The Bigger Picture
Published on March 11th 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
In last week’s column I discussed the political theatre I watched at President Obama’s nationally televised “healthcare summit” just before my return to Ireland. President Obama closed this seven hour meeting with a warning to Republicans that he would move forward without them if they continued to refuse to compromise saying; “if we can’t (compromise), then I think we've got to go ahead and make some decisions, and then that's what elections are for.”
At long last, this was the President Obama I had been hoping for and patiently waiting to see emerge from his White House ‘cocoon’ for most of the past year. Indeed this was the same apparition of a true American leader I had seen on many occasions during the early months of his Presidency when he was pushing ‘his’ economic stimulus package through Congress. But when springtime arrived and it was time to build on his early legislative success, Obama inexplicably decided to allow Congressional Democrats to take the lead in developing the President’s healthcare and environmental protection legislation with predictably disastrous consequences.
The Democratic Party encompasses a much broader spectrum of voters on political issues and operates under a much bigger ‘tent’ than their more narrowly focused Republican opponents. As such, gaining across the board agreement on major legislative reforms among Democratic lawmakers is akin to ‘herding cats (or maybe I should say ‘fat cats’). In other words, it’s virtually impossible to persuade Democrats in Congress to vote as a bloc absent a strong leader who is willing to either massage the egos or twist the arms of its more independent minded ‘fat cats.’
Since a majority of Democratic lawmakers hale from states and Congressional districts with larger and more urban constituencies of liberal American voters, they also have don’t have to worry about losing their seats because they voted in favor of legislation that most Republicans as well as many independent voters don’t support. Because they win re-election easily, these liberal Democrats’ power and influence grows thanks to the Congressional ‘seniority system and as a result, the Democratic House and Senate leaders tend to be liberals rather than moderates.
Unfortunately, some of the more liberal Democrats in Congress also tend to forget that the only reason their party has a majority in both houses of Congress is because it also includes lawmakers from rural or suburban areas of the country with large constituencies of centrist and independent voters. Some of these more moderate “Blue Dog” Democratic legislators were elected to Congress by narrow margins over Republican opponents and or from states and districts that voted for President Obama’s Republican opponent, Senator John McCain.
Not surprisingly these more moderate Democratic members of Congress often find it difficult to justify voting for some of their liberal Democratic counterparts’ more radical legislative proposals. Even if they personally agree with some aspects of these proposals, they are also cognizant of the fact that a majority of their constituents may not support them. As a result they are often put in the position of either going against the wishes of their Congressional leaders or ignoring the desires of their constituents and endangering their re-election prospects.
President Obama is a liberal Democrat but one who had previously shown sensitivity to the dilemma faced by the more moderate Democratic and Republican members of Congress by purposely crafting less radical legislative proposals that these legislators could support without incurring the ire of voters. Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is a former Congressman who, like his boss, is a liberal who always worked to forge centrist compromises on legislation that moderate Democrats and Republicans would find it easier to support.
So given the fact that he only got meager Republican support for his economic stimulus legislation, I was shocked President Obama then ignored Rahm Emanuel’s advice on health-care reform and trying terror suspects in civilian courts. The rather predictable result has been no Republican support and the erosion of moderate Democrats support for both of these proposals. It is therefore gratifying for me to see the President now inserting himself back into the political debate and wresting control of these issues away from the more liberal members of his party.
Starting with his unscripted political debate with House Republicans last month followed by his bipartisan ‘healthcare summit’, President Obama has once again taken up the challenge of forcing liberal Democratic leaders to incorporate Republican suggestions into their healthcare reform package. While I don’t expect this will be enough to persuade any moderate Republicans to risk the ire of their more conservative leaders by voting for it; I think it will pass because this will provide the political cover some ‘Blue Dog’ Democrats need to allow them to vote for it.
But by debating the issues on television with his Republican opponents and incorporating their proposals into ‘his’ healthcare reform package, Obama has also positioned himself as a leader who is willing to compromise even though his Republican opponents are not. It remains to be seen if American voters will buy into the idea that their President and his Democratic allies in Congress are the ones doing the compromising and the Republicans are acting as obstructionists.
Great political leaders are usually conciliatory in terms deal with their political opponents, but they also are not afraid to draw the line in the stand when their efforts at compromise are rejected. Obama has correctly realized that Republicans are now betting that they have more to gain politically by opposing him than compromising with him. So after waiting two weeks for some sign of compromise, Obama announced he would use the same reconciliation tactics Republicans used for tax cuts when Bush was President to pass his healthcare reforms. By adopting this approach, President Obama has signaled he will not allow solutions for America’s problems to be held hostage by partisan political posturing.
Will this new ‘walk softly but carry a big stick’ approach work? Well, as the President himself said “that’s what elections are for.”