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.”
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.