Only a Draw?

My favorite chess game in the literature is probably Keres-Fischer, Curacao 1962.  It is very far from being a perfect game, very far from being one of those elegant masterpieces where the winner makes no mistakes, but rather maneuvers his way into a menacing attack, and then manages to unearth ingenious sacrificial possibilities at every turn, while the loser, after one all but undetectable inaccuracy in the early stages of the game, consistently finds the best defensive path, but to no avail. Nope, Keres-Fischer bears no resemblance to one of those games.  As a matter of fact, it isn't a decisive game at all (in Bobby Fischer's My 60 Memorable Games, the chapter devoted to this game is titled, ironically, "Only a Draw").
Instead of perfection, what Keres-Fischer offers is the spectacle of two battle-scarred veterans (one, admittedly, a very young battle-scarred veteran), two punch-drunk geniuses, throwing everything they've got at one another, reeling from the succession of blows and counter-blows, shaking their heads clear, and coming back again at each other with everything they've got.  It's messy and frequently inelegant and riddled with errors and oversights, but it's also a magnificent testament to both players' determination and grit and resourcefulness and almost superhuman powers of calculation.  According to Grandmaster Larry Evans, Keres' final last-ditch maneuvers, the ones which ultimately ensure his survival, "smack of sheer wizardry."

Upon their inauguration, most presidents no doubt hope for a hugely productive and yet pristine first year, distinguished by numerous legislative successes and striking diplomatic triumphs, all without messy compromise and all to great popular acclaim.  And almost always, such a hope proves chimerical.  In modern American history, I can think of only three presidents who achieved anything remotely like that:  Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson.  All three took office under special circumstances, of course, and only one of them enjoyed a presidency that in its entirety is judged to have been great.  More typically, within a few months of a president's taking office, shit and fan come into close proximity.  And it's only then, when dreams of smoothly productive perfection go agley, that we really start to find out what sort of president we've got.

No one can say that Barack Obama has enjoyed an impeccable first year.  He and his team have unquestionably made their share of missteps.  In addition, they've been ill-served by an opposition of knee-jerk hostility and almost grotesque disingenuousness; attacked by a small but clamorous section of the populace fueled by inchoate rage and incoherent and frequently self-contradictory resentments; and misrepresented by a niche press of ferocious demagoguery and a mainstream press that has tended to elevate the transitory over the enduring.  The result has not been pretty.  But damn it, as I write, the House of Representatives is poised to pass a major health reform bill -- the results should be in before this entry is posted -- and it is easily the biggest piece of domestic legislation since the heyday of the Great Society.  It's a huge achievement, one that has eluded a succession of presidents over the past century.  And it will pass despite unanimous Republican opposition, and a sustained campaign of fear so unrelenting that the bill's obituary has been written and re-written innumerable times since last summer.

A good deal of recent political commentary has been, I think, short-sighted (to put it charitably).  As Obama's personal numbers have fallen -- much less than Republicans have claimed -- and as opposition to the administration health bill has grown -- more ambiguously than has been portrayed -- many political observers have declared that passage of the bill would hurt the Democrats' chances in this year's mid-term elections and destroy Obama's presidency.  Starting last fall, quite a few easily-spooked Democrats begged the White House to change the subject and drop the bill.  They apparently weren't capable of emulating chess players like Bobby Fischer and Paul Keres, who were always able to look several moves ahead.  The Democrats will probably lose seats in November, but at this point failure to pass the legislation would probably do more damage to their chances than success.  The party is associated with the bill willy-nilly;  if it's going to be a net liability by election day, it will be a net liability whether or not it passes.  But, granting that, it's always better to be judged effective than feckless.  Americans like to see their presidents succeed.

And the very vehemence of the Republican opposition, along with its dishonesty, suggests as much.  All those warnings Republicans have issued to Democrats about the political suicide they're about to commit?  It's hardly credible that this is a genuine concern on their part.  And why bring up death panels, and call the bill (absurdly) "a government take-over of one-sixth of the economy," and tar it as "socialism," and say it's "being rammed down the throat of the American people," and declare that its passage would "ruin the country," and would usher in "Armageddon," if there were better, more truthful arguments to deploy?  As for its putative budget-busting propensities, well, last week's CBO report pretty much pulled the rug out from under that argument.

The good the bill will do may not be manifest by November; it's quite possible that Democrats will indeed pay a short-term price for its having been introduced.  But over time, when people see that their children, after returning from college, are still covered by their parents' insurance policy, and when people with pre-existing conditions are able to secure affordable coverage for themselves, and when millions more go on the insurance rolls for the first time, it seems likely this bill will prove immensely popular.  As Medicare and Medicaid have done, despite the hysterical warnings from the likes of Ronald Reagan and the AMA in the mid-'60s, who warned -- I swear I'm not exaggerating -- that passage of Medicare would imperil our freedoms and usher in a Soviet-style dictatorship.  I believe the Republicans know this to be so.  I believe it's precisely this prospect that scares them to death.

And in terms of its effects on the president's popularity long term, well...just watch.  It may require a little time to take hold, but Barack Obama has demonstrated an impressive and novel style of presidential mastery.  While many of us, both during the presidential campaign and during his first fourteen months in office, felt frustrated by what were widely dismissed as his "professorial" manner and his apparent aloofness, as well as by his willingness to tolerate ugly, mendacious tactics on the part of his opponents, he's been unwavering in his devotion to the cause of health reform, he's kept his eye on the horizon and quietly and shrewdly out-maneuvered those who believed they had his number.  He has had considerable help from Harry Reid and the consistently underestimated Nancy Pelosi, but the lion's share of the credit surely belongs to the president.

The process hasn't always been pleasing to look at, and there have been plenty of stumbles along the way, and the bill itself falls pretty far short of perfection.  But it's a giant step in the right direction.  While for Fischer and Keres, the outcome of their struggle was "only a draw," Barack Obama has scored a big, big win.  And when the dust finally settles, the scope of that victory will become apparent.