Barack Obama has gone out on the campaign trail to stump for Democrats, and since former presidents usually stay out of partisan politics, this violation of an established norm has rubbed some Republicans the wrong way. I leave it to you to decide whether Republicans had any right to complain about the violation of norms even before they embraced Donald Trump.
But it is not just decorum but substance that some on the right are concerned with; for instance, the Weekly Standard takes umbrage at Obama saying nice things about Medicare for all, charging that we finally have the smoking gun showing that in 2009 Obama was lying when he said he didn’t want the government to take over health care.
They may be wrong when they call Medicare for all “the full-on nationalization of the health care industry (health insurance and health care are two very different things), but there is something important happening, something that goes way beyond this issue and beyond ideology itself. Even Barack Obama, tireless advocate of compromise and conciliation, may have come to realize that the way he approached politics and policy as president was simply wrong, or at least outdated.
That model of governing said that when you come to power, you do what you can to get at least some support from the other side for your big projects, not only as a way of getting them passed but because if they’re bipartisan they’ll have greater legitimacy (there’s a discussion of this question in a fascinating recent episode of Chris Hayes’ podcast featuring progressive activist Sean McElwee).
That’s what Obama did with many initiatives, most visibly the Affordable Care Act, which went through an entire year of endless hearings, meetings, debates, and markups, in large part with the intention of winning Republican support. What Democrats never understood was that the entire time, Republicans were playing them, pretending that they might vote for just the right combination of provisions.
The truth was they were never going to vote for it no matter how many conservative ideas it incorporated, and they didn’t. Mitch McConnell had established a strategy of total opposition from the moment Obama took office. What’s amazing is that long after it was obvious what the GOP was doing, Obama still seemed to believe that eventually they’d listen to reason and he could win them over.
When Republicans took power in 2017, they made no effort to win Democratic support for their tax cut for corporations and the wealthy, or their attempt to “repeal and replace” the ACA, or anything else. They knew that they might not pass everything they wanted, but what they did produce would be more ideologically amenable to them, since they were negotiating between the right and the far right.
As for legitimacy, Republicans realize it’s for suckers. What matters is whether you win. Does Neil Gorsuch have legitimacy? He was put on the Supreme Court because of one of the most unconscionable assaults on democracy in our lifetime. But he’s on the Supreme Court, so who cares? He still gets the same vote to do all the things Republicans want.
I’m sure if you asked Barack Obama, he’d say that he still believes bringing people together across partisan lines is important. But the fact that he says complimentary things about Medicare for all shows that he understands reality, because that’s a proposal that would get zero Republican votes — just like his ACA. But at least there wouldn’t be any doubt.
That brings us to the question of what happens the next time Democrats actually have power, which could happen in 2021 if they win Congress and the presidency. Will they try to do things the old way? There are some hints that they might; not long ago Nancy Pelosi suggested that if Democrats take back control she’ll revive “paygo” rules that required that every piece of spending be offset with cuts elsewhere and/or tax increases. That means she wants to hamper the ability to implement a progressive agenda in order to look “fiscally responsible,” which Democrats never get any credit for anyway.
But setting that aside, most indications point to a Democratic Party that is realizing that bipartisan governing is simply impossible in our polarized age, and there’s no reason to waste your energy trying to make it happen. The potential 2020 presidential candidates all seem to be not just embracing an extremely progressive policy agenda but demonstrating an eagerness to confront the GOP.
They’re responding to what the Democratic base wants, but it would be a mistake to interpret it as simply “moving left,” i.e. just about ideology. It’s about that, but it’s more than that. The experience of the last ten years has been searing for liberals in a way that I think many people don’t fully appreciate.
They were inspired by Barack Obama, then watched not only as a nauseating racist backlash to his presidency swept over the country, but as Republicans threw up every obstacle they could to even the most basic governing, so long as there was a Democrat in the White House. The battle over the ACA was emblematic and infuriating — Obama constructed a plan filled with conservative ideas, only to see it condemned as socialism and targeted with a campaign of legal and political sabotage that continues to this day. They watched the Republican Party say that it was terribly offended that a corrupt, ignorant, boorish bigot might lead it — then line up behind him in perfect formation. Republicans stole a Supreme Court seat and found innumerable ways to exacerbate the anti-democratic features of our system, so that now we have a president elected by fewer people nominating a Supreme Court justice whose agenda is supported by fewer people about to be confirmed by a Senate majority elected by fewer people.
If you don’t realize how enraged the Democratic base is, you’re missing what may be the most important force in American politics right now. And if they should take power in the 2020 elections, I’m pretty sure that when it comes time to start following through on these big ideas, President Warren or President Gillibrand or whoever it is will say, “This is my policy. I’m happy to tell Republicans why I think it’s good for the country. If they want to join us, that’s great. But I’m not going to change my proposal in order to satisfy them when I’m 99 percent sure they’re going to vote against it in the end no matter what. And if they don’t like it? Tough luck.”
If that happens, Democratic voters will say, “That’s exactly why we elected you.” And I don’t think even Barack Obama will object.