A Pointer for Andrew Sullivan

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In a recent post, I argued that Obama has been at fault for standing aside too long on healthcare reform. Andrew Sullivan takes me to task, saying it is Congress's job to legislate, and praising Obama's speech on the subject in September, which Andrew regards as proof that Obama has been closely engaged throughout.

Yes, it is Congress's job to legislate. Obama was right not to draft a law and then present it to Congress saying, pass this. But there was a middle way between a Hillary-like fait accompli and failing to exercise meaningful guidance and supervision. The public's low opinion of Congress made it essential for Obama to act as a chief sponsor of the legislation. It was not enough for him to say, just give me something to sign. Voters wanted more from him than that.

Andrew asks if I was alive back in September: if I was, how could I have failed to notice that excellent speech? Andrew has so many opinions to ventilate, and so little time to think about them, I do not rebuke him for failing to see whether I had said anything at the time. This would have taken a full two minutes. In fact I said I thought it was an excellent speech. I praised it effusively. But I also said this: 

All in all, I think he made the case for reform about as well as it could be made.

But what difference is it going to make? I wrote down three questions before the speech. Did he take charge of the process? Did he explain what "the plan" actually is? Did he settle the row over the public option? He should have done all these things already. Tonight I thought he made some progress in each case, but without answering any of the questions definitively.

He talked about "the plan I'm announcing tonight"-seeming to assert his ownership, and at the same time declaring a new start for the process. Good. But there is still no detailed White House proposal, and the action now moves back to Congress. Obama's "plan", as he described it, was a recapitulation of bullet points from the proposals already in play. On substance, in other words, little was new.

One speech, however eloquent, is still just one speech. I hoped it would mark the start of real engagement in the design and advocacy of a particular reform strategy. Instead, he disappeared for another five months.

Also, calling for reform in the abstract is not the difficult part: on this, the public is already convinced. What's missing is a trusted public advocate of the Democrats' particular approach. Who better than Obama to be that advocate? But to do this, he had to take sides in the debate Democrats were having with each other over the content of the reform. For a full year, he chose not to.

I think it was apparent early on that the final blueprint would need to win the support of conservative Democrats. Only now, after all this time, is Obama forcefully advocating a specific proposal that Democratic centrists might plausibly back. (If anything, for most of last year he resisted a solution along these lines, expressing support for the public option, for instance, though so tepidly as to push the debate neither one way nor the other.) Conservative Democrats were left to endure the fury of the party's progressives without his support, and with the electorate looking on. This was disengagement when it mattered. And, yes, it gravely undermined the prospects of eventual success.

Andrew, by the way, accuses me of peddling the conventional wisdom on all this. Characteristically, he is also incredulous that I am at odds with countless other commentators and (if I read him correctly) both halves of the blogosphere.

Andrew, allow me to give you a pointer here. If you are going to accuse somebody of peddling the conventional wisdom, you cannot also express astonishment at his failure to grasp what everybody else is saying. It really must be one or the other. The conventional wisdom might be right or wrong, but it has to be, you know, conventional. Just a suggestion for next time.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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