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Post-Partisanship Epic Fail?

David Leonhardt at the New York Times has this smart take on the now-imperiled health care bill:

The bills before Congress are politically partisan and substantively bipartisan.

What does that mean? The first part is obvious. All 60 Senate Democrats and independents voted for the bill, and all 40 Republicans voted against it. The second part is the counterintuitive one. Yet it’s true.

The current versions of health reform are the product of decades of debate between Republicans and Democrats. The bills are more conservative than Bill Clinton’s 1993 proposal. For that matter, they’re more conservative than Richard Nixon’s 1971 plan, which would have had the federal government provide insurance to people who didn’t get it through their job.

Emphasis mine. Back in 2008, the smart liberal spin on “post-partisanship” — one which I frankly bought into — is that it was in part an effort to put a popular, centrist sheen on a relatively liberal agenda. Instead, as Leonhardt points out, what Obama has wound up with is an unpopular, liberal sheen on a relatively centrist agenda.

It’s not just on health care — but let’s talk about health care for a moment. The bill that the Senate Democrats passed did not substantially restructure the system of private insurance, nor the health care delivery system. It did not include a public option. It did, rather, about the minimum that you could do if you want to prevent people with pre-existing conditions from being denied health care. You can’t require insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions unless you’re willing to put a mandate into place (otherwise, everyone’s premiums would rise substantially). And you can’t put a mandate into place without having some reasonably generous subsidies (otherwise, a lot of folks would go broke.) The Senate’s bill was about the least radical way to achieve something approaching universal coverage that can be imagined. It is nevertheless a bill that would do a tremendous amount of good for a tremendous number of people, and so I’ve advocated for its passage. But with the possible exception of Wyden-Bennett (which not identifiably left or right although much more radical than what the Congress is considering), virtually any attempt to achieve universal coverage would be further to the left of this bill.

The stimulus? The pricetag was much less than what most economists were advocating for. And about half of it was tax cuts — although you’d never know it from the White House’s poor messaging on the subject.

Cap-and-trade? It’s a market-based solution, and one that includes significantly less ambitious emissions targets than have been adopted by virtually any other Westernized country. The version of the climate bill that the Senate would consider would in all likelihood have included offshore drilling and an expansion of nuclear energy, making it almost literally identical to the one that John McCain advocated on the campaign trail.

The War in Afghanistan was escalated. Robert Gates is still the defense secretary. Obama’s foreign policy has been prudent, but hardly dovish.

The bailout? It was a continuation of a policy adopted under the Bush Administration — an exceptionally unpopular one, but not one that’s identifiably liberal or conservative.

Obama has adopted a few progressive social policies, like the hate crimes bill and the fair pay act, which he perhaps does not get enough credit for. They also happen to be things which are supported by an overwhelming majority of the population. He hasn’t pushed on ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (even though that too polls well) or repealing the Defense of Marriage Act. His position on same sex-marriage — civil unions, but not marriage itself — is the centrist, plurality position. His Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, was a good one, but not one of the more liberal nominees that he might have considered.

Financial reform? The House’s bill was fairly watered down, and the Senate’s bill will be more so. Nevertheless, Republicans opposed it uniformly, even though polls show the public overwhelmingly favors stricter regulation of Wall Street.

A jobs bill? The House’s version is quite centrist, consisting of about $50 billion apiece in infrastructure projects, tax breaks, and aid to state and local governments. But not a single Republican voted for it.

What’s more alarming still is that some of the policies which have become unpopular — like the health care bill and arguably the stimulus (although the polling is more equivocal there) — did not start out that way. With the exception of the bailouts — a policy which the White House certainly wasn’t pursing for political expediency — virtually every policy that the Democrats have advanced polled reasonably well when it was first proposed. It did not always end up that way after it had been through the legislative meat grinder. The reflexive Republican opposition to virtually any policy that the Democrats advanced — they’ve overwhelmingly opposed policies as benign as delaying the digital TV changeover date! — has in retrospect been exceptionally effective.

This is not to suggest that the Democrats should say fuck it all and adopt an agenda that really is leftist — it couldn’t get the support of the Congress anyway — although there are important exceptions where the liberal alternative (the public option being a good example) polls better than the centrist one.

But the problem, it seems to me, is not so much with the policy but with the messaging. Most of the policies that the Democrats will consider in the spring — in particular, the jobs bill, the bank tax, and financial regulation — do poll well, for the time being. The Democrats cannot necessarily count on them ending up that way, however, if their track record over the last year provides any guidance.

I absolutely acknowledge that the White House has inherited an exceptionally difficult situation, one made much more difficult when the economy continued to bleed 700,000 jobs per month in January through April. Many of the problems that they have encountered, I would not have seen coming, and many of the mistakes that they have made, I would have made too.

But the Democrats do have the benefit of hindsight now — and they ought to take advantage of it. For one thing, they need to be very careful about rewarding Republican nihilism. The best case is when you can simultaneously achieve both a policy and a political victory. More often, especially given the structural constraints imposed by the Congress, you’ll have to settle for one or the other. But I would be very careful about any course of action which concedes victory to Republicans on both levels. Mistakes were made along the way to health care reform, but you’ve paid the political price for health care: now pass the fucking thing.

As for the rest of the policies in your portfolio, take an inventory and figure out which have the votes to pass right now (through reconciliation where prudent), which can’t be passed no matter what, and which could be achieved but will require some expenditure of political capital. And then on the other axis, wargame everything and figure which it would be to your benefit to have an extended public debate about (this would almost always be for political theater rather than policy reasons), which you should put up to vote, but as quickly as possible, and which ought not to see the light of day.

I know: easier said then done. But henceforth the Democrats, from the White House on downward, have gotten a remarkably poor return on the investment of their political capital. The failures are more tactical than strategic. But to do what Democrats usually do, and crawl into a shell in the face of adversity, is not advisable.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.