Political Relativity

By Marc Ambinder

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.

 

Nancy Pelosi, too, exhibited a tactical shrewdness that isn't necessarily apparent on first glance. This bill was the first - and perhaps only - chance she had to push the ball over the ledge on so many long-time liberal Democratic priorities. She rubbed a lot of members the wrong way - 66 Democrats wrote to her in protest on Wednesday. Pelosi gambled that the White House wouldn't risk a public fight with her if they disliked the bill; she was right; the White House didn't want to fight, but the press carefully and correctly parsed the White House's language to suggest wariness and disapproval.  In any event, last night, Pelosi recalibrated, promising to loosen the rules that hamstrung the moderates. She'll get a lot of what she wanted.  

 

In any event, the House bill is Obama's bill. So is the Senate bill. So is the bill that'll (very likely) pass the conference.

 

During the campaign, Obama's team was known for its flexibility, its ability to change tactics on a dime, and its ability to proceed along several tracks simultaneously.  The long-term goals were never changed; the day-to-day scrum was background noise. This week, I think the White House succumbed to the temptation to treat the daily back-and-forth as tactical gibberish, as an annoyance.  After Daschle (AD?), I predict that the White House will adapt very quickly to the communication of their new environment, and they'll be quicker to react during the next short term crisis. This week, they were reminded that the message is still limited by the medium.

 

Long-term, the strategy is the same. The quiet encouragement of moderate Democrats - which totally happened, by the way - is about entitlement reform and standing up to Speaker Pelosi. 

 

The tacit empowerment of Sen. Ben Nelson is also about laying a paradigm for the long-term. Nelson was not trying to prevent a bill from being passed; indeed, he was the broker between moderate Republicans and the administration, consciously styling himself as a Senator John Breaux-esque compromiser. His goal was to get a bill to Obama that preserves about 90% of the spending that the White House wants.

 

So who won the week?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2009/02/political-relativity/396/