The Risk of Catastrophic Victory

By Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal - January 8, 2010

Passage of the health-care bill will be, for the administration, a catastrophic victory. If it is voted through in time for the State of the Union Address, as President Obama hopes, half the chamber will rise to their feet and cheer. They will be cheering their own demise.

If health care does not pass, it will also be a disaster, but only for the administration, not the country. Critics will say, "You didn't even waste our time successfully."

What a blunder this thing has been, win or lose, what a miscalculation on the part of the president. The administration misjudged the mood and the moment. Mr. Obama ran, won, was sworn in and began his work under the spirit of 2008—expansive, part dreamy and part hubristic. But as soon as he was inaugurated ,the president ran into the spirit of 2009—more dug in, more anxious, more bottom-line—and didn't notice. At the exact moment the public was announcing it worried about jobs first and debt and deficits second, the administration decided to devote its first year to health care, which no one was talking about. The great recession changed everything, but not right away.

In a way Mr. Obama made the same mistake President Bush did on immigration, producing a big, mammoth, comprehensive bill when the public mood was for small, discrete steps in what might reasonably seem the right direction.

The public in 2009 would have been happy to see a simple bill that mandated insurance companies offer coverage without respect to previous medical conditions. The administration could have had that—and the victory of it—last winter.

Instead, they were greedy for glory.

It was not worth it—not worth the town-hall uprisings and the bleeding of centrist support, not worth the rebranding of the president from center-left leader to leftist leader, not worth the proof it provided that the public's concerns and the administration's are not the same, not worth a wasted first year that should have been given to two things and two things only: economic matters and national security.

Those were not only the two topics on the public's mind the past 10 months, they were precisely the issues that presented themselves in screaming headlines at the end of the year: unemployment and the national-security breakdowns that led to the Christmas bomb plot and, earlier, the Fort Hood massacre. "That's two strikes," said the president's national security adviser, James Jones, to USA Today's Susan Page. Left unsaid: Three and you're out.

Just as bad, or worse, the president's focus on health care allowed the public to infer that his mind was not focused on our security. He'd frittered his attention on issues that were secondary and tertiary—climate change, health care—while al Qaeda moved, and the system stuttered. A lack of focus breeds bureaucratic complacency, complacency gives rise to slovenliness, slovenliness results in what was said in the report issued Thursday: that, faced with clear evidence of coming danger, the government failed, as they're saying on TV, to "connect the dots." Dots? They were boulders.

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I am wondering if the Obama administration thinks it vaguely dishonorable to be popular. If you mention to Obama staffers that they really have to be concerned about the polls, they look at you with a certain . . . not disdain but patience, as if you don't understand the purpose of politics. That purpose, they believe, is to move the governed toward greater justice. Just so, but in democracy you do this by garnering and galvanizing public support. But they think it's weaselly to be well thought of.

In politics you must tend to the garden. The garden is the constituency, in Mr. Obama's case the country. No great endeavor is possible without its backing. In a modern presidency especially you have to know this, because there will be times when history throws you a crisis, and to address it you may have to do an unpopular thing. A president in those circumstances must use all the goodwill he's built up over the months and years to get through that moment and survive doing what he thinks is right. Mr. Obama acts as if he doesn't know this. He hasn't built up popularity to use on a rainy day. If he had, he'd be getting through the Christmas plot drama better than he is

The Obama people have taken to pointing out how their guy doesn't govern by the polls. This is all too believable. The Bush people, too, used to bang away about how he didn't govern by the polls. They both added unneeded stress to the past 10 years, and it is understandable if many of us now think, "Oh for a president who'd govern by the polls."

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If Mr. Obama is extremely lucky—and we're not sure he's a lucky man anymore—he will get a Republican Congress in 2010, and they will do for him what Newt Gingrich did for Bill Clinton: right his ship, give him a foil, guide him while allowing him to look as if he's resisting, bend him while allowing him to look strong.

Which gets us to the Republicans. The question isn't whether they'll win seats in the House and Senate this year, and the question isn't even how many. The question is whether the party will be worthy of victory, whether it learned from its losses in 2006 and '08, whether it deserves leadership. Whether Republicans are a worthy alternative. Whether, in short, they are serious.

I spoke a few weeks ago with a respected Republican congressman who told me with some excitement of a bill he's put forward to address the growth of entitlements and long-term government spending. We only have three or four years to get it right, he said. He made a strong case. I asked if his party was doing anything to get behind the bill, and he got the blanched look people get when they're trying to keep their faces from betraying anything. Not really, he said. Then he shrugged. "They're waiting for the Democrats to destroy themselves."

This isn't news, really, but it was startling to hear a successful Republican political practitioner say it.

Republican political professionals in Washington assume a coming victory. They do not see that 2010 could be a catastrophic victory for them. If they seize back power without clear purpose, if they are not serious, if they do the lazy and cynical thing by just sitting back and letting the Democrats lose, three bad things will happen. They will contribute to the air of cynicism in which our citizens marinate. Their lack of seriousness will be discerned by the Republican base, whose enthusiasm and generosity will be blunted. And the Republicans themselves will be left unable to lead when their time comes, because operating cynically will allow the public to view them cynically, which will lessen the chance they will be able to do anything constructive.

In this sense, the cynical view—we can sit back and wait—is naive. The idealistic view—we must stand for things and move on them now—is shrewder.

Political professionals are pugilistic, and often see politics in terms of fight movies: "Rocky," "Raging Bull." They should be thinking now of a different one, of Tom Hanks at the end of "Saving Private Ryan." "Earn this," he said to the man whose life he'd helped save.

Earn this. Be worthy of it. Be serious.

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