Senator Barack Obama’s win in South Carolina was exciting from a horse-race perspective. His speech was, in my opinion, much better than his Iowa one. But I still find his whole “changing the tone in Washington” shtick hopelessly naïve. I don’t know if he buys his own bullshit — maybe he knows better and it’s just a campaign ploy — but it suggests to me a candidate completely unready for the pain of the general election and the realities of governing a divided nation.
Consider the agenda for a Democratic president their first year in office. The top line issues will be doing something about Iraq, passing some sort of healthcare legislation, fixing the federal budget and, depending on how the economy plays out in the next year, managing the recession. I also imagine that about a week after a Democratic President is sworn in Ruth Bader Ginsburg will announce her retirement from the Supreme Court. All these issues seem daunting and perhaps the sort of thing that could hobble a new president right out of the gate.
Policies in Iraq and the war on terrorism are prerogatives of the president and the sort of things that can be accomplished without any input from Congress. But Iraq is an intractable situation. I don’t think anyone — no matter how confidently they may promulgate their whitepapers — knows what to do here, but a wrong move or two could be catastrophic. There are many powerful people in D.C. whose worldview is deeply connected to the Iraq war who will be watching and waiting to parade a Democratic president’s every plausibly wrong move down Pennsylvania Avenue and across all the television talk shows. Americans constantly tell pollsters that they want out of Iraq, but it is a position that is a mile wide and an inch deep. As soon as they are faced with the rhetoric of the consequences of withdrawal, they could seriously turn against a President actually implementing their previously desired policy. There are too many reasons that the Republicans will want to paint the Democrats as the party that lost the Iraq war — not least to get this albatross off the neck of the Republicans and onto that of the Democrats. No amount of speechifying is about to change this. This stands to be a real lesson for a President Obama in the unchangableness of the tone here in Washington, D.C.
However much they promise on the campaign trail, healthcare reform more significant than bureaucratic twiddling around the margins will be a next to impossible task. I think that a Democratic administration should hand this issue off to a blue-ribbon commission or some sort of consensus-building or stakes-raising body to let it simmer for a few months to a year, but I suspect that for reason of some by-gone precedent they will make it a part of their first hundred-day agenda. Everyone in Washington, D.C. believes that early successes build momentum and political capitol for a President. Therefore Republicans, right-leaning Democrats and related interest groups will be eager to hand the new President a momentum-stunting defeat on healthcare. Success in this issue will consist almost entirely of cajoling Congress and Republicans will seek to make it the first firebreak. Political-strategic considerations aside, the amount of money riding on this issue is just going to be too much for opposition groups to avoid going apocalyptic on this issue. Whoever grabs this wolf by the ears is going to have to be prepared for a lot of snarling and snapping in the general direction of their throat.
On the issue of fixing the budget, it can’t be done without raising taxes. If nothing else, the next President will be faced with whether to allow the sunset provision of the 2000 Bush tax cut to kick in. Nearly the entire Republican caucus has signed onto Grover Norquist’s No-Tax Pledge and the party leadership is serious about enforcing it. Additionally there are a lot of right-leaning Democrats or Democrats from sensitive conservative districts that tend to vote with the Republicans. Passing a Democratic budget will be dependent on maintaining a high degree of party unity, shaming Congressmen on the margin and taking the message to the citizenry. Since such a budget will probably come down to a straight party line vote, this will mean pressuring and humiliating Republicans in front of their constituents. In other words, some standard partisan tactics are what is called for here.
Regarding a Supreme Court nominee, I imagine that the Democrats will be surprised to find that their willingness to compromise on President Bush’s two appointments not reciprocated. A Democratic President may have to insist that Harry Reid actually call Mitch McConnell’s bluff and hold a real filibuster. And to win it, again, making the Republicans look the obstructionist assholes in front of the nation will be required.
When Barack Obama rattles off one of his standard litanies of the problems that can’t be solved owing to gridlock and partisanship, they aren’t initiatives that the Republicans want to advance too were it not for some mysterious bureaucratic bickering getting in the way. The items not achieved on Senator Obama’s list aren’t failures to Republicans, but accomplishments. Partisanship doesn’t emanate from some mysterious origin lost to the mists of time, but comes about owing to day-to-day real word differences on policy as well as the tried and true methods for advancing your own agenda while thwarting that of your opponent. Unless Barack Obama thinks that his smooth words have the power to evaporate this underlying reality — and Americans for Tax Reform, the American Enterprise Institute, Cato, The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal editorial page and hordes of corporate money are going to do everything they can to see to it that he fails — then he better have a plan B.