Alter: The Democrats Don't Need to Move Right

In "The Godfather," Sonny talks about going "to the mattresses," meaning war with rival Mafia families. Now President Obama and the Democrats are holing up together on their Posturepedics as they work out battle plans on health care, banking reform, and Afghanistan. The question is whether they'll be daring soldiers of the future or content to fight the last war.

That war, when Republicans controlled at least one branch of government, created a mindset where many moderate Democrats now constantly fear giving the other side ammunition. There's some logic in this. Overreaching is always a danger in politics, and House Democrats in particular are to the left of the country as a whole. Appeasing powerful health-care interests, as the White House did early on, was a smart move. By delaying a climactic battle, Obama built momentum for a bill. The same sequencing was true for banks and the U.S. military in Afghanistan. The bleeding had to stop before their treatment could be properly managed. (Click here to follow Jonathan Alter.)

But Democrats are now at risk of post-Bush stress disorder (PBSD), a trauma that can cripple their efforts to adjust to everyday life in a new era. Their longtime enemy—potent Republicans—is gone, a mere memory of pain. But Republican ways of thinking have infected the minds of too many Democrats. More than a few have fallen into the GOP habit of selling out to corporate interests (the $1.5 million that health-related lobbies contributed to Max Baucus in 2007–08 goes a long way in Montana), pandering to banks, and reflexively assuming that just because the Pentagon recommends escalation in Afghanistan, it must be necessary. These habits will have to be broken if the Democrats are to stay in power.

The key to a political victory on health care isn't just passing a bill, it's controlling insurance premiums. After much-ballyhooed reform, Massachusetts failed to restrain premiums, which are set to increase another 10 percent next year. If the same thing happens nationally after Obama signs a bill, Americans will take it out on Democrats. So assuring that premiums don't skyrocket should be the No. 1 priority as committee chairs get down to the short strokes.

The best antidote to premium gouging, of course, is a public option. I thought liberals turned it into a fetish this summer and were insane to hold the whole thing hostage to it. But now that the bill is on track, Democrats should revisit the issue, or at least make sure a public option has a steel-reinforced hair trigger. To show they really mean business, some gutsy Democrats should also threaten to cap premiums. This is a 1993 idea from "Hillarycare" that the White House is afraid of. But that's more fighting the last war. It's too late now for the insurance industry to mobilize and block passage. A cap proposal would focus the debate where it belongs—on obscene premium hikes. At a minimum, the Leahy-Schumer amendment to end the insurance industry's state-by-state monopolies must be passed.

The bank bailouts could also prove to be an exploding cigar for Democrats. With the institutions the president justrescued now lobbying against minimal regulation, it's time for Obama to angrily call them out—or watch Republicans do so. Having already proven their chutzpah by kissing up to the elderly voters whose interests they spurned for 75 years, the GOP will continue to morph next year into the pitchfork party attacking Barack the plutocrat. Democrats need to betray the Wall Street interests now funding their campaigns and get busy saving their own hides with some sensible populism.

Finally, the deliberations concerning Afghanistan are shadowed by a sense on the part of Democrats that they became too dovish after Vietnam and now need to assert their foreign-policy manhood. It's the same logic that led so many to vote for the Iraq War. But most Americans don't favor a wider war in Afghanistan, and they're right. John McCain lost the election. Charles Kraut-hammer doesn't represent any swing voters. Democrats shouldn't worry about those scary flashbacks where they're called the wimpy mommy party. The real danger for them is a quagmire that both gets people killed and is a political loser.

It's 2009, not 1994 or 2002. Conservatives are noisy but irrelevant, and moving right to please them is not smart politics. It's time for Democrats to shed their old hang-ups—and prepare for the new political combat of the 21st century.

Jonathan Alter is also the author of Betraying Our Troops: The Destructive Results of Privatizing War .