Obama’s long game

James Valvo Director of Policy, Americans for Prosperity
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The Republicans are now beneficiaries of a historic rejection of big government.  President Obama and Democratic leaders are offering a bevy of explanations for why they just lost at least six Senate seats and over 60 House seats, including control of the chamber.  The president would have you believe it was “unsupervised spending.”  Pundits are convinced it was the economy, stupid.  But some are pausing to consider how the president could have so badly misread his mandate.  The truth is: he didn’t; he knew exactly what he was doing.

The White House saw a narrow window to push its agenda, and Rahm Emanuel was going to be sure they didn’t let a crisis go to waste.  Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Leader Harry Reid likewise knew their once-in-a-generation congressional majorities wouldn’t last through the next election.  History portends midterm losses for the governing party, and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue were aware the pendulum would swing back toward the Republicans.  Going into Tuesday’s election, 47 Democrats were in House districts John McCain carried in the 2008 presidential election.  These seats are more conservative than their representation and were the foundation of the 2010 GOP wave.

Everyone across the political spectrum knew this was going to happen and it’s foolish to suggest the White House was caught off guard.  Instead, what really happened was the ruling Democrats decided to advance policies that were decidedly further left than the nation.  Traditional political science suggests politicians are short-term, risk-averse thinkers who are only concerned with their viability on the next ballot.  Obama, Pelosi and Reid do not think this way; they are committed to the long-term, incremental expansion of a cradle-to-grave welfare state.

The president has repeatedly said he is not focused on the next election; he’s focused on the next generation.  During a recent fundraising speech, he said, “What we have to do is to make sure that we maintain our focus on the long game; that we’re not just thinking tactically, that we’re not just thinking about what’s convenient for us next month or in the next election, but what’s good for the next generation.  That’s what we’ve tried to do.”

Obama’s motives are best understood through the lens of the Fabian Society, Britain’s turn-of-the-century movement of incremental and pragmatic socialism.  Even though the group opposed Marx’s revolutionary tactics, they shared his utopian view of social organization.  A Fabian worldview fully accepts sacrificing lawmakers — and even congressional majorities — in favor of accomplishing incremental steps.  And Obama’s 111th Congress made significant strides.

Clearly, the biggest step was the health care bill.  The plan heaps huge new mandates on businesses and private insurers, while further empowering state insurance commissioners to reject insurance rate hikes.  Conservatives decried this double squeeze from the outset as a threat to the viability of the private health care market.  The president countered with the talking point that if you like the insurance you have, you can keep it.  But with the law less than a year old, health care choices are down and costs are up.

The Department of Health and Human Services is scrambling to offer waivers to prevent huge companies, like McDonalds, from scraping low-wage workers off their plans entirely.  If the health care bill safeguards existing coverage, why would HHS need to offer waivers?  Of course, the law was actually designed to undermine private coverage and encourage a shift of insurees to public plans.

This motivation fits perfectly with a generational Fabianistic viewpoint.  It’s worth sacrificing what was a temporary House majority anyway in order to kneecap the private health insurance market for decades to come.  This is why the bill’s proponents weren’t fazed by consistently bad poll numbers or even an earthquake special Senate election in Massachusetts.  They were playing the long game.

This pragmatic progressive strategy has frustrated the “Professional Left,” as White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs termed them, because they endorsed a Candidate Obama who was speaking in revolutionary terms.  He promised Hope and Change and that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”  But Obama took a revolutionary single-payer health care system off the table before the debate even started.  He knew it was too much too fast and did not want to risk the sizable gains that could be made incrementally.  Slow and steady wins the race.

Health care is not the only example.  The same story plays out in the financial regulations bill and the takeover of the student loan industry, which will empower bureaucrats to make the nation’s credit and higher education decisions.  The cap-and-trade energy tax came a few Senate votes from being law, and now an overreaching EPA is marching the issue down the field despite no express congressional authorization to do so.

The president may claim this Congress has been paralyzed by GOP obstructionism, but the truth is they have been one of the most productive in history.  The Republicans must broaden their horizon and realize that just because they won the midterm election battle, that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped Obama’s long game.  Obama certainly doesn’t think so.

Mr. Valvo is director of government affairs for Americans for Prosperity.