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Posted at 1:59 PM ET, 12/30/2010

What sort of loser should Obama be?

By Ezra Klein

obamafist.JPG

Recently, Jonathan Bernstein asked liberals, “As the 111th Congress winds down, what’s your biggest disappointment of the things you expected to happen?” Mike Konczal gives his answer:

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

By Ezra Klein  | December 30, 2010; 1:59 PM ET
 
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Comments

I do not understand neither Konczal's answer or your discussion there off. So I will go to the original question of Bernstein:

- Tactically, taking time for passing ObamaCare was a horrible mistake. I am not aware if there are provisions in the act if court finds individual mandate unconstitutional; but having back up arrangements or rather looser arrangements like allowing States to deploy from a range of mandate options (existing type or if you do not sign, you cannot get back on the insurance at your convenience time and so on) would have helped. Or even better would have been instead of focusing on enlarging coverage, focus on cost controls beyond Insurance Companies (that is where Dems stop, do not go beyond that much).

- Stimulus was small.

- Fundamentally 111th Congress did not work with White House to hash out any of the longer term Economic challenges - the structural issues of making USA competitive globally again and at the same time to address Employment. As Cook said - along with WH, that Congress slept on their day job of increasing employment and economy while going for the high five stuff of ObamaCare.

Posted by: umesh409 | December 30, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Awesome post!

This Gollum vs. Smeagol type of analysis is precious!

@Chris_Gaun
chrisgaun@gmail.com

Posted by: chrisgaun | December 30, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

I think you missed the point of Bernstein's post. He's not talking about Senators 55-60, or the short-terms methods of influencing them. He's talking about decisions like deporting record numbers of people that (i) have devastating consequences for real people / supporters of the President, and (ii) cede the long-term argument on key issues to the other side. Maybe the President's failure to deport all those folks would've alienated Brown, et al., but I doubt it.

Posted by: Joey33 | December 30, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Your points about getting the deal are well stated, but Progressives think they have been rolled. The Democratic Party does not have a well-organized group like the Tea Party although they are getting there against the wishes of the Democratic Party. It might help if we had the astroturf funding of the GOP and our own network like FOX. Either we mobilize or we disappear. It is very simple out here in the hinterlands. We do have two Americas and it is not Democrats and Republicans or even have and have nots. It is the corporate mindset of DC, NYC and the way the rest of the country lives. Hyping the next election is more beltway blather. By then many will not be surviving on the crumbs tossed their way.

Posted by: LillithMc | December 30, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

@joey33 "Cede the long-term argument on key issues to the other side."

That argument is getting stale. I think it is much more likely that Obama wanted to pass comprehensive immigration reform – including tougher restrictions on illegal immigration. The problem is that Obama gives good will gestures towards the GOP that Democrats would have only concede to as part of a packaged deal (e.g. deportation). However, the GOP is unmotivated to do the same (e.g bubkis).

Why would tougher restrictions be part of a packaged deal and is it just capitulation? Not necessarily. For instance, if you want to have a liberal state with a large social safety net you need limits on who can participate for many of the same reasons an individual mandate was needed for healthcare reform.

Also I like Mike's original blog but I wish he didn't use a Shylock reference as a war cry.

@Chris_Gaun
chrisgaun@gmail.com

Posted by: chrisgaun | December 30, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

I think Konczal really hits on the reason that the most vocal elements of the left have turned on Obama: they love beautiful losers and Obama, it turns out, is an ugly winner.

A beautiful loser, from the liberal perspective, is someone who, every time they face a difficult choice, alwasys takes the course that is the concensus choice of liberal punditry, a politician who can be counted on to play cya on their left flank.

Unfortunately for the beautiful loser loving left, the sorts of politicians they approve of tend not to have any electoral success outside of very small and homogeneous voting districts. But I guess having electoral success isn't important if you lose pretty enough.

Posted by: wintershag | December 30, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Which "base" are you speaking of?? The online blogs spend all of their time attacking this president. There is absolutely no making these creeps excited! They live off grievance and disappointment and find ways to diminish everything he does. NOT A BASE! These folks should just vote republican b/c that's who they're aiding with their actions.

Posted by: carolerae48 | December 30, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

I simply do not buy this "noble loser" argument (or as wintershag puts it above, "Beautiful Losers," the title of a Leonard Cohen novel).

Obama has been all about "the fierce urgency of now"--he doesn't want to wait another 15 years (or 50 years, as was the case with health care) to get a toehold on progress. He'd rather get a piece of legislation that is compromised but can be built on (like Social Security and Medicare, both less than perfect at their inceptions) than to lose with his ideals intact.

Losing nobly is still losing. It hasn't bought us winning coalitions in the past. What it does get is political approval from those who value ideology over action. But history shows that a foot in the door is more valuable over time.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | December 30, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

"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,"
~~~~mike konczal


mike konczal

maybe that is the president that you want...taking a pound of flesh, leaving "them with the blame"....
that is not the president that i want.
maybe one day, you will become more spiritually evolved to understand and appreciate the president that we are fortunate enough to have.
we have a president who is more spiritually evolved than most of the people in the country....what an amazement that could even happen.
president obama knows very well how to fight, how to lose and how to walk in victory.
most of us could take a serious lesson.
happy and blessed new year wishes to president obama!
president obama, may the wind be at your back in the coming year:-) may you continue to walk in victory.

Posted by: jkaren | December 30, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

"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,..."

You got it backwards. The ONLY way to get anything done in the next Congress is by making deals. Obama will become famous for his deal making - something that will not increase but reduce polarization.

Posted by: paul89 | December 30, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, your comments on TV today regarding the Constitution revealed how ignorant you are. As sneering as you'd like to come off - above the fray of irksome facts and details - you actually come off quite foolish.

The Post should reconsider whatever arrangement they've made with you for your intellectual services. My Word.

Posted by: wehutson | December 30, 2010 6:22 PM | Report abuse

What kind of loser indeed! Obama never understood the difference between "liberal" and "progressive". I do not know what liberal means politically, but I do know what progressive means. This link explains the long arduous history of the progressive movement in America. Obama is not likely to be numbered among these:
The Teddy Roosevelt Progressives (Bull Moose Party) of 1912
The Robert La Follette Progressives of the 1920s
The Henry Wallace Progressives of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1061.html

Posted by: denim39 | December 30, 2010 6:48 PM | Report abuse

Remember Obama trying his hardest to tget the Democratic caucus to change the fillibuster rule so he could stand a chance of passing his bold agenda? Neither do it. So that whole 60 vote thing is sort of at least partly of his making, and damn does it ever make a good excuse for him and for liberal pundits.

Posted by: AlanSF | December 30, 2010 8:37 PM | Report abuse

"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."

I'm sorry, that's where you (and the WH) are 180 degrees out of phase with reality, Ezra. Successful governance would have meant figuring out, as President Bush did, how had to pass your agenda with as few votes as possible. Any vote over a bare majority means you negotiated (or God forbid, negotiated against yourself) away something you could have kept. Perfect example, the 2003 Bush tax cuts passed the Senate via filibuster-proof reconciliation bill. It didn't even get majority support, Cheney broke the tie. When your vice president is the swing vote, no one doubts you played every card you had before you got up from the table.

What could the Democrats have passed by reconciliation? Let us count the ways; Providing HCR via Medicare expansion (added bonus, the courts have already declared Medicare constitutional!), a carbon tax instead of a carbon credit exchange, reforming banks and executive pay via tax code, extending (or not) the Bush tax cuts, extending (or not) the stimulus payroll tax credits, road and airport congestion pricing, reducing income inequality by closing corporate and upper income loopholes (and using the funding to spend more on infrastructure projects), public campaign financing, oh yeah, raise the debt ceiling to the moon (deficit hysteria being the socialism of rubes, he'd have to lean on senators pretty hard to get that last one).

Votes 55 to 60 can stay home if they wish, the President only needed to bend, bribe or break 50 Democrats to get passed whatever measures clear a Byrd rule point of order.

Once the House concurred, Obama could have had a budget reconciliation bill with any of the above elements or more on his desk to sign by August recess, 2009. The President (and Post columnists!) could then devote himself to those issues that are not amenable to reconciliation bills (labor law reform, immigration reform, Michael Vick, etc).

Posted by: beowulf_ | December 31, 2010 12:36 AM | Report abuse

I guess changing the definition of what constitutes a "majority" in Congress fits right in with dismissing a seminal document upon which our country is founded. Both are the product of feeble minds with no sense of history or intellectual rigor. Keeping parroting the talking points from the daily WH email, little man.

To all reading this: Check out Ezra Klein's riveting segment on MSNBC this week (it's all over YouTube) where he claims the U.S. Constitution "has no binding power on anything" and is "confusing because it’s over 100 years old." .... Oh Really?? Oh poor Ezra, your brain must be aching from trying to read all that yucky old stuff written by yucky old white guys. Ewww! And you are the future of the already half-dead Washington Post? You should be writing for a high school newspaper. No wonder print journalism is all but dead. Uninformed tykes like you are killing it from within.

Posted by: floyddabarber | December 31, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Since this a Democratic strategy discussion it's no surprise the issues are framed incorrectly and starts with associating their leader with the term 'loser.'

The biggest Obama disappointments as I observe the general complaint among the faith

Posted by: LosGatosCA | December 31, 2010 5:54 PM | Report abuse

Since this a Democratic strategy discussion it's no surprise the issues are framed incorrectly and starts with associating their leader with the term 'loser.' The biggest Obama disappointments as I observe the general complaints among the faithful are 1) he and his team do not appear to be exceptional good strategists or communicators and 2) its quite possible that the absence communication in 1) is a feature, not a bug because Obama may not actually share the values of the faithful Democratic constituencies.

On # 1 Obama and team seem reactive and excuse ridden without a plan B. Even if that's not correct they don't seem to be able to communicate their strategy, plans, and contingencies so that the faithful understand how short term adversity can build to a longer term success. The list of Bush things that haven't changed under Obama, his economic team appointments, his lack of pushing for executive and judicial appointments all just seem to be weakness, and the excuses proffered as confirmation of it.

On #2, Obama folded on everything under the sun, Pelosi has been the starch in the pants, and it could be he just doesn't share their values. Like a good politician he opportunistically exploited an available theme in 2008, change, but seems to be by nature a very cautious incrementalist.

So, the biggest disappointments aren't that he doesn't lose well but that he actually doesn't get the 'vision' thing, has no strategy, and doesn't feel inclined ala Rahm and Larry to have to explain himself to anyone once he's satisfied himself he's done his best.

Posted by: LosGatosCA | December 31, 2010 6:27 PM | Report abuse

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