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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The “Leftward Surge”

A close companion of the “Obama’s abandoned bipartisanship!” story-line among center-right gabbers is the “Obama’s shifted to the left!” argument. Two especially prominent journalists, the New York Times’ David Brooks and The Atlantic/FT‘s Clive Crook, have offered museum-piece-quality takes on the latter proposition this week. And they make little or no sense except as fine examples of how ideological definitions of “left,” “center” and “right” are constantly changed to comport with daily agitprop needs.
Brooks’ column, modestly entitled “Liberal Suicide March,” reflects one of David’s signature tactics: establishing moral and political equivalence between “the left” and “the right” without any reflection on, well, reality, or any sense of proportion. Because a majority of Democrats favor a course of action on, say, health reform, they are precisely as extreme and as worthy of dismissal as the looniest let’s-save-Terry-Schiavo conservatives of the Bush era. Good government is to be inherently identified with “the center,” as David Brooks happens to define it at any given moment.
At this given moment, Brooks defines “the center” as those Blue Dog Democrats who have heartburn over this or that feature of the House Democratic version of health reform, which in turn defines “the left,” which in turn defines Barack Obama because he hasn’t attacked said House version. The Blue Dogs are “brave moderates” because (like Barack Obama, but David can’t bring himself to admit that) they are concerned about health care cost containment. Many of them are also concerned, as it happens, about forcing higher reimbursement for rural doctors under Medicare, and many would just as soon boost costs even more by junking a “public option” that could force price competition among health plans. But apparently, Obama is participating in a “leftward surge” by failing to identify himself with the Blue Dogs on health care.
But Brooks is moving the goal-posts in a way that essentially means Obama can only stay in “the center” by moving “right.” Obama’s entire approach to health reform is a rejection of “the left’s” advocacy of a single-payer system–which isn’t even being debated–and a firm embrace of the “managed competition” model that used to define “the center”–and particularly the Blue Dog Democratic center–on health reform. More fundamentally, what Obama is advocating, far from representing a “leftward surge,” has been settled policy among mainstream Democrats since at least the 2004 campaign cycle, and is precisely what he promised to implement on the trail last year. His only notable “shift” has been to express an openness to an individual mandate, which has very much been a “centrist” idea within the Democratic Party.
Meanwhile, Clive Crook stipulates Brooks’ characterization of Obama’s positioning as obviously correct, and then plaintively asks why, why, why Obama doesn’t “pick fights” with “the left” and thereby get right with God and the American people.
I don’t know exactly how Crook has missed the many fights that Obama’s picked with “the left” since taking office, but to be helpful, I’d refer him to a fairly long list of progressive grievances with the administration that I made in a TNR article earlier this week about “the left’s” relative lack of leverage with Obama.
But let’s talk about “the center,” which is where Crook, like Brooks, thinks Obama should “move.” When it comes to health care policy, Clive Crook seems to define “the center” on health care as what Clive Crook thinks we should do:

I am for comprehensive health reform with a guarantee of universal coverage but favor broad-based taxes to pay for it, including limits to the tax deductibility of employer-provided insurance

Is “the left” the big obstacle to this approach? Yes, elements of the labor movement don’t like limits on tax deductibility of employer-provided insurance, but neither does much of anyone else outside the chattering classes (most emphatically a big majority of the American people). Crook very much wants Obama the President to emulate Obama the Candidate, but he is surely aware that the latter spent months attacking the idea of taxing employer-based benefits, and probably understands that Republicans, even though their presidential candidate embraced the idea (in the context of an amazingly reactionary health care proposal), would now violently oppose it as a forbidden “tax increase during a recession.” Indeed, Obama’s remarks at his press conference earlier this week opening the door to modest limitations on tax deductibility constituted something of a profile in courage, and probably displeased his political advisors.
So in the end, Barack Obama probably can’t satisfy Clive Crook on health reform, and probably can’t satisfy David Brooks by satisfying the self-contradictory desires of the Blue Dogs. For all the time that people like Crook and Brooks spend wringing their hands over Obama’s failure to ignore his own party and his own campaign platform to “lead” the country towards some ever-shifting concept of “the center,” he’d be better advised to forget about the labels and the positioning and get the closest thing possible to his original vision of health reform done.

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