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Does Brown Have a Bright Side?

The lesson of Massachusetts isn’t to split the difference—it’s to lead.


Illustration by André Carrilho  

Two days before Scott Brown was sworn in as the newest member of the U.S. Senate, I had a chance encounter in Washington with an extremely senior Obama White House official, who was plainly still laboring to come to grips with the new political reality. What was wrong with today’s Republicans, he fulminated, was that they lacked the guts—the actual word this person employed was more anatomically colorful—to deviate from their party’s line.

We have to call them out, raise the cost of their obstructionism, the official said, pointing to his boss’s tour de force question-time-esque performance at a GOP retreat a few days earlier as an example of how the administration would greet the post–Bay State–earthquake era.

But when Brown himself came up during our chat, a lighter mood set in. Testingly, almost teasingly, I offered, “Don’t you think he’s a guy that you people could do some business with?” The highly placed Obaman smiled and replied, “That’s exactly what I’ve been saying!” For all the tea-party atmospherics around the Massachusetts race, there are plenty of indications that Brown is hardly a right-wing loony, and even some signs that he might be—wait for it—an honest-to-goodness northeastern moderate right out of the old school. If he’s going to get reelected in two years, the official argued, it’s not going to happen if he just says no to everything. The administration would reach out to Brown, give him ample opportunities to say yes, to be … well, reasonable.

For critics of Obama and his team on the left, talk of Republican reasonableness will come across as another instance of delusional thinking. As a sign that the White House is still indulging in the fantasy that an iota of bi-partisanship is possible under the prevailing ideological and electoral circumstances. For me, however, the totality of the conversation reflected perfectly the vexing bind in which Obama and his people now find themselves, and the plausible, if mildly schizophrenic, approach they seem to have adopted for coping with it: holding the feet of the GOP to the fire with one hand while trying to nudge individual Republicans to break ranks with their party with the other.

This stratagem will be unfurled in earnest next week, when Obama convenes his bi-partisan health-care summit on February 25. What happens there and in the aftermath will do much to determine the contours of the 2010 midterms and the fate of Obama’s first term in office. But while most of the focus will be on the behavior of Republicans in the face of the president’s gambit, equally if not more consequential will be how his putative allies in Congress choose to comport themselves between now and Election Day. For on health care, jobs legislation, taxing and spending, and the economy writ large, Democratic divergence, disputation, and disarray may prove every bit as towering a set of stumbling blocks for Obama—just as they did in 2009—as Republican nihilism.

The shape and dimensions of the political challenge facing the White House were vividly limned by the data in a Quinnipiac poll released last week. Surveying 2,617 voters nationwide, the poll found that Obama’s approval-disapproval numbers are upside down, at 45-46, with independents voicing strong dissent over his handling of health care, jobs, and the deficit. The approval-disapproval figures for congressional Democrats and Republicans were nearly identical and similarly dismal—28-63 for the former, 28-61 for the latter—with 67 percent of voters blaming both parties equally for the gridlock in the capital. Yet Obama and his team could take some comfort in the latest NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll, which reported that just 27 percent point the finger at the president for not being able to forge solutions to the country’s problems.

There’s a certain grim irony in the difficulties the White House has confronted in moving its agenda on the Hill—because to no small extent, they are rooted in a stunning success that chief of staff Rahm Emanuel had in his previous life. Together with Chuck Schumer on the Senate side, Emanuel was as responsible as anyone for recruiting the kinds of Democratic candidates who could beat Republicans in relatively conservative districts and states in 2006 and 2008. The results were impressive majorities in both houses, but with two unpleasant side effects: a Democratic Party with a substantial Blue Dog wing that sees political benefit in resisting the White House, and a Republican Party stripped down largely to its irreducible right-wing core, which sees no upside in compromise.

No wonder that some administration officials have occasionally found themselves thinking heretical thoughts. “From the crassest political viewpoint, we would be better off if we had 25 fewer House members, if those marginal seats were held by the Republicans right now,” one told me last fall. “Then we’d have 25 people who, instead of feeling like they have to demonstrate their independence by being independent of us, they’d have to demonstrate it by being independent of the Republican leadership, which means we could be bi-partisan on everything.”


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