Hearts and Minds

by E.J. Dionne Jr. | February 18, 2010

WASHINGTON--If you want to be honest, face these facts: At this moment, President Obama is losing, Democrats are losing, and liberals are losing.

Who's winning? Republicans, conservatives, the practitioners of obstruction, and the Tea Party.

The two immediate causes for this state of affairs are a single election result in Massachusetts, and the way the United States Senate operates. What's not responsible is the supposed failure of Obama and the Democrats to govern as "moderates."

Pause to consider where we would be if a Democrat had won January's Massachusetts Senate race. In all likelihood, health reform would be law, Democrats could have moved on to economic matters, and Obama would be seen as shrewd and successful.

But that's not what happened, and Republican Scott Brown's victory revealed real weaknesses on the progressive side: an Obama political apparatus asleep at the switch, huge Republican enthusiasm unmatched by Democratic determination, and a focused conservative campaign to discredit Obama's ideas, notably his economic stimulus plan and the health care bill.

The Obama administration argues that both the stimulus and the health bill are better than people think. That's entirely true, and this is actually an indictment--it means that on the two big issues of the moment, Republicans and conservatives are winning an argument they should be losing.

The dreadful Senate is a major culprit here, and that's why Sen. Evan Bayh's complaints in explaining his retirement rang partly true, but also partly false. What's true is that the Senate isn't working. What's false is that there is no room for moderation. The fact is that the legislative outcomes on both the stimulus and health care were driven by moderates.

Economists agree that the stimulus worked, but Senate moderates made it less effective by shrinking its size and including irrelevancies--notably $70 billion to fix the alternative minimum tax--that did little to create jobs. The moderates got their way because the stimulus needed 60 votes, an absurd standard now that we have an ideologically polarized, parliamentary-style party system. We can waste time mourning that development, or we can recognize it and act accordingly.

On health care, months of delay in a futile quest for Republican support got the Democrats the worst of all worlds. The media gave them no credit for reaching out to the other side but did blame them for an ugly, gridlocked process.

The demands of moderate Democrats for concessions--remember the politically lethal Nebraska payoff for Sen. Ben Nelson?--made the process look even seamier. The bill's conservative opponents shrewdly focused on such side issues and on made-up issues like the "death panels."

Nobody wants to admit that on health care, the moderates won all the big fights. Single-payer was out at the start. The public option died. A Medicare buy-in died. The number of Americans who would be covered shrank. The insurance companies held on to their antitrust exemption. If a bill eventually becomes law--as it must if the Democrats are not to look like a feckless, useless lot--the final proposal will be much closer to the moderate Senate version than to the more progressive bill passed by the House.

And if the Republicans refuse to cooperate, this will not mean that the bill isn't moderate. It will mean only that Republicans refuse to vote for a moderate bill.

But if all the media talk about the "failure of moderation" is nonsense, this doesn't get liberals or Obama off the hook.

While liberals were arguing about public plans and this or that, and while Obama was deep into inside deal-making, the conservatives relentlessly made a straightforward public case based on a syllogism: The economy is a mess. Obama and the Democrats are for big government. Big government is responsible for the mess. Therefore the mess is the fault of Obama and the Big Government Democrats.

Simplistic and misleading? Absolutely. But if liberals and Obama are so smart, how did they--or, if you prefer, "we"--allow conservatives to make this argument so effectively? Why do the mainstream media give it so much credence?

Of course, I think the conservatives' argument is wrong. But at this point, I have to admire their daring and discipline. Moderate and progressive Democrats alike have eight months between now and this fall's elections to change the terms of the debate and prove they can govern. Otherwise, they'll be washed out by a tidal wave.

E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.

E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.

(c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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