President Barack Obama's decision to include offshore drilling as a component of a broader energy policy has reignited a debate that dominated much of the health care reform process: How far can the administration go in alienating its progressive base without repercussion?
Top-ranking officials and strategists express confidence that both the president and the party will suffer little long-term blowback by negotiating away specific policy principles cherished by progressive groups. They note that while health care reform was defined for months by howling over the sacrifice of a public option for insurance coverage, by the time the bill came to a vote there was near-Democratic unanimity behind its passage
"My sense is that we are [OK with the base]," Democratic National Committee Chair Tim Kaine told the Huffington Post shortly after health care's passage but well before the drilling decision was announced. "I think we're okay. There were tough points along the way, very tough issues along the way, because this is an issue that people feel strongly about."
"What the president had as the bull's-eye was the outcome, and the outcome had to be security for people with insurance, a path to coverage for those without and overall cost control. He didn't necessarily get wedded to what is the best tactic to achieve the three goals or what is the best substantive fix to achieve the three goals. But he knew that a lot of our base had very strong feelings," Kaine added. "He kept the goals on the wall as the bull's-eye but tried to be flexible as to the strategies to get there. And I know that that was frustrating, but he's a practical guy and those were the goals that were important."
Kaine's analysis of the landscape seemed to be vindicated just days later when a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that Democrats had closed the so-called "enthusiasm gap" -- which measures the excitement of each party to vote in the 2010 elections. But in subsequent days, other polls showed that the margin hadn't narrowed all that much. In at least one case, it remained roughly the same as before health care reform was passed. CNN recorded 36 percent of Democrats saying they were either "extremely enthusiastic" or "very enthusiastic" about voting in 2010 (compared with 31 percent in January). Fifty-five percent of Republicans in that same poll, meanwhile said they were either "extremely enthusiastic" or "very enthusiastic" to vote (compared with 49 percent in January.)
Legislative success was supposed to begat an era of good will between Obama and his base. It did. But more than that, it seems, it simply led to relief that a painful and emotional process had ended.
All of which may not be bad politics for the White House to pursue. Prominent strategists within the party continue to contend that the sacrifice of the public option was necessary for a bill to make it through the Senate -- though the use of reconciliation to amend that bill spurs questions as to why a government-run insurance plan wasn't passed using that 50-vote maneuver. Pollsters, meanwhile, caution that there are serious risks with a legislative strategy that relies too heavily on pleasing and turning out the base.
"We need to energize the base, but this is a country that hates polarization," Stan Greenberg, a longtime Democratic hand said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on Wednesday. "Sometimes you just got to go for those things. Karl Rove had a base strategy. Karl Rove had a base strategy, OK. And he was very, very consistent. And he destroyed the Republican Party."
But the gripes from progressives -- which seemed to ebb after health care's passage -- have returned once again with Wednesday's announcement about offshore drilling. Environmental groups, naturally, have objected strongly to the proposal, noting how long it will take to get energy from these sources and the damage such drilling can do to U.S. coastlines. Progressives, meanwhile, are left to wonder what exactly the president was able to secure in exchange for negotiating away this provision. While several prominent Republicans expressed tepid appreciation for the announcement, many more called it insufficient or misleading. Virtually none are expected to now offer their vote.
Combined with the disappointments of the health care debate and an economic recession that has taken its toll on traditionally Democratic constituents, concerns have mounted even further that the gusto to vote simply won't be there in 2010.
"The organized base of the party, which is particularly vital -- and is significantly organized labor -- they obviously have big problems in the economy where manufacturing continues to get slaughtered and now state and local officials are getting laid off," said Bob Borosage, co-director of the progressive group, Campaign for America's Future. "They also have big problems with the health care bill and the bizarre scene of a Democratic president doing concessionary bargaining with labor as if he were a CEO."
"I think you saw anger with that in the Massachusetts [Senate] voting. And it will take some serious progress for it to not happen again."
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