This will not be a popular argument for my more conservative and libertarian readers, but in political terms, I think the Democratic party and Barack Obama need to cease their efforts to create bi-partisan health care reform, and instead use their majorities to pass their agenda, and then let the public have a chance to vote them out in 2010 and 2012 if they don’t like it.
Ronald Reagan, the iconic conservative President of the 1980s, made a point of standing on principle, even if it was unpopular. That earned him respect from even Democrats. Barack Obama and the Democratic party made health care reform a fundamental part of their campaign, and it gained them considerable support. Now the Republicans are launching a frontal assault on the plan, with disruption of meetings, false claims of ‘death panels’ and an effort to, as one describes “destroy the Obama Presidency.” The Republicans have declared political war. They don’t want to cooperate or compromise on this issue.
At this point, Obama has to consider his options. He could cave in and drop his efforts to reform health care for now, thereby making it unlikely he’ll get anything passed, and showing himself a weakened President. That would be politically expedient in the short term, but hurt both him and his party in the longer term.
The Democrats have 60 seats in the Senate, and a considerable majority in the house. Given the economy, this may be their only opportunity to push the country in a different direction than it has been going. Obama hoped to unify, but the divisions between the parties remain intense. The only way the GOP will work with Obama is if he makes it clear that fighting him tooth and nail on everything will only get the Republicans cut out of the picture. He has to make it in their interest to cooperate.
Consider: if you’re a Republican, you hope that you can rally opposition to force Obama to back down, make him look weak, grab the high ground, and push against the Democratic agenda. As long as Obama either backs down or is unable to muster the votes in his own party to pass legislation, he looks weak. That will lose him support from moderates who found him inspirational, turn the left in his own party against him, and demoralize the Democrats who had so much hope a year ago.
So the Republicans right now feel like they are in the drivers’ seat, as long as Obama proves to be a weak opponent. And he does appear weak — even Jon Stewart is mocking him for not being able to control the message the way Bush did in the run up to the Iraq war. The Democrats need to decide to stand and govern on principle, pass what they can pass, and let the Republicans rip them while they do it.
Take health care. Obama needs to make a national address showing how the health care system is in a financial crisis, with the current system unsustainable. He should make a strong moral argument about the dangers of letting the market control this, noting the corruption and abuse the financial system underwent when market deregulation occurred. He must point out projections that show that the current system is near collapse, and paint a dire picture of the cost of doing nothing (perhaps seven times higher than the cost of the current system). He needs to put this in the context of the current crisis we’re facing and starkly point out that doing nothing is no option. He needs to then deride the misleading information on the current plans, and say that it is imperative to move forward.
The Democrats can pass a proposal with only 51 Senate votes — if they go to reconciliation, they can avoid a Republican filibuster. The Republicans have said that would be a “declaration of war,” but it appears they are already at war with Obama. Moreover, the public tends not to get too excited by procedural controversies, so this won’t really hurt the Democrats in terms of public opinion.
The GOP will respond by targeting legislators and Senators who may be in vulnerable states or districts. The Democrats need to put on their own information offensive, and hope that time and the fact that their changes are not so odious as right wing claims causes people to shift opinion yet again. Moreover, a truism in politics is that the public has a short memory. Whatever issue is in the spotlight in October 2010 will drive the next election, the fights of 2009 will be quickly forgotten. And, of course, the White House will have a lot of influence over what dominates the news in October 2010.
After health care is passed, Obama should again call for cooperation and compromise on future issues. At first the Republicans may refuse due to anger over losing on health care. But ultimately that emotion will give way to the idea that perhaps by being part of the discussion they can better influence legislation moving forward. If so, Obama should welcome that. The Democrats have the power to pass a lot without Republican cooperation, but the more they do so, the more dangerous it is that it will backfire.
On the right, many may want to keep up a war against Obama rather than cooperate and compromise for similar reasons. Many on the left would prefer to just push through as much as possible and not even try to cooperate. But these folks over-estimate the support a hard core message on the left or the right generates. Obama and the Democrats need to make clear they want substantive cooperation and compromise, but if the Republicans refuse, they will use their votes to get legislation passed. If the GOP responds positively, Obama must also not fear real compromise, even if the left wing of his party gets upset.
In 2010 the country will be someplace else. In 2012, when Obama runs for re-election, the issues that dominate will no doubt be quite different than those today, we can only speculate. In 1994 nobody thought Clinton would have a chance at re-election in 1996, but he won easily. In 1982 Reagan looked weak, but he rebounded. Obama and the Democrats can’t let fear of public reaction stop them from doing what they campaigned to do, and what they have the votes to accomplish.
Obama was elected because people wanted change, and he inspired hope. If he thought that good will would last more than a month or so into his Presidency, he was wrong. The Presidency is not a marketing campaign. He needs to lead, even if it means ruffling some feathers or getting people upset. He needs to recognize that his role requires he do what he thinks best for the country, even if it might threaten his re-election in 2012. Obama is being tested. To pass, he needs to lead.