THE BLOG
03/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Anxious Voters Angered by Dithering and Deal-Making, Not Lack of Bipartisanship

--"that he is mad, 'tis true; 'tis true, 'tis pity; and pity 'tis, 'tis true". (Hamlet, II, ii)

The President believes that voters are angered by the absence of bipartisanship, and frustrated by the lack of results that that bickering (seems to) cause.

While correct about the frustration, the President is wrong about the anger.

If he were correct, his Administration is doomed to failure. By seeking bipartisanship, he will accomplish precisely what the Republicans want. He will not succeed in his policies as Republicans will continue to move the goalposts and never vote to support a key policy, and he will enervate his strong supporters because of his vain compromise efforts to find (non-existent) common ground.

Republicans learned in the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s that being a loyal opposition does not win them elections. Newt Gingrich's key insight (psychological, not political) was that total opposition (+ lying) was the only route to power for a Party whose sole natural constituencies are the wealthy and the intolerant. Helping Democrats move an agenda, with the goal of forcing Democrats to compromise, as they had for those decades, helped the country, but not themselves. Indeed, as Ted Kennedy's career proved, and Bill Clinton has recently observed, getting half a loaf as a result of compromising with Republicans is still progress.

For Republicans, progress is dangerous to their electoral health. They are a disloyal opposition, they do not hide it, and the Democrats do not call them on it.

Let us face it: Republicans (may) love (their concept of) America -- but they hate the American people because, like any people, they need care, help, nurturing and the government on their side arrayed against powerful private interests. Republicans are like abusive parents -- who love the idea of having children because it burnishes their self-image, but are angered, because they cannot cope with getting up in the middle of the night to care for a sick or frightened child.

If the lack of bipartisanship is, however, only a surrogate for what really angers people, then addressing the real cause of their anger will enable the President to pursue a different strategy with a much greater chance of success -- for the country and for his Party.

First, though, it takes a recognition of what the real underlying problem is. Fixing the major problems--the obvious and ultimate answer -- will not occur quickly. Thus, the President and the Democrats need to address the underlying psychological reactions to anxiety and stress.

The President and Democrats would be much better served, and would serve the American people much better, if they paid more attention to voter psychology than to poll information, and heed Drew Westen (author: "The Political Brain") -- not Bob Schrum or Celinda Lake (who just famously declared herself, in the same article, both a "leading (!) Democratic strategist" and "Martha Coakley's pollster" without a glimmer of recognition of that oxymoron.)

The human brain (as other species') craves anxiety reduction. The disastrous Bush Administration provoked high anxiety and anger, and a feeling of loss of control over one's destiny. In the 2008 campaign the Democrats reduced anxiety -- change we can believe in (intuited as "anxiety relief"), and the conduct of the campaign (cool, calm, decisive, in control) were the key ingredients.

When problems take a long time to be resolved, the key short-term deliverable is building trust to induce patience. This is true in families, in companies, in clubs, in countries -- in any organization of people. In 2009, by contrast to 2008, Democrats'dithering and deal-making exacerbated voters' anxiety and anger.

Candidate Obama and the Obama campaign exuded calm, competence and decisiveness. While McCain postured on the financial meltdown, Obama addressed it coolly. When McCain wanted to suspend the debate (another pathetic posturing), Obama stated that "we can do two things at once". [And, recall, McCain was supposed to be the experienced leader, and Obama the young whippersnapper].

Indeed, those characteristics also provided Obama what became an insurmountable lead against Hillary Clinton whose campaign, for the first two-thirds, jumped from one slogan and strategy to another. Hillary started clicking when she became consistent, crisp and decisive.

The first year of the Obama Presidency resembled the first two-thirds of Hillary Clinton's primary campaign.

There may be no better proof of this hypothesis than the souring of people to healthcare reform, while, at the same time, continuing to applaud its individual components. Healthcare reform became tainted by the dithering and deal-making--with pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies, and with dissident blowhards like Lieberman and Ben Nelson, and allowing Chuck Grassley to lie about 'death panels' in Iowa and then be welcomed back as 'my friend' to a 'bipartisan' inside group 'negotiating' healthcare reform that he was never, ever, going to vote for.

Yet, insurance reform--popular. Reducing premiums--popular. Outlawing pre-existing conditions--popular. Public option--popular. 'Universal coverage'--popular. There is no other explanation for the opposition to "healthcare reform" and strong support of its individual elements than the anger and frustration created by dithering and deal-making.

The 9+ months this poor excuse for a 'debate' dragged on exhausted voters' psyches. That, and the deal-making with insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry that accompanied it, tainted the "healthcare reform" bill.

It would help also for the President to "de-Rubinize" his economic team. Accepting Treasury Secretary Geithner's baggage that the President had to defend, wasted precious political capital. Every day that Mr. Geithner remains in his job squanders that capital further--and to what end? It does not help the President turn the economy around, create jobs, or show by his actions how deeply he cares about the middle class. He has become President Obama's Donald Rumsfeld. He should replace him with Robert Reich. The same is true of other members of the President's economic team whose past connections to Wall Street damage their credibility with main street.

Senators seem not to have learned the "macacca" lesson that former Senator and former likely 2008 Republican Presidential nominee George Allen taught. In the old days, a Senator could go to his state and wink, nod, lie--and then deny or dissemble when confronted. Today, it is all captured on YouTube, spread virally and commented upon widely on the Net. Drop your façade, and your phoniness, shallowness and lack of integrity are exposed for all to see. Joe Lie-berman's opposition to his own proposal on reducing the age for medicare eligibility dropped his approval ratings in Connecticut to Dick Cheney/OJ Simpson levels.

The President made a good start by chiding the Senate last night, but he and the leadership need to get tough with their minions--Massachusetts should a wake-up call not to a vain attempt at bipartisanship, but, more than anything, to decisive action, to commitments among Democrats to air their disagreements in private, to stop acting like spoiled children and behave like adults, and to impose consequences for bad behavior, such as losing seniority or staff or office.

If a Democratic Senator decides that being a team player is too much to ask and switches to the Republicans, so be it--the Republican Senators will welcome them, but they will then be rejected in the next Republican primary since very few Democrats, if any, will meet the purity standards required by Republican Party activists who dominate primary elections. Just consider John McCain's predicament--and he's a Republican!

The President and the leadership have much more clout than they think. It is time to use it.

Recently, I received an email from Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC). In it he said "believe me, Democrats understand peoples' anger"--yet Bob excused his own negative vote on a healthcare amendment that would have saved over $100B on the grounds that "we had a deal with the pharmaceutical industry".

So, no Bob, you don't get it. And, the biggest danger to Democrats' prospects in 2010 is that they think they get it, and they really do not, because then they will fashion bad solutions to the wrong problem.

The key to success in 2010 and beyond is not bipartisanship. It is to address anxiety and anger with clear decisive action, accountability for those not on-board, airing disagreements privately and acting like a team in public, and ending deal-making with DC and corporate insiders.

Then, and only then, will Democrats succeed in reducing voters' anxiety to provide space and time for the policies to begin to work. Then, and only then, will anger subside.

Finally, Democrats have one inherent strategic advantage. Republican claims to represent "the people" against the establishment are very hard to maintain, as they are the Party of the establishment. If Democrats claim that mantle, actually fight the establishment and act accordingly, Republicans will be reduced to political apoplexy.

To the extent, however, that Democrats are indecisive, make deals, dither and fight among themselves, Republicans will be handed the anti-establishment mantra they could never otherwise maintain... and, with it the 2010 election that will end any hope for economic recovery for the middle class, clean energy, healthcare coverage for all Americans, a Supreme Court that will protect individual rights and so on.

Any chance the Republicans would then pursue "bipartisanship?"