THE BLOG
05/09/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Power Plays

What a difference a year makes. The Obama administration took office with an outpouring of good feelings. Democracy worked. It established a new milestone on the centuries-long path towards racial justice. Many Americans who voted for the other guy still felt a sense of pride in what their country could show to the world.

Obama aides knew the honeymoon would be transient: the underlying reality of politics would reassert itself. It seems that they were not prepared for how quickly and how forcefully the shift from beatitude to brawl happened.

The 2008 election may turn out to be one of those rare realignments in the body politic when political power shifts in ways that endure for decades to follow. Other such elections include Andrew Jackson in 1828, Abraham Lincoln in 1860, FDR in 1932, and Ronald Reagan in 1980. It usually takes until the next election for the magnitude of the shift to be confirmed, so it still remains to be seen if the Obama 2008 victory is a long term shift or a blip.

History shows that the first term of a transformational presidency is unusually turbulent. In Lincoln's case, that is a huge understatement: the turbulence in question was the Civil War. The underlying cause is, I think, the vying for power in the new political environment. This happens among both the winning and losing side of the key election, although it plays out in different ways.

In Lincoln's first term, the Republican Party had two major factions. One viewed the Civil War as a holy war to abolish slavery; the other viewed it as a war of necessity to preserve the Union. The tugs and pulls between these two factions, even within his own cabinet, gave Lincoln no end of headaches. And like their predecessors, the Whigs and Hamilton's Federalist Party, the new Republican Party had its intramural disputes out in the open including in newspapers, public debates, rallies, and all the other media of the day. This gave an aura of disunity to the Republican Party, and by extension to the North, which made Lincoln's task that much harder.

For Obama, the two major factions on the winning side can be roughly labeled Progressives and Democratic Moderates. Progressives feel emboldened by winning, and want to enact a large, broad agenda of what they see as fundamental reforms. They are smarting from decades out of power, and feel it is their turn. The example of Dick Cheney using the narrow and contested Bush victory of 2000 as license to enact a very conservative agenda went from a horror to be loathed to an example to be emulated.

Moderates seem more concerned with keeping the votes of Independents, whose shifts determine election outcomes. These pragmatists are more concerned with keeping power than changing policy.

Successful transformational presidencies need both strains: the pragmatists who focus on winning and keeping power and the activists who focus on how to use power to make lasting change. Lincoln is considered great because in the end, he accomplished much of what the activists of his party in his day wanted. But he needed to be one of the best power players in our history to do it.

The health care debate shows the strains within the Left more clearly than other issues. Progressives want more, symbolized most clearly by the "public option." Moderates are willing to take less. They believe that a partial victory now can lead to winning more later. However, a defeat now would make it difficult to impossible to enact anything for the rest of Obama's presidency.

Obama's task is to get both sides of his coalition together, letting the Progressives know that if they accept moderate tactics, they get to try again and again. But if the Progressives don't fall in line, they are out.

Returning to the Civil War, the Democrats and the South went into the 1860 election far from a united front. The Democratic Party had in fact split into Northern and a Southern branches, each of which had its own candidate for President. States rights and slavery were related but different issues. Jefferson believed firmly in states rights, but also believed that slavery would eventually and inevitably disappear. The prospect of a Lincoln Presidency convinced Democrats and Southerners that the time when they could influence policy on slavery, and by extension a wide range of political and social issues, in the whole Union would end. The prospect of the loss of power and influence was seen as an existential threat, and united the otherwise fractious South.

Although the issues at hand today are by no means as dire as slavery, the Right faces a huge loss of power and influence compared to its ascendancy of the last forty years. Fear of that loss drives a large measure of tactical unity, expressed in voting "no" on any measure that matters to the Obama administration.

But behind the tactical unity, the Right has many sometimes conflicting elements. Libertarians, social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, religious conservatives, and old-line Burkean conservatives have different points of agreement and disagreement - whether with the Obama administration, the Progressive agenda, or each other. It behooves these elements to act in concert in the short run, because otherwise the Obama administration could use "divide and conquer" tactics to rapidly reduce their remaining influence. For example, if fiscal conservatives backed some of the deficit reduction aspects of the health care bill, filibuster would be no threat and the bill would already be law.

The issue is the more interesting because the intramural debate among the Right and the Republican Party, which are not exactly the same thing, is now out in the open. The post-FDR Republican Party kept the tradition of Jefferson's Republicans and Jackson's Democrats for settling intramural policy debates in private and presenting a unified front in public. Many of the factions are new to this kind of public debate, and do not yet know how to handle themselves. The Left painfully learned from the 1960s to keep the crazy element in the background, since it alienates almost everyone else. The Right has not yet learned this discipline.

The result is that the country is deprived of the intellectual value and balance of thoughtful conservatism. In particular, the tradition of Edmond Burke to balance pragmatism with principled defense of traditional values, has gone all but silent at the very time when it is most needed. Why? Because the Burkean tradition would help the Right adapt to the new conditions, and thus best serve both the Right and the country in the long run.

The Obama administration seemingly did not recognize or adapt to the shifting power scene in both its support and its opposition in its first year in office. Perhaps they were still looking at the pre-campaign landscape, not yet cognizant of how the election changed the environment. Recently, they have started to take more control of political tactics, exemplified by health care. The moment in history is still there for Obama to win, if he can show himself as strong a tactician in governing as he did on the campaign trail.