JONATHAN CHAIT JANUARY 8, 2010
The latest entry in the endless series of columns upbraiding President Obama for doing too much comes from Peggy Noonan. In the Wall Street Journal today, Noonan scolds:
The public in 2009 would have been happy to see a simple bill that mandated insurance companies offer coverage without respect to previous medical conditions. The administration could have had that—and the victory of it—last winter.
Instead, they were greedy for glory.
In fact, a bill like that couldn't work at all. If you forbid insurance companies from discriminating on the basis of previous illness, than nobody has an incentive to buy insurance until they get sick. Then rates skyrocket and the individual market collapses. Not only is this not a partial victory, it's a massive step backward.
But please, Ms. Noonan, let's hear more of your thoughts on domestic policy.
There are a couple more strange things about this column. Most of the Obama's-doing-too-much punditry has an implicit argument that Obama should place his party's popularity above solving enormous problems -- implicit, because to make that premise explicit would justifiably invite ridicule. Well, Noonan goes ahead and makes it explicit:
If you mention to Obama staffers that they really have to be concerned about the polls, they look at you with a certain . . . not disdain but patience, as if you don't understand the purpose of politics. That purpose, they believe, is to move the governed toward greater justice. Just so, but in democracy you do this by garnering and galvanizing public support. But they think it's weaselly to be well thought of.
Even more strange, about three-quarters through her column, Noonan suddenly segues to the GOP. Here, her advice is completely the opposite. Republicans should try to take on huge problems and not worry about their popularity:
I spoke a few weeks ago with a respected Republican congressman who told me with some excitement of a bill he's put forward to address the growth of entitlements and long-term government spending. We only have three or four years to get it right, he said. He made a strong case. I asked if his party was doing anything to get behind the bill, and he got the blanched look people get when they're trying to keep their faces from betraying anything. Not really, he said. Then he shrugged. "They're waiting for the Democrats to destroy themselves."
This isn't news, really, but it was startling to hear a successful Republican political practitioner say it.
Republican political professionals in Washington assume a coming victory. They do not see that 2010 could be a catastrophic victory for them. If they seize back power without clear purpose, if they are not serious, if they do the lazy and cynical thing by just sitting back and letting the Democrats lose, three bad things will happen. They will contribute to the air of cynicism in which our citizens marinate. Their lack of seriousness will be discerned by the Republican base, whose enthusiasm and generosity will be blunted. And the Republicans themselves will be left unable to lead when their time comes, because operating cynically will allow the public to view them cynically, which will lessen the chance they will be able to do anything constructive.
It's not unusual for a pundit to castigate the opposing party for risking its popularity in order to advance policy goals and to castigate its own party for doing the opposite. That's a classic hack trope. But usually the hack has the good sense to do these things on separate occasions, rather than making both arguments in the same column.