The Washington Post’s Charles Lane describes Barack Obama’s rejection of Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln’s plea to move to the center in order to avoid an electoral catastrophe in November. Obama told Lincoln he was going forward — a strategy Lane ascribes to Obama’s political consultant David Plouffe. “Obama’s reply, in a nutshell: Sorry, Blanche. … But the president is not only against a centrist shift on policy grounds; he also thinks it is a political loser:” The President told Lincoln that the best way to win was product differentiation.
If our response ends up being, you know, because we don’t want to — we don’t want to stir things up here, we’re just going to do the same thing that was being done before, then I don’t know what differentiates us from the other guys. And I don’t know why people would say, boy, we really want to make sure that those Democrats are in Washington fighting for us.
Of course he was referring to winning within his context and not necessarily Lincoln’s. Lane writes “The … striking thing was how easily he appeared to write off Lincoln politically. Conceding nothing, he implied that her defeat was not only a foregone conclusion, but also an acceptable price to pay for staying the course on policy”. Obama can do this because of the asymmetry in terms of office. The Democrats who are running scared of 2010 see the President’s policies as their death warrant. But Obama sees them them as his Forlorn Hopes, their death secures his long term victories. They are the wave of those expected to sacrifice themselves in order to establish a permanent lodgement from from a long term Democratic control will be extended. So it’s ‘shut up and advance’. By taking over the health industry and amassing a huge amount of pork barrel, the President may calculate that he can hold what he can when the Republicans swing back. The Republicans may gain back some ground, but he may figure that over a six or eight year horizon the Democrats would have made a net ideological advance. They would have taken more than they would have to give up.
The problem with Obama’s strategy is that with the world economic crisis in full swing the long term trends are against him. Like Admiral Yamamoto in 1941 all his surprise attack gains are bound to be wasting assets as the opposition launches one political Essex carrier after the other upon the seas of unemployment and deficit. In the end they will outbuild him and overwhelm him politically. Unless President Obama truly believes that his policies will turn the economy around then nothing he wins will be permanent.
What may be working in Obama’s favor is the relative ineptness of his opposition. The Republicans have no political Ernest J. King to set against him and they have not solved the basic strategic dilemma he has laid before them. That problem is the reverse of Blanche Lincoln’s. Should the Republican’s imitate Obama’s strategy and sharpen the contradictions between themselves and the President? Or should they “reach across the aisle” and run to the center, which in this case means across the line to the Left from which Obama refuses to move? If keeping Left is a good strategy for Obama, why should keeping Right not be good for the conservatives?
Liberals would answer that adopting a symmetrical strategy would be irresponsible — an unpatriotic besides. Obama has hammered home the accusation that anything bad that happens henceforth will be the fault of obstructionist, extremist conservatives. He will stay Left. It is the conservatives who are morally obligated, if they love their country, to come to the middle and beyond. By this means he hopes to turn the energy of the coming hard times against the conservatives. Not only is Obama playing seize and hold in the power sphere, he is also employing the same defense in the ideological sphere.
The strategic danger posed by the Tea Parties to Obama’s scheme is that it changes the game. It alters the battlefield itself. No longer is his problem one of co-opting a few Republicans with pork barrel and intimidation, it is one of neutralizing a fairly large demographic of the voting population who he cannot do a back-room deal with. Ironically many of the “weapons” he has amassed will be ineffective against the Tea Partiers. Government jobs will not be very appealing to small businessmen and workers who must pay higher taxes for programs they have no desire to see anyway.
Whether Plouffe’s calculations prove correct will be shown over the coming months. If the President rises in the polls and regains his footing with his ‘run to the Left’ strategy then Plouffe will be vindicated. My guess is that Plouffe’s strategy will fail dismally. If the economic crisis deepens and as Obama’s foreign policy mistakes come home to roost with moderately bad consequences the incumbent is likely to be blamed the most, with the entire Washington establishment a close second scapegoat.
But this rule may vanish at the extremes. In a national emergency people may pull together for a while. But even this has its limits. The Fall of France demonstrated how support for a political leader can evaporate after initially rising once it is clear he is inept. Will Obama’s gambit work? I don’t think so, but we shall see.