All the bloviating about the impact of last Tuesday reminds me of Teddy Riley’s line from “Groove Me“: “The party’s not over. It. Ain’t. Over. ” Holla if you know if what I’m talking about. Anyway, for those of you who missed the cultural reference, what I mean is this: the elections do not necessarily portend doom and gloom in 2010. But they are harbingers, and we would be unwise to disregard them.
I have always believed that Obama made a serious mistake taking on healthcare as soon as he did. Don’t get me wrong. I believe that universal health care is a moral obligation. It is obscene that the United States, virtually alone among industrialized countries, does not provide health care to all of its citizenry. So no need to sell me on the necessity of health care reform; I get it.
My point pertains not to necessity, but to politics and governing strategy. Obama won last fall by stitching together an impressive coalition of progressives, moderates and Democrat-leaning independents. Each segment of the coalition had interests that did not necessarily coincide with the others’, which I’ll discuss in a bit. But they were all united in the desire that a Democratic administration could pull us out of the economic chasm into which Bush’s profligacy and supply-side tropes had pushed us. It’s the economy, stupid. Always has been.
Given the reality of his mandate, and the fragile ties binding his coalition, I expected Obama to focus like a laser on the economy. Alas, he has not. He has taken his eyes of the ball by devoting so much time and energy to the healthcare debate, which has sucked all the oxygen out of the room. And when he has focused on the economy, his initiatives have in a perverse way played into the caricatures conservatives have painted of him. So Uncle Sam now owns most of Wall Street. Uncle Sam owns all of Detroit, except for the one automaker actually making money. And Uncle Sam is getting ready to involve itself in the business of healthcare. Each can be justified on the merits. But, collectively, they scare the bejesus out of moderates and independents. Hannity, Limbaugh and Beck begin to sound halfway sane when they call Obama a socialist. Of course he’s not a socialist. But he sure seems to be dead set on a whole lotta government takeover of private enterprise, however good his intentions might be.
Hence, the results of this past Tuesday’s contests. When you compare VA and NJ with NY-23, it becomes apparent to me that moderates and independents bolted because of their disquiet over Obama’s spending. To some extent, they buy the Keynesian argument that the economic crisis is best solved by even more government spending in the short-term. But there is a limit to their willingness to play along. So, to my mind, Obama’s initial health-care reforms should have been a bit more modest. First, he should have asked Congress to pass a simple law proscribing the rescission and “pre-existing condition” practices of insurers. Then, for the remainder of his term, he should have implemented robust financial reforms and had Congress pass targeted stimulus spending. More cash for clunkers, and less pork-laden stuff like the stimulus bill. In his second term, once economy has turned around, he could then turn to reforming health care and other entitlements, which would put the United States on a glide path to long-term solvency and prosperity. Moderates and independents would give him this mandate, as his first term would have assuaged their fears of fiscal indiscipline. Voila! Everybody gets their cookies.
But Obama did not pursue this strategy. One, I might add, urged by several eminences grise. Instead, he chose not to “waste a crisis” but to try to resolve all of these problems — healthcare, economy, environment, etc. — at once. Now that’s he’s embarked upon this path, I think it’s too late to return to my “sequencing” idea. In the immortal words of Macbeth:
I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.
In other words, he cannot simply drop health care like a hot potato. He has to see this thing through to completion. But how? Everybody is drawing different conclusions from these elections. Progressives insists that it means Obama has to push harder for their desired reforms, or they won’t show up at the polls. Moderates and independents insist that they won’t show up if Obama does not tack to the center, post-haste.
Let me humbly suggest that both are right. Progressives are the base of the Democratic Party, and always will be. However, getting progressives on board is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. To put a Democratic candidate over the top, he or she must win over independents. Thus, in VA and NJ, Republicans won by winning over independents. In NY 23, the moderates and independents went to the Democrat, and he won. So my takeaway is that neither progressives nor moderates can go it alone: they each need other.
How might progressives and moderates make common cause? By talking to each other. Beneath the blood-curdling yells, progressives are actually asking some salient questions, and it behooves moderates to listen closely. Questions like:
- Why is the White House AWOL on gay marriage? It costs little political capital to weigh in, even as most concede these issues are best resolved on a local basis. And it’s the right thing to do. The WH has an army of volunteers at its disposal. Get ’em involved.
- Why the fiscal focus on healthcare, when the war efforts aren’t subject to the same scrutiny?
- Speaking of which, however right or just the war might be, what do we realistically think we can accomplish in Afghanistan?
Similarly, moderates and independents make valid points of their own. If competition is the rationale for the public option, is it not better — and more consistent with America’s free-market principles — to remove impediments to competition among private insurers, rather than create another government entity? Or this — are you prepared to live with the consequences of a withdrawal from Afghanistan? How else would you suggest we fight for the minds and hearts of the local populace, without whose active participation (or apathy) terrorist operations cannot take root?
Other issues abound, on both sides. It’s no disservice to either to say that. The disservice is ours, however, if we cannot figure out a way to come together on these issues. I have always maintained that ideology can often get in the way of solutions. It’s important that we not become so fixated on particular policy approaches that we forget the larger goal of improving the lot of the American people.
Let’s keep the party going.