The Myth of the Spurned Centre

Robert Borosage

Clive Crook, columnist for the Financial Times, urges President Obama to “betray” his base, and lead from the “centre.” Brits offering political strategy for American presidents are a bit like Americans telling Italians how to improve their pasta. And Crook’s analysis is as divorced from U.S. realities as his spelling. But it represents what will be a cacophony of similar cant and is worth dissecting.

Crook argues that Obama’s economic policies have been good enough; it’s his politics that have proved ruinous. The reason? Obama catered to his progressive base instead of governing from the center.

Really? This doesn’t survive even a cursory glance.

Crook suggests that the telling choices of Obama’s first months were the stimulus and health care reform. Not one word on the critical policy that has most bloodied the administration: the decision to rescue the big banks without reforming them or at least forcing a few heads to roll. Anyone remotely connected to this political season knows that voters are understandably livid that Wall Street is back to million-dollar bonuses while Main Street is still looking for work.

Then Crook argues that Obama would have been better off espousing tax cuts as part of the stimulus plan rather than ignoring them before accepting tax cuts forced on him by a handful of conservative senators. Ah, Clive, you should visit more often. You apparently missed the fact that Obama’s original stimulus plan included tax cuts for all Americans, which the president made a centerpiece of his pitch. What was added was largely the utterly egregious and wrong-headed lard, particularly the “fix” for the alternative minimum tax which the Congress passes every year—and which had nothing to do with stimulating the economy, since it is largely a benefit to affluent taxpayers who expect it in any case.

Then Crook suggests that president would have been better off denouncing the public option in health care reform, rather than espousing it until forced to abandon it. The fog must be thick over there in London, since, as polls show, the health care plan is unpopular more because it didn’t go far enough than because it went too far. People are understandably worried that their health care bills are going to go up because the insurance companies made out like bandits. The public option polled better than the entire reform throughout the debate. And, in fact, the president actually took Crook’s advice, stiffing “his base” by demanding taxes on comprehensive health care plans aimed directly at union health care benefits. That proved particularly ruinous in the Massachusetts Senate race, as union workers stayed home in large numbers while a majority voted for Republican Scott Brown.

Finally, Crook suggests the president should have embraced extension of all the Bush tax cuts rather than arguing for extending them to everyone on the first $250,000 they earn, but not extending the extra break for earnings over $250,000. In fact, drawing the line on the taxes was one of the few stances that made sense to voters. (Despite that, suicidal Senate Democrats abandoned even having a debate on the issue.)

Crook’s column is part of what will be a drumbeat of conservative commentary arguing that Obama went wrong by doing too much, governing from the left, catering to the Democratic base. The argument, sustained in the face of contrary reality and contrary polls, will be accompanied by advice for the president to “move to the center” and stiff-arm (“betray” in Crook’s term) his base. This simply is nonsense.

The reality is that the administration and Democrats have suffered from being too timid, not too bold. The bailout of the banks was ruinous politically and left concentrated zombie banks an obstacle to reviving the economy. The stimulus was too small, not too large, and too compromised with ineffective tax cuts. The sellouts in the health care bill—on negotiating bulk discounts from prescription drugs, on the public option, on taxing “Cadillac plans,” on preserving insurance company oligopolies—were bad politics and bad policy. The fact that the president abandoned his argument about building a new foundation for the economy to embrace premature deficit reduction only left voters stupefied about whether he had any theory for economic recovery at all.

And betraying the base? Maybe it isn’t clear in London, but the entirety of Obama’s base—the young, minorities, union members, environmentalists, LGBT activists and more—feel badly served by an administration that visibly holds them in low regard. And their disaffection has contributed directly to the “enthusiasm gap” that must be reversed if Democratic majorities are to survive in the November elections.

Crook’s bad analysis may have more to do with his ideology than his nationality. He hails the new Tory-led coalition as governing from the “centre” with its drastic austerity plans. From across the ocean, I won’t comment, but let’s see just how well that works out for the country and the coalition.

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