Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why Obama's Victories Aren't Enough

I hear repeatedly about how Obama screwed up because he begins from the compromise position, compromises further, and ends up getting his rear handed to him by Republicans, who stood firm and look resolute.  And while I understand the logic behind that and certainly agree that this can be a problem with negotiations, I think this is a bad misreading of the situation, based entirely on unrealistic expectations of what it was we could have gotten.

But first off, let's be real here: In the last two years, Republicans haven't gotten a god damn thing beyond the extension of the Bush tax cuts they still haven't gotten yet; which they were only able to get due to their ability to hold America hostage without repercussion.  Beyond that, they haven't won anything.  All they did was obstruct, which is the easy thing for the minority to do. 

And even their victory on tax cuts was directly related to their ability to obstruct, which is something Obama could have done just as easily; assuming he was immoral enough to play chicken with human lives.  And the problem is that Obama could have done that, but he'd obviously have been bluffing, because he really did care about helping the unemployed.  Meanwhile, Republicans obviously weren't bluffing, because all they wanted were the tax cuts for the rich. 

And if your bluff is easily called while your opponent isn't bluffing, it's best to not bluff at all.  And for that Obama is attacked for giving in to hostage-takers; as if he had any other choice.

Playing Chicken With America in the Backseat

And since he wasn't willing to play hardball against people who had nothing to lose and everything to gain by forcing things until the end, Obama is considered a spineless loser who sold us out; even if he got us most of what we wanted.  And so Republicans watered down our best ideas with impunity, as the media didn't bother explaining any of this beyond the same horse race dynamic they always use to discuss anything related to politics; which invariably involves quoting Republicans for fear of being too "subjective" by telling the truth.

But all the same, Republicans have only one actual victory over the last two years, many defeats, and their best efforts were merely to slightly diminish our victories.  The only standard that allows anyone to imagine we've been "losing" is the standard that insists that we ever could have gotten everything.  We couldn't.  Getting "everything" was never a realistic option. 

And for as much as Obama's critics admit to this, they still insist that we could have gotten a lot more, based upon a fantasy scenario that involves Obama being able to strong-arm conservative Democrats and a couple of moderate-ish Republicans to act in a way that weakened them politically and embarrassed them for allowing themselves to be strong-armed. 

Negotiating With Ourselves

Because a big part of the problem is that Obama wasn't just compromising with or battling Republicans.  No.  That was the easy part, if everything else worked as it should.  The reality is that Obama, Reid, and Pelosi were battling against conservative Democrats, the Media, and a rightwing base that would have destroyed Republicans if they dared compromise with Obama.

And it was those first two groups that Obama was compromising with when he started us with the public option, rather than single-payer healthcare.  Because conservative Democrats simply would not support the destruction of the health insurance industry, while the media would have written off the entire scheme as a wacko liberal stunt. 

Because let's face it, single-payer really IS the government takeover of the healthcare industry Republicans were trying to scare us about, and I'm not so sure I'd have been on board with that myself.  Eventually, yes.  We will have single-payer.  But dismantling the entire system all at once could have been a tremendous blunder, both politically and policy-wise.  I'm not sorry to say that I'm not much of a risk-taker and don't believe in trying experiments on the lives of three hundred million people. 

They Weren't All Liberals

And so that's where things stood from the beginning.  Obama didn't have a chance to negotiate this from a far-left position and work towards a left position.  He had to start from a center-left position and move slightly inwards; eventually being forced to abandon the public-option, as some Democrats simply refused to accept it. 

Yes, he had a large Democratic majority, but not all those Democrats were liberals or even centrists.  And all the same, as much as progressives deride our current package as a Republican idea, it was only the mandate and insurance exchanges that were Republican.  The end of rescission, pre-existing conditions, and endless rate hikes were fully in the liberal category.  On the whole, I think the package Obama got us was pretty damn good and not nearly the disaster his critics on the left have chosen to paint it as.  And that's why they refuse to even talk about all the good things we got, as it undermines their point entirely.  For as much as they hated rescission during the healthcare debate, it's not a word progressives talk much about, now that Obama has ended it.

Same with the rest of what Obama got us.  Team Obama didn't start all this by taking a happy medium between themselves and Republicans.  They started things with the position that was to the furthest left that his own side could agree to.  And had Obama began from a truly liberal position, it would have been impossible for us to get as many of the centrist and conservative Democrats as we got. 

And that's the thing: For as much as Obama gets attacked for negotiating with himself, it was really with the conservative Democrats that he had to deal with, as well as the moderate-ish Republicans needed to end the filibusters in the Senate.  The reality is that we were damn lucky to get anything through Congress, and starting further to the left would only have made things more difficult for Obama; not easier.  A far-left position would have forced the conservative elements Obama needed to walk from the table completely, as they simply couldn't associate with those sort of positions.

All, or Nothing At All

And of course, our biggest problem is that most progressives don't really care about this at all.  As they've said repeatedly, they'd rather have gotten nothing than what we got.  And that's an easy position to take, if you're not actually responsible for getting something.  As it turns out, they also don't mind taking a few hostages when it comes to getting their agenda passed.

But that really IS all we would have gotten.  Nothing.  Nada.  And health insurance would still be just as crappy as it was before Obama came to office, and we'd have gotten no stimulus bill, and I would have paid more in overdraft fees last month because we wouldn't have gotten the banking bill that helped save me $140 in fees.  And had Obama ran with an openly liberal platform in the election, we'd probably be griping about all the horrible things President McCain is doing and what a horrible idea it was to bomb Iran.

Because the truth is that politics requires us to be political, while bullies get nothing.  The Bush Admin had a dysfunctional Congress that could barely succeed in getting tax cuts, Muslim war, and a Medicare drug plan; all fairly popular items that were easy to sell.  And they did almost nothing else.  Obama, on the other hand, got us a HUGE amount of policy goals passed, including the end of rescission, pre-existing conditions, and unending premium hikes. 

And the alternative isn't the Pie-in-the-Sky single-payer option.  The alternative was McCain's egregious plans for healthcare.  Or at best, nothing.  And the sad truth is that most progressives would have been happier with nothing, while too many of them would have preferred to gripe about President McCain's horrible policies.  They don't really want to be in the driver's seat.  They just like to yell at the driver.

And for this, Obama's called a spineless wimp.  Why?  Because he lost?  No, because he didn't win big enough.  And the whole time, the people who should have been slinging mud at Obama's Republican opponents while fiercely attacking any Democratic congressman who was holding out, were instead slinging mud at Obama for having sold them out because he wasn't winning big enough battles single-handedly. 

Until these people finally turn their sights back on Republicans and conservative Democrats, Obama's going to be stuck fighting battles on both sides.  We need to be punishing Congress for not being liberal enough.  Obama will sign any liberal bill he can get his hands on.  It's our job to fight for that to happen.


repsac3 said...

I think you're correct on the facts, but still think he's blowing the optics, Doc... He makes it look like he's giving it away from the beginning, rather than making the other side demand it, and then reluctantly giving it up.

Yes the result's the same... But it looks different, to folks... (While I like the fact that there's not so much unanimity on the left, there is something to be said for that "we'll let everyone die if we have to, but we're not giving in" lock-steppedness of the Republican party. (Again, optically speaking... Even though I often think the tent is a little too big--Lieberman and Kucinich or Sanders are really in the same party, and kinda wish for a more parliamentary system, with multiple parties, and coalitions of folks coming together to get things done, rather than the "we hate them/they hate us, politics as football" mentality--I do respect folks who speak their minds (rather than the hive mind, "my party right and wrong" opinion), even when I don't agree with what they have to say.)

I do think you're correct, but I also believe the administration can make these deals look more like he's fighting, and only compromising when there's no other choice... ...even if he knows from the get go that that's where he's at. It is little more than gamesmanship, and it is unlikely to change the outcome of the negotiation, but those visuals do matter.

Doctor Biobrain said...

While I understand what you're saying, I really don't see how waiting until the last few weeks of a two-year stretch counts as "giving it away from the beginning."

The problem was that, until we agreed to something on the tax cuts, we'd get NOTHING done; while we still have a lot more things to get done. And so we DID wait until the last minute to compromise; just not by the standards of 24-7 newscycles, which make a two week period seem like a long time. And seeing as how the compromise bill still hasn't passed because it takes so long for Congress to do things, it's not like we had a lot of time to screw around. The reality is that Obama would have been bluffing and Republicans weren't. Had we stalled longer, all that would have done is delayed all the other things we needed done, including the repeal of DADT, as well as passing an omnibus bill before January. Even as it is, Reid is threatening to work them every day except Christmas, just to get the job done. So again, I fail to see how this counts as giving up too early.

And so Obama chose pragmatic policy over political optics and gets hammered for it. And that's the most annoying part about all this: The progressives who are so angry at Obama for choosing politics over principles have it exactly backwards. They're mad because Obama isn't being political enough, as he continues to choose good policy over political victories. And that's why, in hindsight, they love Clinton so much. He gave us shitty policies, but looked tough while doing it. Too many progressives would rather we hang tough and get nothing than be pragmatic and help people.

repsac3 said...

I'm just saying that it sometimes looks like Obama starts a negotiation talking about what he's willing to let go of, rather than what he demands be in the final compromise. (And again, it's really how it looks, not whether he'd actually get more out of the negotiation by hanging tough. Progressives want someone who's a fighter, not a pragmatist. Especially when it looks like Republicans get by being a wall of no, and "our-way-or-the-highway," while the Dems can't get out of their own way--being such a big, diverse tent, 'n'all.)

It's likely that Obama is wheeling and dealing behind the scenes on these things--with some of the Dem's more centrist brethren, more'n'likely--but that's not what we see. All we see is "the White House is sending signals it's willing to extend the Bush tax cuts temporarily, in exchange for _____," before the Republicans had even formally demanded that. It just looks like Obama has no willingness or ability to haggle. Politically, it matters that we see him try to get the whole loaf, and then settle for half, as long as it's pre-sliced.

That said, I agree with you about the timing and whatnot involved. The sooner the better practically... ...just not so much politically, for progressive ideologues, anyway.

This is my whole theory of politics (liberal and otherwise). The fringes come up with ideas and fight for them wholeheartedly, even against others in their own party, while the moderates make those ideas more palatable to the voting center by negotiating with their "equal but opposite mirror images" on other side. Without one of the fringes demanding the whole loaf, the center shifts away from them and toward their equal but opposite mirror images on the other side. Without the moderates in both parties compromising, there ain't no bread for nobody, and sandwiches are off the menu.

Even though I don't always agree with Jane Hamsher as regards the Prez, I think she serves a vital function by holding his feet to the fire and pulling the whole party to the left (as a counterweight to the ideologues on the right, tugging the other way.)

Doctor Biobrain said...

Not sure if you'll see it, but I responded to part of your comment in another post.

But as for the idea that Obama gave up too easy, that's ridiculous. Republicans had clearly stated their line in the sand: If Obama didn't agree to extend the tax cuts, they'd stop the Senate from doing anything. It was a win-win for them, as they didn't want Congress to do anything for the rest of the year anyway. The idea that Republicans hadn't stated their demands on getting the tax cuts extended is simply false. If we were having this discussion in April or even November, you'd have a point. But Obama waited for as long as he could and got a pretty good deal out of it.

The truth is that progressives would have been angry about this, even had Obama waited until New Years Eve to agree to it. And they'd have been happier if Obama held out and failed to get unemployment benefits extended, DADT repealed, or an omnibus spending bill passed this year. For them, hurting Republicans is more important than helping people.

Again, the problem is that Republicans could happily hold America hostage, while Obama would have been bluffing; and Republicans knew that just as well as we did. Caving on the tax cuts wasn't a sell-out of liberalism; though hurting the unemployed would have been. For as much as I agree with you on what the progressives are saying, it simply has no part of reality. Obama held out for as long as we could have and we STILL might not have enough time to get everything done this year.

For me, the fact that we actually got something GOOD out of the compromise shows that Obama held out effectively. Because again, Republicans had intended to shut down Congress completely this year, and it wouldn't have hurt them in the least. Fortunately for us, they REALLY wanted those tax cuts, or we wouldn't have had any bargaining chips at all.