Back before the shot clock was put in place, college basketball teams would often institute a “four corners offense,” a stalling tactic used when the other team was behind. They would try to simply control the ball and slow down the game. Teams could keep the ball for huge chunks of time, essentially running out the clock, or vastly limiting the ability of an opponent to score enough to come back.
Right now in Washington the GOP is using the equivalent of the “four corners offense” to try to stop the Obama Administration from passing anything of value. They believe that lack of production from a President who was elected on the promise of change will be far more damaging to the Democrats than charges of obstructionism against Republicans. Moreover, with Democratic majorities, they can always say “hey, they have the votes, why don’t they pass something?”
Recent Republican victories and trends nation wide that suggest strong GOP gains in November convince them that their strategy is working. Obama seems unable to deliver, Democrats are getting scared of the next election, and the public still wants change. If they can’t get it from Obama, they’ll turn to someone else. Moreover, this is a strategy that is likely to bring the GOP real gains. Obama will look weak, and they’ll say he lacks leadership or competence. The Democrats will appear divided and fight with each other, often due to geography and ideology. The Republicans simply have to say “no,” use the filibuster all the time, and then hope for gains in 2010, and perhaps to defeat Obama in 2012.
The best way to break up a four corners offense is aggressive ball play — go for steals, quick baskets, and getting the other side off guard. That now seems to be Obama’s best strategy. So, I’ll now don the hat of a political strategist and point out what I think Obama must do to turn around his political fortunes and assure re-election in 2012 and fewer losses in 2010.
First, Obama should not tack to the center. The thing about off year elections is it depends on how motivated the voters are. Obama’s real threat is not that he’ll lose the center, but that Democratic activists and the people whose energy and effort got Obama to the White House will sit this one out. Yes a lot of swing voters will go GOP this time. They probably will do so regardless of what Obama does. But if the Democrats loss their core supporters, their November loses will intensify. They’ll feel like their hopes were dashed, Obama didn’t live up to the promise, and it’s not worth donating or being active in this election cycle. Obama has to show that not only is he still a force for change, but he needs results. This means Obama has to push through as much as he can, despite claims from pundits and others that the country is sending a different message.
Although this sounds counter-intuitive, the American public is actually far more forgiving of a politician who stands on principle despite political risks than one who appears weak and vacillating. By September we could hear Democrats starting to say “this is turning around,” and the Republicans will appear to have been weak, unable to stop Obama’s changes. He still may lose some from the center, at least in 2010, and a lot will depend on job creation. But if Obama can regain the enthusastic suport of the core supporters who brought him to the White House, he’ll set himself up for a much better 2012. How?
1. Pass health care reform through reconciliation. At this point it simply matters that they pass something significant. They need a victory. That will play better in November than caving in and appearing weak (people vote less on issue substance than personality image), and they may bet that by 2012 people will have accepted the new system. In any event, if nothing passes on health care, Obama will have a major defeat and failure under his belt, and it will be hard to recover from it. Then he’ll simply have to hope for job growth to be swift.
2. Obama must spend a lot of time with Democrats explaining the need for action, and how they and the party need Obama to succeed if they’re going to avoid another 1994. He needs face time with liberals, conservatives, moderates, all in the party who can work together and form a kind of pragmatic coalition that can push through measures either through reconiciliation in the Senate or by finding a few moderate Republicans who aren’t so committed to pure stall. I don’t like to see the filibuster or reconciliation abused. But in terms of strategy, if the Republicans are going to abuse the former, the Democrats need to abuse the latter if they are going to turn things around.
3. He must be assertive. Whether it’s jobs, “don’t ask don’t tell” (which must disappear quickly to really energize his base), health care, or nuclear energy, he must be out front, selling the policy and casting it in ways that can’t easily be cast as just ‘big government.’ He needs to own the message.
By nature Obama is a pragmatist and cautious. In Illinois he rarely pushed or bluffed if he didn’t have a battle already won. But a cautious, conservative team can’t break a four corners offense without taking risks and becoming aggressive. He still needs Republican support on a lot of issues in the Senate, and he has to build a coalition within his own party that can agree enough to pass major change. He also can aggressively use the powers of the executive branch to do things like enforce new financial regulations and in essence circumvent Congress.
Moreover, this strategy will be more effective now then if he had done this from the start. He has a reputation now as cautious and non-ideological. Many in the center will respect him for moving quickly and blame the GOP for lack of cooperation now; they may not have done that if he pushed too quickly without giving bipartisanism a chance.
Not, these are not policy recommendations, I’m thinking purely in terms of political strategy. The Republicans decided to stall and use the filibuster to make it so Obama can accomplish little. That strategy has proven very successful for the Republicans. By now, Obama and the Democrats have to realize that their current approach has hurt them politically and they need to change gears. So after this week’s health summit, if there are no breakthrough agreements from moderate Republicans, expect an active, aggressive White House.
And, should Obama be successful in his efforts, the Republicans may decide they’re better off trying to influence legislation than just stalling it. Ultimately, I’d rather see tough compromises than politics as war. Right now the Republicans have no incentive to change their strategy because they believe it’s working. Obama’s task now is to turn that perception around.