The White House Political Learning Curve
Is Obama's style incompatible with the needs of the party?
Is Barack Obama's cool style of governing fundamentally incompatible with the furnace of modern politics? Bipartisan conclaves, bringing industry to the table(s), relative transparency, accommodation and consensus meetings are all ornaments of the Obama brand. But political parties, built around existing alignments of interests, tend to get excited about fighting. Base-tending is crucial to political husbandry. Obama has a gourmand's disdain for populism and picking fights.
This is, in some ways, a presidential sickness (or salutation, depending on your point of view.) President Bush fashioned himself above politics in early 2001. His tax cut aside, he spent much of his time before September pushing his party to accept a massive new education entitlement, No Child Left Behind. He was a uniter, not a ... etc. The Bush political machine was focused on broadening the Bush coalition from 2000, which consisted of, among other constituencies, conservative Democrats, Hispanics and a healthy measure of true independents. The tax cuts had not forestalled the onset of a recession.
After 9/11, the brass knuckles came out. Karl Rove's instincts were unleashed. The base furnace kindled; the world become "us" versus "them," and the Democratic Party was too loyal and not enough opposition. The Bush White House picked fights, and razzed conservatives. Bush's political strategists succeeded in pushing independents to make a choice between parties and helped to reduce the partition of unaligned independents to about 8% of the electorate by 2004.
Now -- the Democratic Party's troubles on Tuesday didn't arise from the White House's political operation not being nimble or effective enough. And they were tough: Jon Corzine was encouraged to drop out of the New Jersey gubernatorial race well before it seemed like he would lose. The governor of New York has been encouraged to step aside. A combination of David Axelrod's charm and Patrick Gaspard's grit helped to persuade DeDe Scozzafava into endorsing the Democrat in New York's 23rd Congressional district race, thereby saving the night for Democrats.
But Democrats aren't scared of the Obama White House. Republicans, after 2002, were very scared of the Bush White House. The price of being independent -- especially in these times -- is worth the disapproval of the White House. That the DNC/Organizing for America organization didn't score upset victories on Tuesday night will probably persuade other Democrats that they don't need too much help.
In 2010, the White House is going to face a trade-off between consensus governing and rousing the base, which will help them recruit good candidates, raise money, and define the issues in marginal districts.
I think the White House believes that NY 23 reflects deep structural fissures in the GOP that will redound to the President's benefit in 2012, whereas the economic crisis is a temporal phenomenon than will get better over time
Finally, I think that Obama's personal alienation from the powers-that-be in the Democratic Party -- the guy was a state senator a few years ago and never really identified as a Democrat's Democrat -- contributes to his identity.