03/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Right to Resist Left Turn

There's a theory circulating among liberals that they won the election, taking the White House and improving majorities in Congress, so it is time now to take off the gloves, end the silly politeness about bipartisan collaboration and simply govern from the left. In other words, confiscate all the guns, enact national health insurance and raise taxes on the rich in an effort to shrink both the deficit and income disparity. That's an appealing vision that's very, very wrong. The idea is a bad one. So there's little reason to mourn the fact that it is a logical impossibility.

Political debris less than a few months old reminds us of the perils of simply relying on your base. That's what George Bush did. But the base inevitably shrinks over time because of extreme measures that are taken in a presidential echo chamber than lacks the leavening of constructive criticism. Many of the Bush policies were mistakes, but such errors are less frequent when more voices are involved in the debate. And while Obama may be wiser and more prudent than Bush, his early travails suggests that he's aware of the perils of allowing the president to become imprisoned in the White House bubble.

Over time that should prove helpful to liberals, especially if they acknowledge that he's not one of them. They can make a plausible case that they helped elect him (as can other constituencies), but that buys them nothing more than participation in the policy debate. Indeed, many of his appointments suggest that they're being treated similarly to how Karl Rove treated traditional Republicans - a combination of friendly rhetoric (on social and spending issues) and independence on policy.

But assume for a moment that he is a liberal, albeit a well camouflaged one. How much could he do alone? Not much beyond stem cell research policies, unless he had support from a liberal Congress that doesn't exist. The Great Liberal Hypothesis suggests that if there were 60 Democrats in the Senate, they could move forward in lockstep enacting the President's liberal agenda because they'd be impervious to threats of a Republican filibuster. History suggests it is imprudent to use the words lockstep and Senate within a single sentence. And it is only prudent to acknowledge that the Democratic majorities in both Senate and House are more conservative than they were a year ago. That's because the Democrats have picked up seats largely by running centrist candidates. But they remain less interested than Republicans in playing follow the leader.

If Speaker Nancy Pelosi used her tested and formidable powers to win big majorities for overtly liberal policies, she'd be putting her newest, most vulnerable members at risk. A look at the map suggests that any Senate seats that flip Democratic in 2010 would be from swing states like Ohio or Missouri that aren't typically considered liberal, but could find a populist compelling given appropriate economic conditions.

But the final flaw -- and perhaps the biggest one -- in liberal thinking is that there's a popular consensus about how to resolve the big issues. That's true only at the highest level of abstraction. Their view that big money lobbyists are somehow thwarting major policy changes that have broad public support borders on the delusional. Everyone agrees it would be nice to reduce record deficits, partly by taxing the rich more. There's universal agreement that it would be nice to have a system that offered affordable health care to all. And no one argues against improving failed public schools. But there are many divisive devils in the details. Defining who's rich enough to deserve a higher tax bill or who's poor enough to merit aid in purchasing health insurance are delicate decisions that require negotiation, preferably on a bipartisan basis.

Governing is a slog that often rewards the last person standing. Individuals and movements (think sagebrush rebellion and Ross Perot), who appear like comets but lack staying power, don't make much of an impact. Public consensus takes a long time to gel. But it is worth waiting for if the goal is a lasting result. Acting too quickly led to the creation of a Medicare catastrophic coverage plan that was enacted in 1988 after winning more than 300 votes in the House of Representatives. It was then repealed the following year, again receiving more than 300 votes the year after. Today Medicare still doesn't include such coverage.

There's a lesson there for those who want to move in a quick and partisan fashion on health reform. Politicians who attempt to move significantly faster than the public does jeopardize both their careers and, often, the policies they espouse.

Originally posted to