Content-rich centrism

Paul Krugman takes me to task for my column offering qualified praise of Obama's first year. The main criticism I make of Obama in the piece is that he failed to bridge the partisan divide in US politics, and I say that this was partly because he decided early on not to try. Previously, Krugman has not expressed much interest in bridging the divide, but now says the spirit of no compromise was all on the Republican side. Look at health care, he says: this is essentially a Republican plan (cf Massachusetts), and not one Republican has voted for it. What else were the Democrats supposed to do?

Alas, the kind of content-free centrism Crook shows here is all too common. Recent op-eds by William Daley and, of course, David Broder urge Democrats to "move to the center" without saying anything -- anything at all -- about what that would mean in terms of actual changes in their policy ideas...

[W]hat could Obama and the Democrats have done to reach out? As far as I can tell, the centrists believe that Obama must have done something wrong, because otherwise Republicans would have been more cooperative. But, you know, there's another interpretation: that what's really enraging the Republicans is the fact that there's a Democrat in the White House.

And there's nothing Obama can do about that.

Well, of course that's what upsets Republicans. (Remember how Democrats felt about George W. Bush?) But I don't understand the jibe about content-free centrism. I support this healthcare plan because of its content. That's content-rich centrism.

Krugman supports the bill as well, even though he regards it as an essentially Republican measure. Interesting for once (off the top of my head I cannot think of another instance) to see him express the view that Republican ideas are not wrong by definition. That's a breakthrough. If it keeps up, he might soon be judging issues on the merits. What his admirers will make of that, I shudder to think.

As a content-rich centrist, I agree it's a travesty that no Republicans will vote for the bill. And it's also true, as my column says, that Republicans have been obstructive across the board. They decided early on that their best bet was to let Obama fail all by himself. In making that choice they let the country down.

But Obama could have done much more to make the case for content-rich centrism, on healthcare and on other issues too (notably fiscal policy). That is what many voters hoped he would do, and it is why so many are disappointed. Obama could have made it harder for Republicans to take the line they have. He has not engaged. He has not asserted himself. His message on healthcare was that he would sign almost anything that emerged from Congress. When he expressed preferences, he did so with little conviction, offering tepid support for proposals like the public option which were sure to repel even moderate Democrats.

The Senate bill we ended up with--remember, a good plan, on Krugman's current analysis--had to be dragged out of Democrats in Congress by a handful of moderates that the White House left exposed to the constant rabid denunciations of Krugman and other progressives (ask Max Baucus what he thinks about it). Obama was supposed to take that partisan mindset on. He hasn't.

Assuming the bill does pass, we will have a fairly good reform, subject to reservations I've expressed before. The failure lies in the way the public perceive it. They are confused and unhappy. This validates Republican opposition, and puts a cloud over the future of the reform. (Will it stick? I hope so, but maybe not.)

And whose fault is it that the public is not behind this reform, which Krugman and I both support? It is partly the Republicans' fault, to be sure, for refusing to compromise. It is also the fault of progressive Democrats, for denouncing compromise as the work of the devil--then sourly advocating it (like Krugman) or continuing to rail against it. Mainly, though, it is Obama's fault. Rallying the country behind good policy is a crucial part of his job. It is his responsibility more than anybody else's. Unlike Krugman, I think highly enough of him to believe that he could have done it if he'd tried.

But look, Paul and I agree. The bill should pass. How's that! Brad DeLong and I agree about it too: see his post noting that my brain has been eaten, and accusing me of "carrying water for the Republican hyenas". Maybe we can build something here, if we can only keep the debate at that level.