of the public option — and then holds a rally a few days later decrying both the right and the left for their partisanship and vituperation. The two things simply do not compute.

Now, you could argue that Obama and the Democrats simply should’ve made a surface-level show of being bipartisan, while being as partisan and hard-line as possible in the actual legislative sausage-making process. And I do think that’s what they should’ve done. Whatever the public may say about wanting to see equanimity and bipartisanship in Washington, what they respond to at the voting booth is results. And I think better results over the last two years would’ve more then made up for any bad taste hyper-partisanship would’ve left in the voters’ mouths. (Though, as I wrote above, I don’t think it’s certain that a more partisan strategy would have yielded better results. I just think the odds would’ve been higher.)

Problem is, going with such a strategy requires politicians to be pretty cynical and cold-blooded, and willing to both deceive and patronize the voters. And as much as I think that would’ve been the wise and proper course, I can’t really bring myself to blame Obama and the Democrats for refusing to go there.

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