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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Amateur Hour at the White House

I just about fell out of my chair yesterday when I read this in the Washington Post.

President Obama's advisers acknowledged Tuesday that they were unprepared for the intraparty rift that occurred over the fate of a proposed public health insurance program, a firestorm that has left the White House searching for a way to reclaim the initiative on the president's top legislative priority.

This confirms a suspicion I have had for some time, and made clear a few weeks ago: Democratic leaders in the White House and on Capitol Hill have only recently begun to take seriously the internal divisions within their own party.

Frankly, I am stunned that they would be caught off guard by this. How could they not have anticipated this? How could they possibly have been surprised that the left and right flanks of the party would not see eye to eye?

To explain my utter, complete astonishment at this bone-headed mistake, I need a visual aid. The following is courtesy of Google Maps. It marks the district offices of four types of congressmen:

(1) Democratic House committee chairmen are marked with blue pinpoints.
(2) House leaders and chairmen closely involved with health care are marked with red crosses.
(3) The top 40 Democratic House members in McCain-voting districts are marked with yellow bubbles.
(4) Committee chairmen from the McCain-voting districts are marked with yellow pinpoints.

Here's the map:

Leaders Versus Marginals.jpg

As you can see, coastal liberals dominate the leadership positions. California has six of the 24 leadership positions I have delineated. Another seven are located roughly within the megapolis that stretches from Washington, D.C. to Boston. Meanwhile, those marginal members are clustered in the South and the Border States, with a few sprinkled across the Great Plains and then into Arizona.

This is a stark visual representation of the divide within the Democratic Party. We can clearly see the source of the problem. Liberal leaders from the coasts were given wide latitude by the White House to write these bills - and, unsurprisingly, they delivered products their fellow liberals love (or at least like). But the moderate and conservative Democrats - whose votes are needed for passage yet who run the risk of defeat next fall should the broad middle of the country sour on the reform efforts - weren't fully consulted, and don't like the bills. Hence, the internal friction - which corresponds pretty well with age-old sectional divisions in the party (more on that in a moment).

It was always going to be a challenge to find something that the moderates could stomach yet the liberals don't think is too watered down. That, more than anything else, was destined to be the highest hurdle for health care reform to jump. Amazingly, the White House waited until after the liberal House bills were published - and all the attending fallout - to take this challenge seriously, or even notice it! Because of this error, it is now in a substantially weaker position to find that middle ground. The liberals already have their bills on the table, so they are at least somewhat committed to them (as the Progressive Caucus has been saying for weeks, and as the WaPo article suggests). The moderates and conservatives are at home getting yelled at by angry constituents, rather than in D.C. searching for that common ground. The acrimony has forced Obama out onto the campaign trail, where he is making mistakes (e.g. the Post Office comment, the Cambridge police comment, and the AARP comment - all a consequence of the White House's desire to get back in front of the health care story). All of this has driven his poll numbers downward, leaving him less able to persuade the marginal members in the caucus, who must get getting nervous about November, 2010.

I can think of five very good reasons why the White House's lack of foresight on the potential for the intraparty squabble is absolutely inexcusable:

(1) For the months between November and January, we were treated to endless comparisons of Obama to the great presidents of the days of yore. One of them was Franklin Roosevelt. Question: who stopped the New Deal dead in its tracks after 1938? It wasn't the Republicans alone. It was Southern Democrats working in alliance with the Republicans. Who are the marginal members standing between Obama and a health care bill...Southern Democrats! Generally speaking, the internal cleavage within the Democratic Party (North v. South; left v. right) is really one of the most significant features of the political landscape since at least the Great Depression. After eighty some years and dozens of failed attempts at liberal reforms, there is no excuse for a President not to anticipate it rearing its head again.

(2) Much of last year was dominated by that famous primary brawl between Obama and Hillary - and all through these states (Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, etc.) the former First Lady made mincemeat of the junior Senator from Illinois. Then, when the general election rolled around, these states voted against him again. Historically speaking, these states usually vote for a winning Democrat. Obama should be very familiar with his struggles in this region, and not terribly surprised that the large number of Democratic members from it could create such problems for bills drafted by coastal liberals.

(3) How many of these members did Rahm Emanuel recruit? Fourteen of these seats changed hands in either 2006 or 2008 when Emanuel was in a leadership position in the House. Is this not a sufficiently representative sample to know that there could be trouble?

(4) Congress usually fails to find compromises on big solutions to big problems - exactly like what is being debated now - regardless of whether the legislature is under control of a single party or if it is split. This means that internal cleavages can do just as much damage to reform efforts as the partisan divide. This should be especially evident for an item like health care reform: Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton failed to deliver anything approaching the scope Obama is envisioning, even though the Democratic Party had complete control of Congress for at least parts of their terms.

(5) As stark as this map looks, the landscape in the Senate is even starker. Thirteen Democratic senators come from McCain states.

It's almost as if the President has absolutely no experience in dealing with the United States Congress whatsoever.

That's so puzzling, considering how Democrats turned down the fresh-faced newcomer who could turn a good phrase on the campaign trail for the old-hand who had been in Washington for 15 years by the time of the nomination battle. Oh wait...

-Jay Cost