The Monkey Trap

With President's Obama's approval ratings down to 44% and his approval index at its lowest points ever, the administration may have difficulty getting the 60 votes needed to obtain health care "reform", even after a proposal to appeal to voters aged 55 to 64 was included. Megan McArdle writes that Joe Lieberman's opposition even to the current compromise will make "progressives ... livid". While the numbers may be against the Democrats now, they will move heaven and earth to get the votes and will stop at nothing to get them.

It's highly unlikely that Democrats will keep exactly 58 seats plus Bernie Sanders. At that point, one way or another, Joe Lieberman becomes largely superfluous. And the Democrats are going to have their knives out.

But the answer to her self-posed question is elsewhere on the Atlantic article. Maybe it's not Lieberman who's cutting his own throat but the Democrats themselves. The harder they try with health care "reform" the lower they fall in the polls. Why? maybe because many voters have concluded that health care not about health so much as about money. The trust is gone; the words remain the same by the melody is broken; the administration has lost that lovin' feelin'. McArdle notes that the louder they sing, the more the audience stops its ears.

Every time health care makes the news, its poll numbers drop further, and at 54-38 against, it's already dangerously close to "Republican landslide if you pass it" territory. Outside of coastal enclaves, Democrats cannot win the next round of elections with no one but their base. And independents, already against the plan, especially hate partisanship. This makes it especially unhealthy to pass a bill they don't like on a straight party line vote.

What went wrong? Like a house of cards the collapse of one pillar is affecting the others. The progressive "brand" has taken hits across a spectrum of issues, from climate change to Afghanistan to health care and contagion of mistrust is spreading. This precisely what is being reflected in the declining poll numbers. The linkage between issues was highlighted by efforts to swell the government debt by another $2 trillion this year so it wouldn't have to be done in an election year. The harder they pull on one thread, the more things unravel in the other.

Trying harder under these circumstances can be counterproductive. What they may have to do is stop digging. But with the glittering prize beckoning so temptingly before a whole host of constituencies, the impulse will be to lunge one more time. The President recently called on banks to increase their lending in "every responsible way" -- by which he must certainly mean the opposite to boost an economy and a job market that has been jolted and wasted by unwholesome stimuli and unnatural financial currents.

Still the electric paddles are applied.

The financial crisis which propelled the progressives into power might in retrospect been a poisoned pawn. It may have caused them to grab onto too much, to overreach. Now, like the proverbial monkey who has seized an article of food through a mousehole, the progressives must either let go of the banana or find they cannot withdraw their hand into safety. They're caught between greed and the instinct for survival. History is full of examples of leaders who went that bridge too far.

Maybe it's too late to turn back now. If they do it will bring difficulties of its own. Orderly retreat is one of the hardest things to lead, if only because something has to be left behind. Some baggage, some agenda, some impedimenta has to be left to the wolves as the rest straggle to safety. If President Obama has not shown himself decisive in the advance, he will be doubtly tested in retreat.

Most retreats cure themselves and end when the fleeing party regains the wellsprings of its strength as the pursuers distance themselves from theirs. The progressives have a vast network of institutions in which to go dormant: in schools, in the arts, the bureaucracy. But first they must survive the winter; the financial winter of their own making or at least of their own compounding. Once the retreat is over, their recovery can be quick as the dormant cells spring back self-righteously into active existence.

But for the moment, they are on the backfoot. How long they will remain off balance, only time will tell.


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