The defeat of Martha Coakley in the race to succeed Ted Kennedy certainly shows the folly of taking victory for granted and failing to mount a serious campaign. But it also puts on display the complete political incompetence of the Obama administration and the national leadership of the Democratic Party and the Congress.
How else to explain the squandering of an overwhelming electoral victory, scarcely a year ago? How else to explain handing victory to a party that created the economic crisis and got us into two disastrous wars? How can it be that Obama has simultaneously managed to discourage and alienate his own liberal base, while allowing the Republicans to terrify the moderates?
The fundamental strategic error of the Obama White House was to persist in the effort to work with Republicans after it became clear that the GOP leadership was determined to oppose him at every turn, and to block him if they could. By continuing to compromise in hopes of gaining Republican votes, he hopelessly diluted, polluted, and delayed the Health Care plan, with no gain in GOP votes, but with a distinct loss of enthusiasm and commitment on the part of his base.
At the same time, though, the Health Care plan retained enough features (like the mandate on individuals to have health insurance coverage) that the Republicans and Tea-Party types could distort in order to frighten senior citizens, or anyone already satisfied with their coverage. Thus Obama could be simultaneously condemned by liberals and the left for failing to fulfill his promises of radical change, and demonized by the right for being a totalitarian socialist. It is not possible to bring about the sort of sweeping change he envisioned by means of consensus and compromise.
Obama simply failed to use his substantial rhetorical ability to effectively make his own case, either on health care or on the economy. He thus permitted his opponents to define him. He also failed to exert enough leadership in Congress on the health care issue, learning too much from the Clinton debacle of 1993. For an entire year, he had no specific plan to put before the public to counter the opposition’s wild accusations. With more direction early on, he could have brought a bill through both houses much sooner, and allowed himself and the Democrats more time to educate the public about it.
Well, what to do now? I believe Obama has now forfeited the chance to be a truly progressive president. He must now, as Clinton did, make his peace with the Republicans as best he can. If he does it now, he may salvage Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, and not be doomed, as Clinton was, to six years of Republican majorities. If he does it now, he may be able to win reelection, particularly since the Republicans will be emboldened to nominate some extreme right-winger like Palin, who could be accurately depicted as far from the thinking of the majority of Americans.
If, on the other hand, he finally finds his voice as a progressive, he might please many in his base (including me), but he would be blocked at every turn in Congress, and easily beaten in 2012. The time to have taken a forthright progressive stand was last year, when he had popular and congressional support. He could have pushed through measures that could be touted as improving the lot of average Americans. Instead, he tried to be a conciliatory visionary. Now, he won’t be able to push though anything without Republican acquiescence.
It’s hard to believe one special election could change everything.
Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Bucknell University