By Eugene Robinson
Come on down, everybody in our studio audience, and play the exciting new game that may be about to sweep the nation, or at least the Democratic Party: “What If?”
What if President Obama and the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill had pushed through an authentic, righteous, no-holds-barred progressive agenda, perhaps with a thick overlay of pitchfork populism? How different might the political landscape look? Would predictions for the party’s prospects on Election Day still range from gloom all the way to doom? Or would triumphant Democrats be preparing to leave the GOP—or what remained of it—dazed and confused?
This question is being asked, in all seriousness, by thoughtful progressives. They argue that the Obama administration’s political mistake wasn’t pushing its liberal program too hard but not pushing it hard enough. And they contend that the White House seriously misread both the public anger and the national interest when it came to dealing with Wall Street’s greedy excesses—punishing miscreant bankers with love taps rather than cudgel and mace.
Proponents of this view have a point, but not much of one. I say this more in sorrow than in anger, because nothing would have been more satisfying than an FDR-style progressive blitz that set the nation on a path toward being stronger, fairer and more prosperous. And in a number of specific instances, especially early on, Obama erred by offering self-defeating concessions to Republicans who had no good-faith intention of seeking compromise.
The economic stimulus was too small and relied too heavily on the discredited GOP-approved “remedy” of tax cuts. The starting point for the health care debate was that any kind of single-payer system was off the table. It took the administration far too long to realize that the overall Republican strategy was not to negotiate but simply to say no—even to the point of rejecting ideas the party had supported in the past. And, yes, the Obama administration allowed the bankers who nearly brought down the world’s financial system to resume playing roulette with the American economy; in gratitude, they are pouring money into Republican coffers and comparing Obama to Robespierre.
Had Obama gone rogue and given the bankers some legitimate cause for all their whining, the what-if argument goes, Americans would see that what Sarah Palin called “that hopey, changey stuff” is real—and that it is making, or at least trying to make, a positive difference in their lives. Much of the tea party’s anger over “business as usual” would dissipate, because Obama wouldn’t be doing business as usual. The president and his party would arrive at the midterm election riding high.
So, contestants, what if?
Sorry, but it doesn’t wash. The problem is that for all the talk of changing the way Washington works, you still have to get actual legislation through an actual Congress. In the House, Democratic ranks are swollen with Blue Dogs and other moderates, many of them elected in swing districts as part of the 2008 Democratic landslide. The votes for a full-fledged progressive agenda—single-payer health care, for example—simply were not there.
In the Senate, the terrain was even less favorable. With the Republican caucus voting no as a bloc, passing any piece of legislation meant making concessions and compromises to keep together the needed 60 votes to bring a bill to the floor. The votes weren’t there for a health care bill that would have been cleaner and more transformative than the one that passed, or for climate-change legislation with teeth, or for new rules that could really transform Wall Street’s toxic culture, or for ... fill in the blank.
All right, studio audience, then what if the Democrats had gone all bipartisan and tried to meet the Republicans halfway?
Puh-leeze. They did try. What they discovered is that there’s no halfway point between “do something, anything” and “do nothing at all.”
OK, folks, let’s try one more scenario. What if Obama and the Democrats had devoted every waking hour to the three issues that Americans care about most: jobs, jobs and jobs?
Well, unemployment would still be painfully high; there’s no way the economy could recover 8 million jobs so quickly, no matter what Washington did. And health care reform would still be a distant dream.
Those who play “What If?” are unconstrained by political and economic reality. President Obama and the Democratic leadership, to their misfortune, enjoy no such freedom.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
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