Amidst the speculation over whether David Axelrod hates Rahm Emanuel or Rahm Emanuel hates David Axelrod or Lawrence Summers hates them both, the punditocracy has glossed over something significant: Team Obama has had one hell of a month. In late January, health care reform was widely considered dead. Now it’s considered a better than even bet. It could all still end in tears, of course. But for the moment, Barack Obama has his mojo back. And he has it back for one basic reason: He’s given up the dream that he could transcend the partisan divide.
When Obama showed that he wasn’t afraid of enraging Republicans by passing health care through “reconciliation,” a lot of congressional Democrats decided that they weren’t afraid either.
That dream has been central to Obama’s political career. The most famous line in his 2004 Democratic convention speech was “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.” He defeated Hillary Clinton in part because Democrats believed she would usher in four more years of partisan blood sport while he was someone Republicans did not hate. But this post-partisan dream, it turns out, rested on two fallacies. The first is that because average Americans want less polarized politics, politicians will listen. In truth, as political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson illustrated in their 2006 book, Off Center, the GOP now responds to a set of incentives that has little to do with the public’s desire for kumbaya. For roughly a decade, the Club for Growth has run primary challengers against Republican moderates, and party activists have threatened to deny those moderates committee chairmanships, and as a result, centrist congressional Republicans have either abandoned their centrism or abandoned Congress. In the 1980s, the Senate contained about a dozen blue-state Republican moderates. Today, there are two or three, which means there is no safety in numbers. So on health care, when Obama went looking for the GOP partners to help him usher in his post-polarized age, he found that they simply weren’t there.
The other fallacy was that the red-blue divide was all about the culture war. From E.J. Dionne’s Why Americans Hate Politics to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? liberals have often argued that were it not for dastardly culture warriors like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove dividing the country over “symbolic” issues like god, guns, gays, Americans would come together on behalf of more government intervention in the economy. Team Obama seems to have been particularly enamored of the idea that since he is a post-baby boomer who neither imbibed at Woodstock nor cursed it, he could lead the country beyond the cultural fights of the 1960s.
To some degree, those fights are indeed fading. When was the last time you heard a pundit screaming about affirmative action or gun control or the death penalty or school prayer? But what the Obama Democrats forgot is that liberals and conservatives are also genuinely, profoundly divided over the role of government. That division, which dates back to the progressive era, is just as intense as the division over culture. The belief that liberals are closet socialists, which is to say, closet totalitarians, is not a fringe view on the right. It is what the conservative movement has always believed. The White House didn’t forcefully respond to these charges because they seem to have believed they were marginal; that particularly after the financial crisis, there was a mainstream, bipartisan consensus in favor of more government spending and regulation. They were wrong.
But all that has now changed. Since the special election in Massachusetts, the White House has clearly realized that the only bipartisanship Barack Obama is likely to achieve is the kind Bill Clinton achieved after 1994: a bipartisanship that eviscerates hope for fundamental liberal change. In response, Obama has stopped compromising with Republicans and began confronting them. It started with the health care summit, which Obama used to expose the GOP’s lack of interest in covering the uninsured. And it has continued on the stump, where Obama has given a series of scalding, Truman-esque speeches that lump congressional Republicans with insurance companies as defenders of an immoral status quo. The effect has been to lift some of the malaise that was afflicting the Democratic base and counter the image of Obama as bloodless and aloof. And the effect has been contagious. When Obama showed that he wasn’t afraid of enraging Republicans by passing health care through “reconciliation,” a lot of congressional Democrats decided that they weren’t afraid either. If the White House shows the same fortitude on financial regulatory reform, and exposes Republicans as defenders of the status quo there as well, Obama’s political momentum could continue to build.
Health care reform may still fail, of course, and with unemployment at nearly ten percent, the Democrats will get shellacked this fall no matter what. But Barack Obama is coming to terms with American politics as it is, not as he might like it to be. Partisan street-fighter may not be the part he envisioned himself playing, but he’s starting to warm to the role.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.