THE BLOG
10/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Best Frenemy

Conservative
New York Times columnist David Brooks’s article this
morning
presents himself as Obama’s wannabe political consigliere,
dispensing advice on how he can emerge from the malaise and growing
unpopularity that has beset his administration.

Brooks’s
advice now is basically the same that it’s always been: if you want to be
popular, move to the right. Oh, and let Republicans stymie your agenda.

Citing declining
poll support for Obama’s health care plan (whatever that may be), Brooks
writes:

Amazingly, some liberals are now lashing out at Obama because the entire country doesn’t
agree with The Huffington Post. Some now argue that the administration should
just ignore the ignorant masses and ram health care through using
reconciliation, the legislative maneuver that would reduce the need for
moderate votes.

This would be suicidal. You can’t pass the most
important domestic reform in a generation when the majority of voters think you
are on the wrong path. To do so would be a sign of unmitigated arrogance. If
Obama agrees to use reconciliation, he will permanently affix himself to the
liberal wing of his party and permanently alienate independents. He will be
president of 35 percent of the country — and good luck getting anything done
after that.

Brooks is setting himself up as a one-man
Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist organization that has been
committed from its founding to moving the Democratic Party to the right. As I
discuss in my book, Fear and Courage in
the Democratic Party,
the DLC realized in the mid-1980’s that it couldn’t
win a policy debate on the merits: people just didn’t support its centrist or
right-leaning policies. So instead of engaging in that debate, they did
something very clever and reframed the question. Instead of arguing that
Democrats should deregulate Wall Street, cut back on environmental protections,
or weaken their support for reproductive freedom because it was the right thing
to do, they instead argued that politicians should shift to the center because
that was where the American people were.

Suddenly they were speaking politicians’
language. In a contest between doing what was right and doing what will help
you get elected, political expedience will win almost every time.

Unfortunately for Democrats (and for the country
that had to deal with consequences of DLC ideology becoming the organizing
philosophy of the party), the idea that moving to the right can help Democrats
win was then and is now spectacularly and obviously wrong.

First off, as political scientists have known for
decades, shifting policy positions is a recipe for electoral disaster because people don’t vote on the issues. In fact, only about six percent of the
average voter’s decision is based on agreement with a candidate’s issue
position (in many cases, voters don’t even know the candidates’ issue positions
on even the highest profile issues -- if you doubt that, ask your friends to
explain the differences between the Democrats’ and the Republicans’ health care
plans).

But shifting positions for political reasons is
also dangerous because it threatens voters’ perceptions of politicians’
leadership and integrity, which are very important factors in deciding the
vote.

In this case, accommodation of Republicans also
threatens Obama’s political fortunes in two other ways: adopting failed
Republican health care policies would increase costs and reduce care, putting
an additional burden on the economy -- imperiling Obama’s 2012 reelection.
Second, failure to pass major elements of his agenda will be perceived as a
political defeat that will put in doubt Democrats’ ability to deliver.

Nevertheless, decline in support for Obama’s
policies (whatever those may be) can’t be ignored, if only because
congressional Democrats do blow with
the winds of public opinion, regardless of whether or not they should.

Brooks, of course, is ignoring the real reason
for the decline in Obama’s support on health care: this debate has been very
one sided. While Republicans have marshaled clear (though often dishonest) and
passionate arguments to maintain the status quo, Obama put his persuasive power
on hold while he got sucked into an insider negotiation with Congressional
centrists and Republicans -- and has been entirely unable to make a coherent or
morally compelling case for his agenda, to effectively rally his movement
behind him, or to put pressure on Democrats. Obama could do those things, he
just hasn’t -- throughout his career he’s waited until his back is against the
wall until he’s willing to soil his hands with the kind of hardball politics
that actually delivers victories.

So now Brooks is arguing that Obama shouldn’t
articulate the progressive agenda he ran on -- and should let Republican attack
campaigns determine his policies. 

I hope Obama can tell the difference between
clever DLC-style frenemies like David Brooks and the strategists who actually
want him and his agenda to succeed.