Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Big Picture: Right Now, Staying principled is also good politics

Among committed but also politically astute progressives, the big debate is about whether Obama and the Democrats should focus on more seizing this unique moment to enact the desired liberal policy agenda, with the political considerations of maintaining their popular support a decided secondary priority, or whether to act cautiously, making sure to retain the political center. The mantra of each side is "Don't blow it!" For the "bold policy" advocates, that means don't blow this once-in-a-generation chance to do the things we've been saying are desperately necessary for decades. For the "political considerations first", "Don't blow it" means that due to Republican failures and Obama's charisma we have a chance to build an enduring Democratic majority which it would be counterproductive to risk. Each side can point to historical examples to support their case. And each side can use Obama's rhetoric to buttress their argument. But I think it's a false choice.

We don't need to choose between working to keep the majority and taking advantage of it. I think that, especially considering the situation in the country, you either enact the big sweeping things we need which will prove successful and ensure continuing Democratic majorities, or you sell out AND in the process much much more likely your policies will be unsuccessful and the Democrats will lose their advantage. In other historical moments, taking advantage to enact the liberal agenda was often incompatible with maintaining electoral dominance - the 1960s the obvious example. But now we're not trying to extend rights to unpopular minorities, we're not taking anything away from the middle class to give to the poor. At least right now, the most important things should also prove the most politically popular things - strengthening the job market, dealing with foreclosures, improving health care, improving education and energy making us more economically competitive, enacting commonsense regulations to protect consumers, making the tax code more fair and reasonable. Even climate change legislation, if done the right way, shouldn't be taking things away from the vast majority of Americans. If we're successful, in a while the liberal agenda may again be more at odds with what's in political interest, but not now. Either step up AND win, or sell out AND lose.

This is the dynamic that makes me most confident Obama will end up pressing for what liberals want on health care reform. You have to think that Obama's top priority is to enact a health care reform that succeeds rather than fails, and it seems pretty clear that only the more liberal approaches will succeed - the more conservative, pro-industry it gets, that means it's less likely to contain costs, less likely to cover more people, less likely to help people deal with the costs, and less likely to make people happier with their health care coverage. So we don't have to depend on some inner liberal compass to guide Obama in the right direction, but really his own political viability, which will be greatly strengthened by successful health care reform, and severely weakened if the "legislatively pragmatic" plan winds up, in the next couple years, making people less happy with their health care, seen as a huge waste of money, unfair rationing, etc. In other words, we need Obama to be smart about his long-term self-interest, and he has definitely shown a tremendous knack for that.

This really is the great advantage to being liberal right now. That dynamic where liberalism is more successful hasn't always been the case, but in the current political alignment, where it's basically pragmatic national-interest progressivism vs. an ideological, what "sounds good", and what's in the short-term narrow interest of positional advantage, it's absolutely the case that we'll be successful and they won't be. Our approach works a lot better and makes people more satisfied, so even if it may be politically difficult to sell a lot of the time, ultimately politicians and parties and ideologies are judged on success, and that's why Bush conservatism could never remain politically popular, but liberal politicians can do the right thing and enhance their own long-term self-interest, especially when it comes to the economy, jobs, health care. We saw some of that with the stimulus package, but we need more of that thinking. I think that's really the right approach to convincing Democrats to do the right thing - not self-righteousness, but saying, "you need this to work for your own political survival, so you need to design a plan that works".

No comments:

Post a Comment