I don't know if I would call it a "leftward surge" or a "suicide march"--a little hyperventilating for my taste--but David Brooks is essentially right in this column. Those, including me, who predicted that Obama's most difficult challenge would be his confrontation with Democratic party liberals have been proven wrong. Obama is falling out not with them but with the party's moderates. As Brooks says, he did it on the stimulus, he did it on the budget, and he is doing it on healthcare. Obama remains well-liked overall, but his support among independents is slipping, and his policies are less popular than he is. A rot appears to be setting in. Can the White House really be surprised?
For a moment put the merits of the policies to one side. (Just to remind, I was for a big fiscal stimulus, but wanted to see more front-loaded tax cuts; I was dismayed by the long-term fiscal implications of the budget; I am for comprehensive health reform with a guarantee of universal coverage but favor broad-based taxes to pay for it, including limits to the tax deductibility of employer-provided insurance.) Let us suppose Obama thinks that Nancy Pelosi and the unions are right on all these topics, and Max Baucus is wrong. Even then, shouldn't somebody be advising him on political strategy? This is the aspect I find completely perplexing.
The party is led by insular liberals from big cities and the coasts, who neither understand nor sympathize with moderates. They have their own cherry-picking pollsters, their own media and activist cocoon, their own plans to lavishly spend borrowed money to buy votes.
No doubt, but surely even from within the cocoon you can see what a losing approach this is. Why did Obama win in the first place, for heaven's sake? Because he campaigned as a centrist. Admittedly, what he really believed was often in doubt, and some of the policy specifics made one wonder. But look at health care. He positioned himself to the right--toward the cautious center--of Hillary Clinton. And it worked pretty well, didn't it?
If Obama offends the left, what are they going to do apart from whine? Let them whine. If he offends the center, he loses votes and is deeply wounded electorally. And so is the party in Congress, since the swing seats are almost by definition the ones where moderates and independents drive the outcome. When Max Baucus declared that the president wasn't helping him, sirens should have gone off in the White House--and some advisers should have been fired on the spot.
Obama could fix this problem so easily. I say that because I don't think he has strayed as far left as Brooks does. It's as much about messaging as policy. But he has to start disappointing the party's liberals. He has to pick a fight or two, and takes sides with the centrists. In choosing the party's liberals over the party's moderates, he is repudiating one of the most brilliant campaigns ever seen. I simply don't understand it.