On the day that Barack Obama signed into law a major overhaul of the health care system, thus fulfilling a top campaign promise and a long-term goal of his party in the face of a Republican minority that is unprecedentedly unified in its opposition, The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza asked a contrarian question: Would Obama, maybe, be better off if Republicans controlled the House?
Actually, Cillizza put the question a little differently: the title of his post was “Is a Republican-controlled House better for President Obama in 2012?” That “in 2012” is crucial in more ways than one. By narrowing the scope of the question to elections and only elections, it allows for a counterintuitive, historically grounded take that, yes, Obama might be better off after all if the GOP were to take the House. At the same time, it renders the exercise moot by taking all the meaning out of politics.
The basic idea is that if Republicans had a House majority, they’d be compelled to engage more seriously in the legislative process; if they didn’t do so, Obama could play the above-it-all, Washington-is-broken card, riding discontent with an obstructionist Congress to a second term. If this sounds familiar, it should: as Cillizza writes, “One needs only look back to the last time a Democrat occupied the White House to see the potential political efficacy of such a strategy.” Now that’s contrarian: invoking the Clinton presidency as a potential model for Obama, when the conventional wisdom we’ve been hearing ever since Election Day was about how Obama would avoid ending up like Clinton.
Of course, this is a case where the conventional wisdom is basically correct. While Bill Clinton was a champ at getting elected, his presidency has already been surpassed by Obama’s in terms of enacting domestic policy, which is the whole point of getting elected in the first place. (Remember all those stories about Clinton casting about for a legacy achievement late in this second term? Even applying an appropriate discount rate to some of the talk now circulating in D.C., we’re less likely to read those about Obama, whenever he leaves office.) That’s not entirely Clinton’s fault, of course—he was dealing with a lot of extenuating circumstances, chief among them the fact that for most of his presidency the Republicans controlled Congress!
But if you want to actually advance an agenda, the politically efficacious strategy is not about triangulation or jujitsu—it’s about having the numbers on your side. (Cillizza asks, at one point, “How would the health care fight have played out differently if Republicans were in control of the House?” The answer to this one seems pretty clear: We wouldn’t have health care reform, of any sort.)
It feels pedantic to dwell too much on Cillizza’s item, which is essentially a fun exercise in speculation. But it’s representative of a persistent bias in the press in which “politics” is boiled down to “elections,” and “political achievement” is equated with “winning elections.” Obviously, success at the ballot box is a prerequisite—but it’s a first step, not a goal in itself. To put it another way: Yes, it’s plausible to see a scenario in which, in exchange for two years of near-certain obstruction of his agenda, Obama might marginally improve his re-election prospects. But why would he take that deal? Why would any president?