I‘ve been reading a lot about the history of the 15th and 16th century in the Mediterranean lately, so permit a fanciful political comparison for a moment. Imagine a large, lumbering ship at sea. It is majestic and powerful, tall as a skyscraper, a city on the waves, carrying vast stores within. Once it reaches top speed, it is almost impossible to stop its progress. There are problems, though. The size of this ship makes it easy for anyone to spot on the open water; it requires an enormous amount of maintenance and defense to survive even a brief journey with a strong breeze behind it, and its goliath frame prevents an ability to turn or change directions without great effort. For all its grandeur, it makes for an excellent slow-moving target, while smaller craft can bend the waves to their will without attracting notice.
Throughout the 2008 campaign, the Obama team proved themselves exceptional at applying tried-and-true political lessons to utilize new and innovative tools. It’s not so much that they had groundbreaking ideas about politics — it’s that they were applying old ideas about grassroots, branding, and voter motivation in groundbreaking ways, fueled by a simply massive amount of money.
If there’s one thing that has surprised me about the past three months, it’s been President Obama’s decision to avoid the innovative tactics that led him to political success. Instead of adopting a similar approach to legislative battles in Washington, it’s as if they threw out the sleek new playbook and went back to the wishbone offense as soon as they got to the Oval Office.
I don’t understand the decision. With powerful majorities on both sides of the Hill, now would be the time to see if innovative approaches to passing legislation can work — especially in the case of health care insurance reform.
Consider: what if instead of making one massive bill, and sinking his effort into it, Obama should have split his reforms into a package of multiple legislative pieces. Instead of one large ship, send a dozen agile small ones to break the lines — with a list of standalone bills that include a public option, an individual mandate, medical malpractice reform, new insurance regulations, and a litany of other points along the ideological range. The effect of such a tactic would be to divide the opposition: with a properly constructed package, the Chamber of Commerce would support half of the legislation offered, and other business interests would be able to support even more.
Call it an act of asymmetric legislation: using Obama’s prominence and ability to sell a package of ideas to the American people, without uniting them together in a form so complex and so certain to contain weaknesses that it exposes the entire legislation to critical attacks. It avoids the demanding wheeling-and-dealing of amendments that increases proportionally to a bill’s size, it satisfies the left flank by providing up-or-down votes on their issues, and it gives the Blue Dogs cover by allowing them to have pro-reform votes that won’t force them to lose their job.
Rather than uniting his diverse opponents on the matter by presenting the vast, slow-moving target and trying to run the line at breakneck speed, I believe Obama would be able to achieve a great deal more in bending health care in America in his preferred direction if he had deployed this multiple bills tactic. Obama’s still far more popular than the Republicans in Congress, and his speech last night gave an overall impression of frustration that he’s been unable to fully utilize his post-election popularity to achieve his ends. The sheer size of this piece of legislation has given its opponents multiple aspects to lock onto and assault, from individual mandate taxes, to government funded abortion, to death panels, to deficits.
Obama’s hardly alone in making this mistake: the decision to go “comprehensive” was almost assuredly what destroyed President Bush’s immigration bill, and half a dozen other similar endeavors come to mind.
Why do presidents and their staffers still think in the same terms as FDR? Legislation is crafted differently now, and constituents respond differently and with greater speed than ever before. In a situation where this bill had been presented not as sweeping change, but as several key gradual reforms, I believe that Obama could have passed a great deal of it with only minor personal backlashes. The lightning rod parts of the package would be rejected — and would have inspired some angry response, yes — but he’d still have gotten 60% of what he wanted, if not more. As it stands, last night’s speech seems to open the door for backtracking on much more than that.
A more innovative approach may have allowed President Obama to achieve more while expending less political capital. The one big ship strategy packs everything together, and it’s harder to avoid the rocks even when you see them coming — and god help the captain if he starts catching the smaller ships in his wake.