Professor Obama's Master Class

The health care bill passed. Proponents are busy cheering; Democrats feel elated and energized. Some opponents engage in recrimination (see David Frum's "Waterloo" post, although loyal readers saw the Waterloo analogy first in this blog). Others vow to continue the fight. Neither side seems to realize that President Obama achieved one of the most difficult, and easily the most complex, tactical political victories in our entire history.

Only Lincoln faced a tougher situation. FDR and Reagan were elected by substantial margins. FDR had a solid majority in Congress; Reagan stuck to a program that already had considerable support from the opposition party. Lincoln, by contrast, won barely 40% of the popular vote in 1860. Both parties were split: the Democrats divided into regional factions and the Republicans had not yet really coalesced as a party.

In the short run, Obama's supporters celebrate and his opponents rue overcoming the solid wall of opposition from the GOP. Never in our history has a party been able to muster itself to oppose a sitting President not just on big policy issues, but on every step of parliamentary procedure.

GOP leadership made a bold bet on this unprecedented tactic. A milder version of it prevailed against the Clinton health care reform effort of 1993. Just as Cortez burned his boats, making retreat impossible and victory imperative, GOP leadership let the most extreme voices of the party and the conservative movement make compromise with Obama untenable for any Senator or House member.

Frum noted that that GOP leadership did not give enough account to the differences between 1993 and 2010. Obama held a stronger electoral position with 53% of the popular vote than Clinton with 42%. Without Perot in the race, the first President Bush would have been re-elected, and there would have been no health care effort. Frum also noted that the liberal coalition grew much stronger between 1993 and 2010. He did not mention that anger at the second President Bush is what strengthened it.

Frum also did not mention that Obama blunted much of the opposition to reform from the health care industry before the debate even began. In 1993, providers (doctors, nurses, hospitals, labs, etc.) joined pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies in vigorous opposition to the Clinton program. Feeling threatened and abused by insurers, providers sided with Obama this time. Obama cajoled - some would say bribed - pharma to be at least neutral.

For the first nine or ten months of the debate, the GOP positioning worked. By forcing the bill's promoters to make every procedural step a big public event, the GOP was able to channel public distaste for the process into antipathy towards the bill. This set up the irony that most of the policy measures in the bill polled quite favorably, but the bill itself was unpopular. And the opponents, who caused the process to be contentious and ugly, got the benefit.

Honest Abe had an easier situation after secession. The most pro-slavery legislators left Congress to join the Confederacy, and Lincoln got at least a few pro-Union Democrats to vote with him.

In common with Lincoln, Obama's biggest political challenge came not from the opposition but from within his own new, contentious, and untested coalition. For Lincoln, the issue was what to do first: save the Union, or stop slavery? The pragmatic way or the moral goal. We regard Lincoln as great because he had the extreme political savvy to do both: harness the moral energy of the Abolitionists to the pragmatism of the Unionists, without losing either. It took all of Lincoln's legendary patience, good will, and guile.

Obama needed to get the Progressives on board with a bill that was pragmatically focused on the center. They had to agree to defer their visions of a public option, single payer, and Medicare-for-all. Unlike the Abolitionists, who knew their man got in with less than 40% of the popular vote and a one-state Electoral College edge, the Progressives felt that they put Obama in, and it was their turn.

Obama's most ardent supporters wonder why it took so long to get to the end game on the health care bill. The simple answer is that Obama needed to get his coalition in line, so that Progressives would put their full energy behind the chance to keep trying for their cherished objectives, rather than the objectives themselves. It took losing Ted Kennedy's Senate seat for Progressives to finally realize that Obama had a better read on political tactics than they did. Only then was the coalition ready for the pragmatists to win today and the Progressives to keep up their hopes and energy for tomorrow.

Lincoln wrestled with similar issues in his coalition. History credits him for waging and winning the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. But these things were politically possible not just because the pro-slavery legislators left Washington, but because Lincoln patiently and skillfully built and aligned his unruly coalition. To students of politics, this may be Lincoln's greatest accomplishment.

Once Obama got his coalition in line, he could go on the offense. He could publicly take the reins of the legislative process and go on the campaign trail for the bill. The solid GOP opposition was rapidly repositioned as venally allied with the health insurance industry, rather than a principled stand. The prior struggles within his own party were repositioned as a demonstration of Obama's leadership. Almost a year of successful opposition crumbled in just weeks.

We just observed a master class in political tactics.