What sort of loser should Obama be?
I expected Obama to be a better loser, specifically to be better at losing. There were a lot of items on the table, a lot of them weren’t going to happen, but it was important for the new future of liberalism that the Obama team lost them well. And that hasn’t happened.
By losing well, I mean losing in a way that builds a coalition, demonstrates to your allies that you are serious, takes a pound of flesh from your opponents and leaves them with the blame, and convinces those on the fence that it is an important issue for which you have the answers. Lose for the long run; lose in a way that leaves liberal institutions and infrastructure stronger, able to be deployed again at a later date.
I think the White House's reply would look something like this: Successful governance is about getting 60 votes for things that move the ball forward. The people who tend to control the 55th through 60th votes on any given issue are not like you and me. They are driven by a baffling combination of raging egomania and crippling terror. They want to be treated like statesmen even as their decisions are based on a paralyzing fear of contested elections, primary challenges, Fox News and party pressure. They have few opinions on what good policy looks like, what opinions they do have on the subject change frequently, and they're not willing to risk very much on them anyway. Taking a pound of flesh from these people -- or even their allies -- would mean never getting their votes. Want to see what we mean? Look at Don't Ask, Don't Tell. In the end, it got done because Murkowski, Brown and Collins let it get done. Alienating them would've been satisfying, but unwise.
And I think the liberal reply to this would be, yes, you're right that these people are driven by fear. But they're afraid of the wrong thing. You have senators in states that went blue in 2008 who seem unconcerned with crossing the president or his massive list of volunteers and supporters. Instead, they're terrified of the Club for Growth, or Fox News, or they're terrified of them not because they have so much power in their state but because they're willing to use that power aggressively. If the president had been making frequent trips to Maine, he might find that Maine's senators were a little more interested in partnering with him on his agenda.
I find both arguments fairly convincing. But not at the same time. The White House's argument made a fair amount of sense given the Democratic tilt of the 111th Congress, which offered unusual possibilities for getting things done, and so made strategies that would alienate even a couple of votes fairly risky. But the liberal argument makes somewhat more sense going forward, as the mixed composition of the next Congress makes getting things done through deals and patience somewhat less likely, while the upcoming election where the president is on the ballot makes the need for an excited base more acute, and makes the consequences of crossing that base more serious for both the White House and swing senators.
Photo credit: By Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
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