Friday, May 14, 2010

Health insurance reform post-mortem:
They think they won ...

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It seems fair to conclude that Sam Stein's narrative of how the health insurance reform was passed is the story as Washington Democratic insiders, including the President, would like it remembered.

"It's having a long-term strategy and working backwards from that," explained Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer during an interview in his West Wing office.

Success would be premised on building blocks. Moving the health care bill through the complicated committee process would be the equivalent of winning the Iowa caucus (necessary, as both were, for at least keeping Obama's prospects alive). Persuading lawmakers to back the bill throughout 2009 would be like the delicate chase for superdelegates in 2008. The final vote, in turn, was Election Day.

The tactics, likewise, were similar. There were core messages designed to appeal to moderates and activists alike (deficit reduction and expanded coverage). There was a clear invocation of this historical nature of the effort. And when presented with a numerical value for success -- in this case, 60 votes in the Senate -- the president and his team relied more on calculated maneuvering than big sells. Instead of pushing the entire caucus behind health care reform, they worked with individual members based on their relevancy to the process. It was the difference between trying to win every primary election and prioritizing states with strategic delegate yield.

More than any other mindset borrowed from the campaign, however, was the sense that politics is a sport of transactions. Handed a political landscape of broad competing interests, the best way to navigate is to offer a broad but concrete goal and jump hurdles. The only thing not to be compromised is success itself, in part because failure would prove so crippling.

The article goes on to retell how administration campaigners started with an "inevitability" narrative (much like what failed Hilary Clinton in 2008), bought off much of the opposition (literally in the case of the pharmaceutical industry among others), tamped down health advocates with a more ambitious agenda than simply getting a win at any price, and fell back on the President's command of policy and persuasion when the going got tough.

On the one hand, it's a great story of good campaigning -- if you are a campaign manager. When I advise campaigns -- I've more than once been called in when inexperienced leaders feared they were losing -- I insist they assemble the best information they can find, map the best path to a win they can imagine achieving, and then commit to stay on the plan regardless of what emergencies and distractions may turn up. They need to continue to recognize unforeseen opportunities, but should that happen, any new activities have to fit with the plan. This is enormously hard to do in the heat of battle. The Obama team did it in 2008; they did it in again, just barely, in passing health insurance reform.

But while we can applaud that, we also have to understand that this mode of operation is inherently anti-democratic (small "d"). Aroused people and interested groups are anarchic from the perspective of campaign management. They want to blow you off your planned trajectory. They refuse to allow you to define winning. Stein reports that at one point, Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO told White House staffers:

"Don't fucking bullshit me," he demanded.

He had a right. Labor had thrown down for Obama in 2008 but was forced to allow its members' health plans to be taxed to make a Budget Director happy.

And therein lies the danger of running an administration like a campaign. Lots of hurts go away if your candidate pulls off a victory on Election Day. But a policy win on a much-compromised policy doesn't quickly salve the wounds you've inflicted on friends (and enemies) while getting to victory. Stein explains:

In the days that followed, however, not everyone found it easy to hide the bruises they'd endured. The party and the president had taken a deep hit in the polls. The labor community, which had elevated Obama to office in 2008, had left the process feeling slighted. Progressives felt a public option could have been passed either through reconciliation or over Lieberman's demands. Abortion rights activists, likewise, felt they had been forced to make ungodly concessions. Why, they asked, had Obama chosen the legislative path he did?

We're seeing the result in the intensity gap among Democrats in the run up to the midterm elections. The administration governs top down on an anti-democratic campaign model. They deliver a sliver of a loaf -- and lots of ordinarily Democratic supporters remain unconvinced that they are getting anything at all. This is probably somewhat unfair; out of the spotlight, the administration is delivering a restored quality of government.

But the disciplined, tightly controlled, insider model of progress on which they are operating misses the temper of the moment. We don't want cool management; we want our passions recognized and at least partially validated. Having ceded policy passions (and prejudices) to their opponents, they are in danger of getting badly burned by popular heat.

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