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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

J.P. Green

New Health Reform Strategy Takes Shape

Bob Rosenblatt’s L.A. Times article “A National Healthcare Reform Primer” is a good place to start getting up to speed on the major issues of the current debate on health care refom strategy. In the Q&A section of his article, Rosenblatt does a good job of explaining how health care reform would be financed:

How can the country pay for a reworking of its health insurance system?
Obama has proposed a down payment of $630 billion. Most of the money would come from an increase in federal income taxes by limiting deductions for people making more than $250,000 a year…He also wants to cut payments to Medicare HMOs, saving about $175 billion over 10 years, according to the budget plan issued Thursday. This program, known as Medicare Advantage, requires enrollees to get their hospital and doctor care within a network of providers. In return, they get extra benefits, such as dental care, which are not included in the regular Medicare program. Under regular Medicare, called fee-for-service, the beneficiary can see any doctor or hospital where Medicare payments are accepted.

Rosenblatt also discusses other funding mechanisms under consideration, including: capping the federal income tax deduction for health insurance; creating a special tax dedicated for healthcare; and finding ways to make the system more efficient.
For an interesting look at the key health care strategy players, read “On Health, President Takes Team Approach” by Robert Pear and Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times. The authors focus on the following members of Obama’s health care reform team: Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, the President’s nominee for Secretary of HHS; Nancy-Ann DeParle, counselor to the president and director of the White House Office for Health Reform, is not subject to Senate confirmation; Peter R. Orszag, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, “a dominant voice on health policy within the administration” ; Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, brother of Rahm Emanuel, an oncologist and medical ethicist and “kibitzer-in-chief on health policy”; Melody C. Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, and Lawrence H. Summers, the director of the National Economic Council
In her Wall St. Journal article, “Tough Questions Dog Health-Care Overhaul,” Laura Meckler focuses on Obama’s proposed “system in which people could buy insurance through a government-organized marketplace, where private plans and a new government-run plan would compete.” and notes:

If the government were to require businesses to offer insurance, it would have to set a standard for what counts as insurance. Would a bare-bones plan with limited coverage qualify? Businesses and others would likely wince at the idea of government setting standards for the benefits they must offer….During his campaign, Mr. Obama proposed that large businesses be required to offer coverage or pay into a fund, while small businesses that offer coverage would get a tax credit…Many Democrats insist that there be a public option. Some say it would provide a test for whether Americans prefer a government-run system similar to what exists in Canada. But opponents say it would skew the playing field because government will always be able to undercut private insurers’ prices.

What I crave most as a health insurance consumer is simplicity. I don’t want to be what the insurance companies call “an educated consumer,” who has to spend a lot of time reading their brochures and making cafeteria-style decisions about my “benefit options” based on their constantly changing coverage and too often dishonored promises. I want everything covered — a little card that guarantees that any illness or health issue that befalls me or my family will not entail ruinous medical expenses, and requires nothing more than a modest co-payment from me for anything. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask for in the most prosperous nation in world history.
Right now, I have to believe goverment is likely to be the more credible provider of such a promise, since private insurers have only cut benefits and raised prices in recent years. Theoretically, at least, it should be possible for insurance companies to compete on the basis of who can provide the most affordable insurance that truly covers every illness, without the expensive “optional” add-ons like “cancer insurance” private providers offer today. If one of the big companies had the guts to offer such a truly comprehensive package, I suspect they would bury the competition.
Health security for millions of Americans has always been discussed as something separate from “national security,” and I sometimes wonder if that’s a key reason why comprehensive health insurance that covers everyone and every illness has been such a tough sell. When it comes to saving the lives of Americans, the failures of our health care delivery system have probably done more real damage to our citizens than all of the terrorists threatening America put together. Yet it’s politically easier to dump $5 billion a week into the Iraq quagmire than it is to spend about the same amount– $250 billion a year — to provide coverage for all of the uninsured (American Enterprise Institute maximum estimate, quoted in Rosenblatt’s article).
The same is true to some extent for the relationship of health care reform to the success of the economic reform package. As Governor Jennifer Granholm noted on MSNBC’s “Hardball” on Sunday, Ontario produced more cars than Michigan last year — for the first time ever. Conservatives can’t blame it on their traditional boogeymen, taxes and regulation, since Canada has more of both. As Granholm explained about the auto companies, “They were going there because of health care.” Ontario’s edge for auto companies is due to Canada’s more efficient health care system, which makes cars produced there less expensive than in the U.S., where health insurance adds $1200-1500 to the price of every car, according to Granholm. Regardless of the specific policies at issue, clearly health care reform should be pitched more assetively as a critical component of both economic and national security.

Needed: More Discussion About Party-Building

It’s hard to see a downside to having the most charismatic Democratic Party leader since JFK. But there is one, and it’s well-stated in Daniel J. Galvin’s article in The Forum, “Changing Course: Reversing the Organizational Trajectory of the Democratic Party from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama,” written during the ’08 campaign. As Galvin’s opening graphs explain:

In a 2005 New York Times op-ed now considered a “classic essay,” former senator Bill Bradley observed a peculiar trade-off in party politics between charisma and structure. Over the previous 40-plus years, he wrote, each party dealt with this tradeoff differently and met with different degrees of success. Republicans, he argued, gained a competitive advantage over the Democrats by emphasizing structure over charisma. They “consciously, carefully, and single-mindedly” built a “stable pyramid” of money, ideas, organization, and action,where “all you have to do is put a different top on it and it works fine.” Because the structure was stable, the personality of the party’s titular leader was of secondary importance. Charisma was a decidedly second-order concern.
Democrats, meanwhile, were “hypnotized by Jack Kennedy, and the promise of a charismatic leader who can change America by the strength and style of his personality.” While searching for the next JFK, Democrats neglected the less glamorous but ultimately more important work of organization-building. The problem was that “a party based on charisma has no long-term impact,” Bradley wrote. Bill Clinton’s charisma, for example, “didn’t translate into structure,” and while “the president did well,” he wrote, “the party did not.” Now, Democrats found themselves with “no coherent, larger structure that they can rely on” and with a grim outlook for the future

Most of Galvin’s article is optimistic about Obama’s commitment to party-building and the accomplishments of Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy during his tenure at the helm of the DNC (For another positive assessment of Dean’s tenure at the DNC, see Alexander Zaitchick’s recent Alternet post).
However, Democratic gains in November, ’08 can be as credibly attributed to a host of other factors, like Obama’c coattails, the economic meltdown, an edge in internet fund-raising or voters’ general weariness of the GOP, to name a few. Geographic saturation is an important aspect of party-building, but the discussion should be broadened to include concerns like structural reform, the role of a strengthened labor movement (a hallmark of strong progressive political parties in Europe), candidate recruitment and training and how to get rank and file Democratic voters organized into lobbying groups. There is also room for an expanded discussion about party discipline, including the role of pro-Democratic reform initiatives like the Accountability Now PAC.
Galvin’s article was written before Governor Tim Kaine was appointed as Dean’s successor, and it’s too early to evaluate Kaine’s track record thus far. Kaine’s plan for building the Democratic Party will be rolled out in April, according to Zaitchick. Democrats face a different kind of party-building challenge now, with the enormous advantage of the President’s bully pulpit. Much depends on the eventual success of the stimulus and other Obama reforms.
Most of the recent debate about the pros and cons of bipartisanship has centered around it’s effect on the quality of legislation. But there is also a legitimate concern about how it impacts the growth and development of the Democratic Party, as noted in this comment, from a poster named Steve at The Last Chance Democracy Cafe:

I know it isn’t politically correct to say it right now, but the truth is that helping to build a strong Democratic Party — one that can win consistently — is the single biggest contribution Barack Obama can make to achieving positive progressive change in this nation. A single gifted president, even serving for the full eight years, can only do so much to improve this nation. A strong progressively rooted Democratic Party, able to effectively fight the good fight for a generation or more, on the other hand, can change the world.
I think Obama knows this: but, to be honest, he’s starting to scare me a little. He played the GOP masterfully during the stimulus bill debate. But there’s a danger in his incessant talk of bipartisanship. It has the effect of putting the GOP — and its response to Obama’s proposals — into the very center of the story, while at the same time marginalizing other Democrats. Why should anyone care what congressional Democrats have to say about the economy, when the whole storyline has become how the GOP will respond to Obama’s proposals?
…I understand the siren song of bipartisanship sounds loudly in the spirit of our new president. And making a public show of reaching out to the GOP is probably good politics — at least for Obama himself. But building a strong Democratic Party is better politics. And it is also an essential element to building a better and more just America over the long haul.
So two words, Barack: party building. Press them to your chest and put them under your pillow at night. Never forget them and never neglect them. Because when all is said and done, they may just represent the single most important inheritance you can give this nation.

Not that sparingly applied bipartisanship, and party-building are necessarily antithetical. But Steve’s concern about media ‘storyline’ is well-taken as is his challenge to Obama to keep focused on strengthening his party. Same goes for Sen. Bradley’s point about the focus on charisma, which is media-driven.
While there is not much the Democratic Party can do about lazy or shallow msm reporting, the growth of the pro-Democratic blogosphere and the telecommunications revolution hold out the hope that we can make better use of our own media. The explosion of streaming video, for example, means that there is no longer much of an excuse for Democrats not having their own 24-7 television station. As this technology becomes more seamlessly interwoven with television, the possibilities for educating voters will multiply dramatically. Ditto for a Democratic Party 24-7 internet radio station, long overdue.
A lot of interesting questions could be addressed, including: How do we make the party platform more of a unifying force? What is the future role for party-related interest groups, such as Dean’s Democracy for America or perhaps some future green Democrats caucus? What sort of ad campaign would attract young voters to become active in local Democratic groups?
It’s a lot to think about. But a broader, ongoing and inclusive discussion of future directions in party-building would help lay a solid foundation for a new era of progressive reform.

Jindal Under the Vocano

On reading CNN’s report about the fallout from Bobby Jindal’s put down of “volcano monitoring,” I felt a sense of some sort of deja vu — haven’t we been here before?
Then, aha, I remembered John McCain’s snarky put-down “$3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the same knuckle-dragging reactionary wrote Jindal’s speech and McCain’s debate sound bite, so similar is the lame attitude behind them.
In addition to the contempt for science, Jindal’s ‘volcano’ remark is revealing in another way. For one thing, it indicates that the GOP is sorely in need of better speechwriters. The whole rebuttal was pretty thin, even though it does reflect Republican ideology faithfully enough, as Ed notes below. But the volcano remark was going well out of one’s way to step in it. A second-rate speechwriter should be able to understand that such a cheap shot would backfire because of Mount. St. Helens, where 57 people were killed. Certainly they should have been able to come up with something better, considering the broad scope of the stimulus. Crappy speechwriting often comes from lazy research.
A lot of Dem commentators have had fun mocking Jindal’s condescending delivery, here amusingly compared to the oratorical stylings of “Kenneth the Page” on “30 Rock.” Jindal’s rebuttal reminded me more of a comment attributed to Gore Vidal: “Today’s public figures can no longer write their own speeches or books, and there is some evidence that they can’t read them either.” Not to gloat, but happily, we Dems are in the opposite position of having a thoughtful writer, as well as speaker, at the helm of our party. When Obama’s speechwriters slip up, they have a tough editor to get them straightened out in the person of the President. It helps a lot.

Obama’s Address Wins Broad Praise

President Obama’s first address to Congress was exceptionally well-received, according to opinion polls, focus groups and reportage across the country. For a good round-up of opinion polls and focus groups, check Pollster.com, where Mark Blumenthal cites a CBS News poll which found that 79 percent of viewers approved of the President’s plans for “dealing with the economic crisis” — up from 62 percent before the speech. Additionally, Blumenthal cites a CNN poll showing 68 percent of speech-watchers with a “very positive reaction.”
Blumenthal also reports on a DCorps dial-group of speech-watchers, and quotes TDS co-editor Stan Greenberg’s observation “I’ve never seen anything like it. Republicans never went below 50 [on their dial ratings].”
While most newspapers dutifully quoted from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s ho-hum rebuttal on behalf of the GOP as a concession to ‘balance,’ a quick survey of “second-tier” newspapers across the country suggests that Obama’s speech generally received a favorable reception from reporters and the public alike. For example, in Detroit, reeling from the meltdown like no other city, Obama’s address seems to have hit the mark. Todd Spangler reported in The Detroit Free Press :

Although not formally recognized as a State of the Union address because it came in the same year as his inauguration, the hour-long speech had all the makings of one and contained much of concern to Michiganders struggling with high foreclosure rates, plant closures and the highest jobless rate in the nation in December at 10.6%…The auto industry, he said, has been beset by “years of bad decision-making” and government shouldn’t protect the industry from “their own bad practices.” But he said it is too big an industry to fail…His commitment to the domestic auto industry is essential, said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat.

Miami Herald reporters Robert Samuels and Evan Benn had a man-on-the-street round-up, including:

At the Riverside Hotel on Fort Lauderdale’s Las Olas Boulevard, Rocco Norman watched Obama address the nation on television and said he was pleased to hear the president say he would fight corporate greed.
…”I’m a worker. Most everyone I know is a worker. And we’re scared for our jobs, while the CEOs keep getting bonuses? That isn’t right,” said Norman, 42, a law office assistant.
Obama’s remarks about the economy drew the attention of several Barry University students, who took time off from their studies to watch the address…”It rejuvenated the hope for me that our education system will be able to compete with the Chinese,” said Michael Whorley, an 18-year old freshman…’Usually, in economic turmoil, education is the first thing to go.

The Abilene Reporter-News featured AP white house correspondent Jennifer Loven’s wire report, which explained that the President’s address was more of a speech on domestic policy, but noted:

In contrast to many State of the Union addresses by George W. Bush, Obama did not emphasize foreign policy. He touched on his intention to chart new strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan and to forge a new image for the U.S. around the world even as he keeps up the fight against terrorism…He touted his decision to end the practice of leaving Iraq and Afghanistan war spending out of the main budget. “For seven years, we have been a nation at war. No longer will we hide its price,” Obama said.

The Portland Oregonian ran a well-titled editorial “More Braveheart, Less Cassandra,” which had this plaudit for the President:

The president, deprived by the electoral calendar of the chance to offer a true State of the Union speech this year, made the most of his opportunity to show America an air of confidence and competence. With stock indices down, job insecurity up, local governments planning service cuts and banks being seized weekly, nervousness has threatened to give way to panic. That’s why Obama sought to sound a reassuring note Tuesday night. And let’s face it, the president has a gift for persuasive rhetoric…Obama conveys the demeanor of a man who knows his history, can command attention and is mindful of peril. All of those qualities were on display Tuesday night.

The Omaha World-Herald went with a legislator round-up, “Reaction by the Midlands congressional delegation,” including the following observations:

Republican Senator Charless Grassley: “Beyond the policy debates, the President can do good by expressing confidence in the future and help to give Americans the fortitude we need to weather this economic crisis and come out of it stronger than we were before, as we have done time and again in our country’s 233-year history.”
Democratic Senator Tom Harkin: “The president’s economic recovery package, along with his plans for reducing foreclosures and stabilizing the financial system, will rebuild confidence and stop the downward dynamics in the economy. In the longer term, he is making investments that will restore growth and transform our approach to energy, health care, and education…he intends to move to rein in deficits once the economy recovers. The president made it clear, tonight, that he will continue tackling the fiscal and economic messes created in recent years with boldness and urgency. This will not happen overnight, but it will happen.

Up in New Hampshire, even The Manchester Union Leader published a fairly positive account of the President’s address to Congress, observing,

The central argument the President’s speech was that his still-unfolding economic revival plan has room for — and even demands — simultaneous action on a broad, expensive agenda including helping the millions without health insurance, improving education and switching the U.S. to greater dependence on alternative energy sources.
Rep. Paul Hodes, D-N.H., called Obama’s speech “interesting and inspiring.” “Obama showed that even when we disagree, we can produce the best results when we engage in the process in good faith and he is forcing us to engage in a new way to govern,” Hodes said.
Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. said the speech was “very strong.” “The President made it very clear that addressing these spending issues is going to be a priority for him, and it’s certainly going to be a priority for me,” Gregg said in a written statement. “I believe that here in the Senate we have the opportunity to take some strong and decisive action in this area by trying to control the rate of growth of entitlement spending, and I am hopeful that the President will come forward with specific programs to accomplish that.”

In her Hotline After Dark post, Katherine Lehr quotes other GOP leaders making positive comments about the President’s speech, including Senators John Thune, Mitch McConnell and John McCain. She also quotes David Brooks calling it an “excellent speech,” which “perfectly captured the tenor of the country” and David Gergen calling Obama’s address the “most ambitious we have heard in this chamber in decades.”
We’ve become accustomed to excellent speeches by President Obama. It appears that this one has also served his strategy of building support outside the beltway, as well as in Congress.

Uptick In ‘Symbolically Conservative, Operationally Liberal’ Constituency May Steer Future

Paul Starr has a short, but insightful post, “Breaking the Grip of the Past” at The American Prospect today, which sheds light on president Obama’s political strategy. As Starr explains:

For Barack Obama and the Democrats, the problem is not just the hard-right conservatives who dominate the Republican Party and the right-wing media echo chamber. Given the urgency of present circumstances, the critical impediment may lie in the ambivalent center — among the middle-of-the-road Democrats and Republicans who hold the margin of votes in the Senate, much of the business and opinion-leader establishment, and a large part of the public who are not strongly affiliated with any party or ideological position.
Winning over those groups poses the key challenge if Congress and the new administration are to free the country from the dead right hand of the past. Obama’s mix of conciliatory and assertive stances — an openness to talking with the other side and a willingness to concede, in principle, that it may have a point, yet a determination when pressed to fight for his policies — is not just an expression of his personality. It’s the rational strategy of a politician who can’t get his program through unless he peels off some part of the opposition.

Starr goes on to note Obama’s tendency “not to confront conservatism in general terms” which Starr believes makes some sense because “Many Americans who identify themselves as conservative nonetheless favor liberal positions on specific policies” — a “symbolically conservative, but operationally liberal” group estimated at 22 percent of the public in 2004 by James A. Stimson in his book Tides of Consent. Starr believes surveys indicate there may be a “big increase” in this group since the election.
Starr believes Obama’s ‘whatever works’ rhetoric is calibrated to address this group and the “deep American strain of post-partisanship.” WaPo columnist E.J. Dionne sees the evolving consensus on bipartisanship a little differently in his column today on “Obama’s FDR Moment“:

And when it comes to bipartisanship, the point is not the numerical count of Republicans who vote for this or that. It’s whether frightened citizens sense that government is working…”People want the basic stuff fixed,” said state Rep. Vernon Sykes, a Democrat who chairs the Finance and Appropriations Committee in the Ohio House. “They don’t have a romantic notion of bipartisanship. They just want people to come together to solve problems.”

Post or bipartisanship notwithstanding, Starr credits Obama with drawing a line in the sand against more tax cuts for the rich and do-nothing government. Starr feels this rhetorically-nuanced approach could well “educate the public about the folly of conservative views and help move the country toward a new progressive center.” However, Starr warns,

it’s crucial, perhaps more for others than for Obama, to continue to press the case that our present problems have ideological roots — that they are not due equally to all sides but rather to the mistaken premises, malignant neglect, and sometimes outright malfeasance of a long era of conservative government…But if he concedes too much, it could be another version of disabling triangulation

It’s a delicate balancing act, and the President’s communications skills in educating the public will be on wide display tomorrow, when he addresses the nation. It may be Obama’s “FDR moment,” but he should also remember MLK’s dictum “Ultimately, a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.”

Liberating a Mandate Through Citizen Lobbyists

In Politico‘s ‘The Arena,’ Drew Westen has this harsh evaluation of the Obama Administration’s leveraging of its mandate:

Unless the Democrats dramatically change course or the new President puts his foot down and reminds the American people who they voted for, any new legislation will have to pass muster with co-presidents Collins, Specter, and Snowe, and their shadow cabinet of Cornyn, Boehner, Shelby, and McConnell. The new co-presidents will not be able to do the kind of damage their party did over the last eight years, but they will be able to prevent the Democrats from fixing it—and to allow the radical conservatives to say “I told you so” in two years and take back large swaths of the House and Senate. If somehow this stimulus package succeeds, they will be able to claim that it was their changes, their tax cuts, and their “fiscal restraint” that worked.

Ouch. I’m hoping Westen has overstated the case here, especially insofar as his prognosis for the ’10 elections are concerned. Less than a month into president Obama’s term seems a little early for d.o.a. pronouncements. Still Westen may have a point about the need for some bully pulpit to rally supporters, which has been well-noted by Ed here at TDS and others.
Digby has an interesting take on Westen’s argument, affirming his “good case that winning elections required appealing to emotion,” but adding,

I never agreed with him and some other advisers, that people didn’t also need to vote on the basis of substantive political argument. If you don’t ground politics in ideas, it’s nothing more than show business (or religion.) And while the Republicans are great showmen, they very definitely ground their politics in ideology. They sell it with emotion, to be sure, and it’s completely incoherent when you scratch beneath the surface, but it’s there. It’s what they call “principle” and it brainwashes people to sell out their own self-interest without knowing they are doing it.
…there is a consequence to refusing to fight campaigns on ideology and present those ideas as a cogent set of political principles. Right now, the Democrats are basically assuming that people are hurting enough to find the Republicans reprehensible for trying to obstruct the help they need. That’s a pretty risky strategy….Democrats do themselves no favors by looking for magic bullets. What Westen (and Lakoff before him) prescribed was invaluable. But they were never adequate. Ideology matters and the Democrats have to explain theirs and attack the Republicans’.

Both Westen and Digby provide important insights here. But it’s not quite enough just to call for a more energetic presidential bully pulpit and a more vigorous statement of ideological clarity. What seems to be missing thus far is a commitment and a structure to transform Obama’s prodigious campaign assets into a strong, responsive citizen lobby. Obama does have a potentially powerful, but as yet undeployed asset in his massive mailing list of supporters, who wait to be mobilized as citizen lobbyists. He has been sending out emails to his supporters. But I’m wondering if a more formal structure, perhaps a multi-state network headed up by his best campaign workers could be called together and organized into a legislative task force, so that they have a clear identity, instead of just receiving emails urging them to action. It hasn’t really been tried before. But the potential for such an organization has never been stronger — and the need has rarely been more compelling.

Gregg Follies May Hurt GOP

Open Left‘s Chris Bowers has a fun takedown of msm reports that term Gregg’s withdrawal a “blow” to Obama. Bowers is exactly right. The idea is pretty silly.
Yes, No-Drama Obama would rather have had all of his appointments go smoothly. But reasonable voters understand that there was no way to predict Gregg’s histrionics. Most U.S. Senators get it that cabinet secretaries are charged to carry out the President’s policies, as part of a team, not as unelected free agents doing their own thing. I remember being taught that in middle school civics class. Gregg’s realization comes a little late and invites ridicule.
Characterizing Gregg’s vacillations as a “blow” to the President, rather than the GOP, is also a stretch. More on point is this from the comments following Bowers’ post:

He’s shown the whole world what we in NH have always known – that Judd is all about what Judd wants…And he, the last major GOP figure in NH, has become the laughing stock of both parties.

and another:

Merits of the appointment aside, I don’t see how this is a “blow”; the public is left with the clear impression that Obama made yet another attempt to bridge differences with the GOP, only to be rebuffed…This doesn’t make him look bad; if anything, he looks magnanimous, and the GOP looks petty.

Well said. Like Obama’s bipartisan outreach efforts or not, his sincerity, goodwill and consistency in reaching out are not in doubt. Indeed, they are highlighted in contrast to his Republican adversaries.
The Gregg withdrawal may also recall memories of McCain’s erratic behavior concerning his decision to debate or not following the economic meltdown. That can’t be good for the GOP.
Especially given Ed’s point in his post yesterday about the importance of the Census, Gregg’s withdrawal is not unwelcome among Democrats concerned about strengthening our case for reforms. President Obama now has plenty of cover for nominating a strong Democrat to head the Commerce Department, and it would be a shame not to use it. In that regard, Larry J. Sabato’s contribution to a round-up on the Gregg withdrawall in today’s WaPo may prove instructive:

The Gregg withdrawal can be a watershed. It’s been a grand and noble experiment, but now the Obama administration should abandon aggressive bipartisanship. The president deserves great credit for reaching out to Republicans in Cabinet appointments, frequent consultation and some substantive compromise on the stimulus bill. President Obama read public opinion correctly: Americans want civil debate between the parties, and that aspect of bipartisanship should be continued.
Yet pleasantries should never be exchanged at the cost of an electoral mandate. Obama secured a higher percentage of the vote than any Democratic presidential nominee since 1860, save for Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Splitting the difference on issues of principle waters down his mandate and dilutes the changes his supporters expect him to deliver. We have a two-party system, not a one-party scheme, and the fundamental differences between Democrats and Republicans create clear choices for the electorate. Obama should succeed or fail based on enactment of the Democratic platform. Voters will be the judge of Democrats’ handiwork in 2010 and 2012. Leave “national unity” governments to parliamentary nations, and let the American two-party system work.

It may be that the President’s bipartisan outreach will get better results later on, after his Administration is more securely established. For now, Sabato’s argument makes sense.

Senate Vote on Stimulus Shows a Hand Well-Played

After cruising the Rags of Record for insightful reports on the Senate vote on the stimulus, take a couple of minutes to read Dieter Bradbury’s article in the Kennebec Journal Morning Sentinel, “Collins gains political capital in vote: Senator won’t back stimulus if bloated spending measures reinstated.” Bradbury’s article provides an interesting home-state perspective on what is involved in piecing together a barely filibuster-proof majority, while focusing on Collin’s pivotal role in sculpting the compromise. Bradbury also does a good job of showing how Collins boosted her own stock, including:

Richard M. Skinner, a government professor at Bowdoin College, said Collins is now in good shape to win administration and Democratic support for bills that would benefit Maine, having played a pivotal role in the economic stimulus debate…”She’s really in a position to get what she wants from the Obama administration,” he said.

While artfully covering her rear flank:

Even if the stimulus fails and the economy continues to decline, it’s unlikely that Collins would pay a price for supporting the measure, said Sandy Maisel, who teaches government at Colby College.”If this is passed and it is seen as a failure, it will reflect on the Obama administration,” he said.
Maisel said the risk for Collins lies just ahead, as a conference committee hashes out differences between the $827 billion Senate bill and the $820 billion House version. Collins has said she will not support the bill if “bloated” spending provisions are reinserted….”If she decides she’s not going to vote for the conference report, then she is in the position of being the person who causes this to go down,” Maisel said.

Hard to see much of an upside in Collins playing a spoiler role. But the option is there if public opinion heads south on the stimulus, an unlikely prospect, if recent polls are any indication.
The 61-36 procedural vote was close to perfect, indicating that the compromise bill is about as progressive as it could have been and still pass. This is not to say that the left critics are wrong about the stimulus being too small and the tax cuts too large to do much good — a separate question. They may be right. But a razor-close margin is exactly what you want to see to get the most progressive possible bill passed.
Collins’ leadership shows the important role liberal Republicans will play during the Obama administration. Sure, we would rather have a filibuster-proof Senate majority. But it helps a lot to have a few Republicans neutralizing the ideologues in their own party. It reminds me of a similar situation back in 1982-83, when Republican Congressman Jack Kemp was instrumental in passing the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday bill. From a pragmatic, reform agenda point of view, the proper care and feeding of liberal Republicans is a worthy Democratic priority.
Give due credit as well to President Obama and his legislative staff for having the smarts to give Collins the room she needed to maneuver the centrists into position and cobble the majority together. Harry Reid also owes her big time. As Bob Herbert put it in his New York Times column today,

It’s early, but there are signs that Mr. Obama may be the kind of president who is incomprehensible to the cynics among us — one who is responsible and mature, who is concerned not just with the short-term political realities but also the long-term policy implications…Mr. Obama is like a championship chess player, always several moves ahead of friend and foe alike. He’s smart, deft, elegant and subtle. While Lindsey Graham was behaving like a 6-year-old on the Senate floor and Pete Sessions was studying passages in his Taliban handbook, Mr. Obama and his aides were assessing what’s achievable in terms of stimulus legislation and how best to get there.

It will take a little more time to see if the white house is really playing championship chess. For now, however, the poker analogy fits nicely, and Obama and Collins have just played a very shrewd hand.

Behind the Gregg Appointment

Pass the crow, please, re my Friday post on the Gregg appointment. Excuse me for thinking a Democratic Governor would surely appoint a Democratic Senator to replace Judd Gregg, if and when he is confirmed as Secretary of Commerce. The deal was apparently never that simple.
I’m not quite buying the noise that the Gregg nomination is all about the quiet joys of bipartisanship. I doubt that President Obama would put a third Republican in his cabinet without a little quid pro quo somewhere down the line. The explanation that makes the most sense at this point is that the Senator replacing Gregg will support Obama on some key legislation, such as the stimulus package (if it’s not a done deal before then) and/or EFCA and health care reform — not way off the range of possibilities for a centrist/liberal New England Republican. Sort of a sometimes 60th vote to prevent or stop filibustering. That way Gregg gets to save face with his GOP buds, and Obama gets at least some of what he wants from Gregg’s replacement.
The whole thing is a little dicey, in that it requires a lot of trust in, not one, but two Republicans, under the best of scenarios. In his post at OpenLeft, David Sirota calls Gregg a “radical free-trader,” and makes a convincing case that Gregg’s track record on trade issues is worrisome. And there may be another twist or two before all of the fallout settles. I don’t much like the precedent of a Democratic governor caving in and appointing a Republican, which doesn’t help with party-building. But no telling what other behind-the-scenes options Obama had. It’s not the queen gambit I was hoping for. For now, however, it seems reasonable to trust in Team Obama, since they have been pretty shrewd political chess players so far.

The Gregg Gambit

Republican Senator Judd Gregg is probably going to be getting more love today than anybody in Washington, as buzz builds about his possible selection as President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Commerce. Should Gregg accept the post, New Hampshire’s Democratic Governor John Lynch will appoint his successor — the 60th Senator Obama needs to stop filibusters (assuming Al Franken is sworn in).
Some promising signals are emanating from the Gregg camp. This week Gregg called President Obama a “tour de force” and he has said “I can’t tell you anything…no comment,” in response to media inquiries about his possible nomination, according to the New York Times. In addition, Gregg is a bit of a gambler, who won about $850K, when he hit five of six numbers on a Powerball lottery ticket, after purchasing four different $5 quik-piks at a D.C. gas station.
The Gregg appointment would work well on several levels. His fellow Republicans would not be able to whine much about his qualifications, since Gregg, a former congressman, and Governor (and son of a Governor), as well as Senator, is one of the more broadly-experienced members of the GOP. He is one of the more moderate Republicans, but he has solid cred with the private sector as an advocate of cuts in taxes and government spending. Commerce is one of the more coveted cabinet posts among Republicans, inasmuch as it offers a wealth of fund-raising connections and a potent rollodex for future campaigns, as well as entre to the upper echelons of the corporate stratosphere, with its dangling golden parachutes and cushy Board memberships.
No doubt GOP leaders and corporate honchos will be offering Gregg all kinds of goodies not to take the job. (See the item in our staff post yesterday about the corporate panic over the possible enactment of EFCA).
Not accepting the post, however, would mean Gregg spending the remainder of his Senate tenure as member of the party of legislative obstruction, not a particularly happy prospect for a three-term Senator, who is up for re-election next year. After 16 years in the Senate, he can’t be too excited about his future opportunities in that body.
The Gregg gambit would also work for Dems, since Obama would likely appoint a moderate, pro-business Democrat to the post, if not Gregg. At Commerce, Gregg would not be a big tilt to the right. Green Dems should be fairly comfortable with Gregg, who was instrumental in passing the New England Wilderness Act, voted for the CLEAN Energy act of 2007, and he has a mid-range rating (43 percent) with the League of Conservation Voters. As Nate Silver has noted, Gregg has voted for the Obama agenda in six of seven votes thus far.
All in all, it’s a good match for both Gregg and the Democrats, giving Obama cred for bipartisan outreach, while strengthening prospects for his legislative agenda.