Political Relativity

Who won?

It's the basic question we love to pretend to hate to ask.  Washington is conditioned to judge the sweep of events as if the sun's path across the sky is the formal marker of political time; the favored metaphors are football and baseball games; four quarters; nine innings.  Thinking about politics in this way distorts reality. 


If you're the scoreboard operator, The White House team - and generally Democrats - lost. Unforced errors abounded. Communication between players broke down. Chaos and confusion reigned. Hard evidence: support for the stimulus package dropped fairly dramatically. This observation tells us something about the challenges of our times, and of the growing pains of changing a government, and of the institutional competition between branches. 


You could be excused for not thinking that the end result is inevitable: sometime soon, probably within ten days, President Obama will sign a massive, $800 (or so) billion stimulus package into law. Most of the principles he outlined in January will have been successfully transformed into actionable legislation. He will have won, despite having allegedly lost.  Democrats will have won. They will have succeeded in putting a down-payment on their party's most cherished political priorities.


History is agnostic; it's just that the basic structure of politics has changed. The field is tilted in a direction. Republicans are fighting uphill, and make no mistake - they are fighting like hell.


Not to say that the process hasn't been messy, and that heretofore unforeseen challenges won't confront the new power elite, and that the White House will escape the fight without getting cut. The BDAs can come later.


Obama had to quickly recalibrate after it became clear that ex-Sen. Tom Daschle's nomination, though tenable, would come at too much cost. I also think Daschle wasn't in the mood to fight and win but lose, perhaps, his honor in the process.   Obama had campaigned on a platform of single standard and transparency, and here he seemed to be making an exception for a good friend of his on the basis of, well, nothing but the friendship. He campaigned on a platform of blocking lobbyists from serving in his administration, but he had just given several of them a waiver, and here he was, standing by a Washington insider who ostensibly (although unintentionally) broke the law. Once the Daschle blinders were taken off, Obama apologized. The Outside the Beltway news coverage was much more favorable than the "honeymoon is over" crowd. 

Another recalibration: the White House was confused about whether to take ownership of all the semi-stimulative spending that House chairmen used to pad out that bill.  Right out of the gate, it was subject to very legitimate criticism. Some planks were semi-comical. So was the Obama's contention that Republicans had good ideas - but none of them seemed to find their way into the bill.  Think of it this way: Obama became not unlike a first-time home-buyer, ironically, getting handed the keys to a new house that was already losing value. Maybe, in retrospect, history will conclude that the White House should have given the House a more specific proposal. Or maybe, this is what policy-making looks like. Andrew Sullivan theorizies that Obama is a presider, but staying aloof publicly and intervening privately has its risks.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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