The first duty of a political party in retreat is to find something its people can rally around, and saying no to Obamacare is working nicely for the Republicans. They've managed to hold together in the House and Senate with no real leadership and no real message except to block Obama. Despite all the advantages Democrats enjoyed at the start of this year, the responsibility of being in the majority and actually legislating is causing fissures between the party's dominant wing of progressives and the much smaller group of conservative, self-described blue dogs from the swing districts that gave Democrats control of the House.
Republicans are united, but that shouldn't be confused with victory. Republicans stood together against Social Security and Medicare, and when those programs proved popular, opposing them left a residue of distrust for the GOP. President Obama has pushed his bipartisan shtik about as far as it will go, and if Republican recalcitrance means the Democrats have to go it alone on health care, Obama should embrace the new reality and cry all the way to the signing ceremony.
Getting Republicans to support health-care reform is a lost cause. Other than the two women senators from Maine, there aren't any moderates left for the president to partner with in the GOP. Obama campaigned on his fabled ability to bring people together. Voters loved the idea of everybody getting along in Washington, but seven months into the Obama presidency, we know it's a mirage.
The White House needs to find ways to leverage the huge tactical and strategic advantages Democrats had coming out of the 2008 election to advance legislation in Congress. Instead, Obama has played the same old inside game of currying favor with power brokers on Capitol Hill who for the most part, like Senate Finance chair Max Baucus of Montana, represent sparsely populated rural states and respond more to their corporate benefactors than to White House pressure.
Obama won the election because his campaign had a great ground game and they had him, a super communicator who made the media swoon. In the White House, the once crack team was slow to organize while opponents of health-care reform ran roughshod over the message and dominated the debate. All the White House has to counter the opposition is Obama, and he's not enough. The magic has waned. People don't line up for miles to see him the way they did in the campaign. And judging by the anxiety showing up in the polls, voters don't trust Obama enough on health-care reform to set aside their historic distrust of government.
The '08 campaign was such a searing experience that Obama and his key aides tend to view everything through that prism. There were the early days when Obama seemed bored and his interest in the campaign lagged, along with his standing in the polls. Then came his heady win in Iowa followed by a humbling loss in New Hampshire, then the period when it all could have slipped away, when Rev. Jeremiah Wright taunted white America and Obama was torn between defending his minister and recovering his candidacy. If there's a campaign analogy to where Obama is now, this is the Reverend Wright period, when the prize hangs in the balance. Opponents of reform won the first part of summer. Now it's up to Obama to regain the momentum. He prides himself on being a good clutch player, someone who can perform when the pressure's on. "Just give me the ball," he said to David Axelrod as he stood waiting to go onstage for his first presidential debate with John McCain.
Republican strategist Karl Rove was known for zeroing in on an opponent's strength, destroying John Kerry, a war hero, by portraying him as weak. Obama's strength is his calmness, his ability to bring people together. Rove isn't on the scene, but his signature strategy lives on. The last months have punctured the idea that Obama can forge working relationships with the enemy. What the people who voted for him are looking for now are passion and a willingness to fight for what he believes in, not a carefully calibrated compromise that is better for insurance providers than it is for patients and consumers.
Obama's message of conciliation worked perfectly in the '08 campaign in part because it's an authentic reflection of his personality. Axelrod harbored doubts about whether Obama's aversion to confrontation when it becomes nasty and personal would hamper him as a candidate. "When it comes to taking a punch, I don't know whether you're Muhammad Ali or Floyd Patterson," Axelrod wrote to Obama in a November 2006 memo reported in a new book that reprises the campaign by Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz and former Post writer Haynes Johnson. Now Obama supporters are wondering about their man. If they're to see what he's made of, Obama has to first get in the ring. Forget the niceties, it's time to fight.