by Conor Friedersdorf In short order, I’ve stumbled across two interesting points on that subject.
…the health care wrestling match is less a test of Mr. Obama’s political genius than it is a test of the Democratic Party’s ability to govern. This is not the Reagan era, when power in Washington was divided, and every important vote required the president to leverage his popularity to build trans-party coalitions. Fox News and Sarah Palin have soapboxes, but they don’t have veto power. Mr. Obama could be a cipher, a nonentity, a Millard Fillmore or a Franklin Pierce, and his party would still have the power to pass sweeping legislation without a single Republican vote.
What’s more, health care reform is the Democratic Party’s signature issue. Its wonks have thought longer and harder about it than any other topic. Its politicians are vastly better at talking about the subject than Republicans: if an election is fought over health care, bet on the Democrat every time. And for all the complexity involved, it’s arguably easier to tackle than other liberal priorities. It’s more popular than cap and trade, it’s less likely to split the party than immigration and it’s more amenable to technocratic interventions than income inequality.
It’s interesting how everyone assumes that the White House sets the national agenda when the president’s party controls Congress… whereas when the opposition party controls Congress the whole press narrative changes entirely, and treats Congressional leadership as a far more autonomous entity, an almost equal partner in what might happen next. How much is the press causing this phenomenon as opposed to reflecting it? What if it was as concerned about executive branch bias as ideological bias?
The idea of postponing health care reform–until, say, the economy improves– doesn’t seem appealing to many Democrats now.** But it might soon. The problem, as Michael Goodwin’s recent column points out, is that the issues waiting in the wings–should health care leave the stage–are even worse, from the Democrats’ political perspective. Cap and trade, immigration legalization, “card check”–these are not what you’d call confidence building appetizers leading up to the main course of Obama’s presidency. Plus the Afghan War! At least a clear majority of the public wants something done about health care…
It’s easy to forget that, even if Obama’s health care effort is bogging down, the effort itself still serves his presidency as a crucial time-waster, tying up Congress and giving him a reason to postpone (or the public a reason to ignore) those other divisive, presidency-killers. Obama needs some excuse for putting off unpopular Democratic demands; health care’s a good one. If he keeps failing to pass health care until spring, that might not be such a bad outcome. In fact, even quick passage was maybe never in his interest. There are things more unpopular than struggling.
I imagine there are plenty of legislative accomplishments that the Obama Administration could pursue that would satisfy the American electorate, but I cannot think of any agenda item that is both popular and a priority among Democratic activists. Am I forgetting something? It is quite possible. I’d suggest making a big deal out of conserving fish stocks, since it’s actually very important that humanity preserves oceans from which it can feed lots of people. (Sorta puts card-check as a priority in perspective, doesn’t it?) Or if everything “on the table” is unpopular anyway, why not just decriminalize drugs and end agricultural subsidies? Were I president I’d count those achievements worthy of losing a bid for re-election. Hmmph. That would be a great question to ask a presidential candidate. “Is there any change you regard as so important that you’d sacrifice any chance at reelection to achieve it?”