Friday, October 19, 2007


Jonathan Chait (The Plank-The New Republic's political blog):
The Washington Post today has a front page story making the case that Barack Obama's message of "a new era of consensus instead of partisan divide" is out of touch with the Democratic mood.
Michelle, below, agrees.

As a pure analysis of what voters think, this may be true. But I think it does seriously misread Obama's message. As I understand it -- and I could be wrong -- Obama isn't making a cumbaya, let's all get along point. He's saying that the practical realities of American politics dictate some level of bipartisan consensus in order to make progress. For instance, you can't pass sweeping health care reform without 60 Senate votes. This is Obama's point when he says:

"We've become so accustomed to just assuming that 45 percent of the country is red and 45 percent is blue. . . . Even if we [eke out a victory], we can't govern. There's gridlock," he told a crowd at the University of Iowa. "My belief was that I could change the political map and end gridlock." He added: "If we could gain a 60 percent majority on any of these issues, we could actually get something done. My goal . . . is finding that 60 percent majority."

Democrats have legitimate reason to think that the intense partisan split is bad for them. On health care, progressive taxation, and other issues, they have a natural popular majority. But people don't always vote on issues, and the red/blue divide imposes a ceiling on how much support a Democrat (or Republican) can get for anything. The GOP strategy for fighting things like health care reform will be to personalize the issue, make it about demonizing the Democratic president, and hold onto their 45% that way. But if you can de-personalize politics to some extent, you can reach the Republicans who agree with you. Obama, I think, sees draining some of the bile out of politics as a means to an end rather than an end in and of itself.

Obama's point, as I take it, is that electing a Democrat will be enough to stop George W. Bush from screwing things up, but not enough to allow real progress. The Clinton model is one where a Democrat mainly comes in and cleans up the mess from his (or her) Republican predecessor. You can do that by turning your 48% of the vote into 52%. You just can't do a whole lot else.

Obama's model may be less partisan than Clinton's, but in important ways it's more radical. Of course, conveying that rather complex message to Democratic primary voters is another thing altogether.



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