Scott Brown’s first year in office will present a fascinating test case of this theory. By all rights, Brown should be the ripest of targets for bi-partisan appeals in the Senate. According to Boris Shor, an academic at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago who has analyzed Brown’s voting record in the Massachusetts State Senate, Brown appears likely to displace Maine’s Olympia Snowe as the most liberal Republican in the upper chamber. And not only has Brown distanced himself from the hard right on social issues—he is pro-choice and says gay marriage should be left up to the states, calling it a “settled” question in his own, where it is legal—but maintains that he has no intention of being “in lockstep with anybody” and is open to supporting Democratic legislation if it’s “good for my state and it makes sense for the people of the United States.”
Yet Brown has made it all too clear that the health-care bill passed by the Senate doesn’t meet that standard in his eyes—despite its similarities to the Massachusetts plan that he supported in 2006. (Disingenuously, he calls the latter a “free market” approach while scorning the former as a “one-size-fits-all government plan.”) And his positions on economic issues place him squarely in the mainstream of his party. No doubt Brown will find some matters on which he’s willing to cross party lines. With a race ahead of him in 2012 that will surely be tougher than his battle with Martha Coakley—featuring a better opponent and higher Democratic turnout in a presidential year—he’d be a fool if he didn’t. But on the critical issues of 2010, unless his own poll numbers begin to plummet, Brown seems likely to be another brick in the Republican wall of opposition to Obama and Obamaism.
Together with Obama’s recent rhetoric, the White House health-care summit is the administration’s bid to change that calculus. But instead the summit is liable to be more effective as theater than as prelude to actual legislating, as each side walks away contending that the other didn’t demonstrate the kind of genuine flexibility that bi-partisanship requires.
All of which brings us back to the matter of cohesion among the members of the president’s own party. Democrats, especially in the Senate, where the deed would have to be done, have all along been skittish about using reconciliation to pass health care with a bare majority of Democratic votes. As the late great New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan reminded me back in 1994—the last time Democrats considered doing something similar on health-care reform—no major piece of social legislation in the past five decades has passed the Senate with fewer than 60 votes. Legislators, Moynihan declaimed, are always rightly nervous, on both policy and political grounds, about altering large swaths of American life without some sort of consensus. And indeed, in light of the extant electoral dynamics, today they are more than merely nervous: Many of them are terrified. It isn’t hard to make a list of moderate Democrats—Evan Bayh, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson—who would find it hard to pull the lever again for the same bill for which they voted in December. Are there still even 50 votes for the Senate plan? Nobody knows.
In other words, assuming Democrats find a parliamentarily permissible way to deal with health care through reconciliation—which remains an open question—passing it will still be no slam dunk. And health reform is just one of many issues on which the divisions within the party are likely to prove problematic in the months ahead. At a closed-door session at the White House last week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi openly challenged the administration’s center-leaning proposal to offer tax breaks to employers for each new worker that they hire, expressing her preference for the jobs bill that the House passed in December but that has been cast aside by Harry Reid in the Senate.
For more than a year now, Team Obama has tried to strike the delicate balance required to keep the noisy, diverse, fractious Democratic caucus together. And despite more than a few hard-won victories, the results have been less than salutary. The liberal base of the party is depressed, dispirited, and frustrated with what it sees as excessive temporizing and toadying to the center on the part of the president and his people. The rightward-leaning part of the party—and, more damaging, the center of the electorate—sees Obama as having drifted too far to the left.
But the president, it should be said, has been at his best in the weeks since Brown’s election: improvisational, direct, plainspoken, even (to borrow a phrase) fired up and ready to go. Threading the needle in front of him will require not just vote-rustling but a virtuoso political performance—the kind of thing at which he once excelled but at which he faltered in 2009. By getting out in front of the debate, defining it on his terms, telling voters what he’s doing and why, and exacting a price from the GOP for its intransigence, he stands a chance of rallying the base and appealing to the middle simultaneously, even among those who don’t agree with every word that comes out of his mouth. After all, the only way to get a mule to go along is to show the way and convince the beast it has no choice. This axiom applies to elephants too—even those inclined to driving pickup trucks and posing nude in Cosmo.