Sunday, September 05, 2010

Obama's Governing Strategy is Clinton's Campaign Strategy

One of the questions that occasionally detains those of us who were enthusiastic about Obama's 2006-2008 campaign is "Why was Obama's campaign so masterful while his governing has been so pathetically sad-sack?" Herewith, a new observation for that perennial puzzler (perhaps the flagstone question for this presidency, just as "stupid or lying?" was for the previous one).

Paul Krugman disinters the strategic "thinking" of the Obama governing people -- particularly Rahm Emanuel, if reports are accurate -- from early in Obama's term (h/t GC):
[E]arly on the administration had a political theory: it would win bipartisan legislative victories, and each success would make Republicans who voted no feel left out, so that they would vote for the next initiative, and so on. (By the way, read that article and weep: “The massive resistance Republicans posed to Clinton in 1993 is impossible to imagine today.” They really believed that.) This theory led to a strategy of playing it safe...
I recall thinking at the time that this sounded like a massively stupid idea, although my son was born a month before Obama's inauguration so I wasn't blogging enough that I can cite chapter and verse for my perspicacity. But in any event, in retrospect, it's a really stupid idea. (Which leads Krugman to wonder why, given its now self-evident stupidity, Obama is continuing to practice it. A fair question, methinks. (Best line in the rest of Krugman's short blog post: "...the people who persuaded Obama to go for the capillaries..."))

One might say that Obama relied upon what one might call the "underpants gnome" theory of political success:
1. Massive early victories
2. ...
3. Consensus!

Thinking of it this way, I realized that Obama's governing strategy is the same as (Hillary) Clinton's campaign strategy -- y'know, the one that his campaign team famously outfought by doing thinks like actually focusing on real votes, being bold, presenting a clear vision, working for the long haul, and not presenting a plan that would utterly fail if it stepped off the track even a single time for any reason.

Clinton thought she'd win Iowa, which would win her NH, which would win her Super Tuesday... and then that was it. Obama seems to have thought he'd win the stimulus, which would win him Health Care... and then that was it.

So one reason that Obama's governing is so unbearably pathetic is that it's a direct copy of the unbearably pathetic campaign strategy that was beaten... by him.

Of course, this just kicks the question down a level to "why did Obama, having run one of the most masterful campaigns in history, adopt the strategy of one of campaigns he beat as his governing strategy?" And here I must admit: I have no !@#$%idea. Unless this is the reason; but then, that just kicks the question down another level to "why did Obama, who hired so many brilliant people for his campaign, hire this idiot to run his administration?"

I suppose it's turtles all the way down. Which is to say: some things in life are just Mysteries.


A commentator notes below, correctly, that Krugman's summary of the article he links to (by Mark Schmitt) is not all that accurate, and that reading Schmitt, you could say that it was Obama's governing strategy that didn't rely on massive early victories, in contrast to the one he failed to adopt, which did.

There's some truth to this, but I think that the other side is more important. I wrote a lengthy comment in reply... so lengthy that the system rejected it as too long. So here it is, up above the cut:

Noumena: you're right, it's a poor citation. I don't think it's fair to say that Schmitt says the *exact* opposite, but you're right that Schmitt is describing Obama's government strategy as one of patience. I was following Krugman's characterization, which I think is accurate, even if the Schmitt reference doesn't demonstrate it. (The description Krugman gives of Obama's governing strategy was in fact given a lot of places, although not, you're right to say, in Schmitt's piece.) Krugman may inaccurately summarize Schmitt (who I think he quoted mainly because of the appallingly wrong-headed line about the impossibility of Republican massavie resistance), but he accurately summarized what a lot of people claimed, around the time of the transition, to be Obama's strategy (reportedly due in large measure to Rahm Emmanuel, a former Clintonite who Obama, to the everlasting dismay of the Republic, hired to be his chief of staff).

But I think to say that Obama's campaign was patient, his governing was patient, therefore it was the same strategy, is invalid. In other key respects, Obama's governing resembles Clinton's campaign, in contrast to his own. Obama's campaign wasn't just patient, it was also: A) enthusiasm-building, and B) very attuned to the specific of votes and C) gutsy and risk-taking. Obama's governing strategy was none of those. Rather, he sought to create a sense of overwhelming inevitability based on early victories, leading to picking up Repbulican votes. It wasn't so much massive early victories leading to defeat of the other side, as a sense of inevitibilty leading to people joining a winning bandwagon -- which was Clinton's campaign strategy to a T. (My underpants gnome summary may have been a bit off, but Krugman's description was accurate -- and, I still claim, fit Clinton's campaign more than Obama's.)

Obama's governing strategy was patient not in the sense of laying groundwork for future victories (as was his campaign), but in the sense of prioritizing Liberal surrender and smallness of ambition at first, hoping to build on them later. Schmitt optimistically calls this building a coalition, but I do think it was like Clinton's (not Obama's) campaign strategy: to hope early victories would lead to capitulation, or at least coalition.

It hasn't happened. Indeed, it's been a dismal failure. And Schmitt's essay looks ludicrously optimistic now.

And I think your citation of Obama's single accomplishment -- health-care -- is wildly inadequate. Yeah, he won that one... after a fashion, without a public option, in a way that gave away far too much and got far too little. (The result was worth supporting because it's better than the status quo, but it ain't nothin' to brag about.) Obama's health care legislation exactly fit the description Schmitt gave to legislation produced by "shock doctrine"-style legislation, that is, "legislation produced in this way can be deeply flawed, often undermining rather than building its own support". With the added bonus that one piece of such deeply-flawed, support-undermining legislation was all we got, or are likely to get. Obama's strategy, in other words, got the same flawed legislation that Schmitt feared... but less of it, so that whole realms of politics went unaddressed.

Schmitt was writing to counter the "groups convinced that if their own No. 1 cause isn't enacted in the first 100 days, it will never happen"; but the groups were right and Schmitt (alas) wrong: all the priorities save Health Care are now toast, because of Obama's pathetically weak governing. And once the Republican's take back the house in November (as it looks increasingly likely they will), then all chances will certainly end.

I think that Schmitt's essay should be read besides the essay he quotes, Rick Perlstein's essay on 'shock doctrine' liberalism (which I discuss at some length in this post here). I think Perlstein was clearly right, Schmitt clearly wrong. Obama's "patience" demoralized the left and gave the right time to rally -- the rally to a "massive resistance" that Schmitt, rather laughably, claimed was impossible in this day and age.

Obama failed, and failed miserably, to get through an adequate stimulus; to get through an environmental bill that would be adequate to save our planet from ecological catastrophe; and on and on. (To say nothing of his gratuitous, congress-independent sins such as endorsing Bushian legal theories and the executive's right to assassinate American citizens at will). He failed in ways that pissed away an extraordinary chance to reorient our country in a liberal direction and correct decades of conservative misrule (and ideological malfeasance). There were a lot of reasons he failed, of which Congress was arguably the first 535... but I think that you have to say that, while we don't know if Perlstein's way would have worked or not, we know that Schmitt's way was tried and failed.

Obviously Obama isn't a failure in the way Bush was: Obama has tried and failed to move the country in a good direction, while Bush had spectacular success at damaging the country. In some sense Obama's George McClellan is preferable to Bush's Robert E Lee: at least he's fighting on the right side. But he's done a piss-poor job of doing so. And I think Krugman has his finger on one reason why.

Our country needed an FDR in 2008. What it got, alas, was a Clinton: a pathetic, wishy-washy, cowardly compromiser whose main redeeming feature was being better than the (radically worse) Republican opposition. Those of us who voted for Obama over Clinton because we thought we needed something more than another Clinton are rather understandably bitter.

1 comment:

Noumena said...

The American Prospect piece Krugman links to actually says exactly the opposite: Obama's campaign strategy was patient and aimed at long-term success even at the expense of `momentum' and some early losses in the primaries. That's the strategy his administration employed with health care reform, and it worked: a long, slow process that resulted in reform even after it was declared dead at least twice.

I think it's fair to fault the administration for thinking that there were enough moderates left in the GOP to support those bipartisan legislative victories and for not adapting fast enough in the face of renewed conservative intransigence and continued economic problems. But it wasn't an underpants gnomes theory -- it wasn't based on `massive' early successes that would magically lead to victory.