Obama and “The Theory of Change”

Mark Schmitt has an excellent article at The American Prospect on change and the idea spread by people like Paul Krugman that Obama is too naive to bring about change. Schmitt, in contrast to Krugman, realizes that “there is no large-scale populist uprising on the horizon” and has taken a closer look at the virtues of Obama’s approach:

So how might the Obama theory of change work? I’ll give two answers, one entirely mundane and one a little cosmic. The mundane answer is just congressional math. The most important fact about the next administration is nothing about the president’s character or policies, but simply how many Democratic Senators there are. To get health care passed in 2009, we’ll need 60 votes in the Senate. There won’t be 60 Democrats. So a Democratic president will need to, first, get within range by bringing in Democratic senators from Arizona, Colorado, Virginia, and several other red-trending-purple states. And then, subtract the total number of Democrats from 60, and that’s the number of Republicans you’ll need. If that number is two or three, almost anything is possible. If it’s five, it will be much harder. If it’s eight, impossible.

This is the math of bipartisanship. It’s not a matter of sitting down with thugs like John Boehner and splitting the difference, but winning over just a few Senate Republicans from outside the South. And if the number is small enough, that’s entirely possible. This is not 1993, when the Republicans could see that a majority was just around the corner, and the conservative takeover had given it a coherence and enthusiasm. It will be a party in some internal crisis after losing both houses of Congress and the presidency in short order, and the sense of a “party establishment” will be weaker. There will be an effort to hold the party together in united opposition, but the ties holding a Senator Snowe, Voinovich, Grassley, Lugar or Specter to a strict party line — as they contemplate retirement, legacy, and their own now-Democratic states — will be much weaker than in either the Clinton or Bush eras.

Obama’s approach is better positioned to take advantage of this math. First, I think (though if I tried to prove it, I’d be relying on useless horse-race polls) that Democratic Senate candidates in red/purple states will do better with Obama’s national-unity pitch at the top than with Senator Clinton. I worry about the Senate seats in Colorado (where she polls poorly) and Arizona with Clinton at the top of the ticket, and I think the opportunity to take out Mitch McConnell in Kentucky would be lost. And after the inauguration, I think that opposition to Hillary Clinton will remain a galvanizing theme for Republicans, whereas a new face and will make it harder to recreate the familiar unity-in-opposition.

Now for the cosmic explanation: What I find most interesting about Obama’s approach to bipartisanship is how seriously he takes conservatism. As Michael Tomasky describes it in his review of The Audacity of Hope, “The chapters boil down to a pattern: here’s what the right believes about subject X, and here’s what the left believes; and while I basically side with the left, I think the right has a point or two that we should consider, and the left can sometimes get a little carried away.” What I find fascinating about his language about unity and cross-partisanship is that it is not premised on finding Republicans who agree with him, but on taking in good faith the language and positions of actual conservatism — people who don’t agree with him. That’s very different from the longed-for consensus of the Washington Post editorial page.

Steve Benen offers his interpretation: “In this sense, the ‘politics of hope’ isn’t about bringing everyone to the table to compromise; it’s about an effective rhetorical strategy to achieve a progressive result.” This is true and a reason why many Democrats support Obama. However, this there is more. The reason that many of us independents (and even more libertarians than you might realize) support Obama is summarized in the final paragraph above regarding Obama’s consideration of opposing viewpoints. We see one example of this on health care. In his heart Obama probably does prefer a single payer health care system as was indicated on an old survey. What really matters is that Obama also understands that a plan such as the one he proposed, without mandates, has a far better chance of being accepted.

If you want someone who will try to push the entire progressive agenda down the throats of Americans, Obama is not your candidate. If you want proposals for sensible change that have a chance of actually being accomplished, then Obama may be the only viable choice now offered by the Democrats.

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