Daily Archives: August 26, 2009

People keep referring me to Ross Douthat’s column, “Don’t Blame Obama”, which you should read if you haven’t already.

In reality, the health care wrestling match is less a test of Mr. Obama’s political genius than it is a test of the Democratic Party’s ability to govern…

If the Congressional Democrats can’t get a health care package through, it won’t prove that President Obama is a sellout or an incompetent. It will prove that Congress’s liberal leaders are lousy tacticians, and that its centrist deal-makers are deal-makers first, poll watchers second and loyal Democrats a distant third. And it will prove that the Democratic Party is institutionally incapable of delivering on its most significant promises.

It’s a good piece and as usual Ross says a lot I agree with, but a couple of things. That is a rather jaundiced assessment of the Blue Dogs, is it not? I can’t see that their objections to the bills are unprincipled. Their positions make sense to me. It is not wrong, either, for politicians to care about public opinion. We should  want them to do that. Are they failing in some way, as Ross implies, if they are “loyal Democrats a distant third”? I want parties to be institutionally capable of governing, but I don’t give politicians many points for tribal loyalty come what may. Coalitions are what make parties capable of governing. Leaders have to shape those coalitions.

Which leads me to my second point: why must one conclude that the health reform mess is Obama’s fault or else the party’s fault—choose one—when it is plainly both? The Democrats’ ability to govern has everything to do with the effectiveness of their leader and principal spokesman, especially on a sensitive issue, health care, where success requires a complicated policy to be put persuasively before the public. We know Obama has the necessary skills. We saw that last year. He chose not to deploy them, and put Democrats in Congress in charge. That was a big mistake.

It’s true that Democrats in Congress are split. So is the public at large. All the more reason why Obama needed to lead. In the campaign, he extended popular support for the party into the middle of the electorate. He needed to maintain or even build on that to advance his policy goals. So far, he hasn’t. He has managed to disappoint both the centre and the left, as Ross says. But the left is always disappointed. That is its perpetual state of mind. The left will be disappointed if in the end Obama gets universal health care with generous subsidies for the less well-off, but no public option. There is nothing one can say to this. But disappointing the centre as well was an unforced error. The Obama of the campaign could have kept the middle on board, but he decided—until it was too late to change his mind?—that he would not even try. Yes, he gets the blame for that.

An interesting discussion about Afghanistan at the Brookings Institution today (I think this page will have transcript and/or video in due course): Bruce Riedel, Michael O’Hanlon, Kimberly Kagan and Anthony Cordesman, moderated by Martin Indyk. To only slightly varying degrees, all the speakers were pretty grim. Despite the recent commitment of extra forces, they see the situation as either bad and getting no better, or actually deteriorating. They think far more troops and other resources are needed, and worry that the administration is putting pressure on General McChrystal and other military commanders to curb their request for more manpower even before they have put their case. Ominous echoes of Rumsfeld, I thought.

None of the speakers volunteered a rationale for being there in the first place. It took a question on that from the audience to elicit what I thought was a perfunctory reply from just one of the panelists. Riedel, if I understood him correctly, made two points.

First, he said that if we weren’t there, we would be unable even to harry al-Qaeda with drones: they could train and organise unmolested. That puzzled me. The US does not need anything like its present commitment, let alone the additional resources the army seems to want, merely to launch unmanned aircraft against al-Qaeda targets. Second, he said that if the West lost to the insurgency, the blow to its credibility in the Muslim world would be too devastating to countenance. This also seemed none too convincing: an all-encompassing rationale which has been offered before for fighting wars that the US then went on to lose at  greater cost than not fighting them in the first place. I want to believe that the West’s fight in Afghanistan is both necessary and likely to succeed, but those arguments do not persuade me.

The discussion started, as these discussions tend to, from a barely examined notion of “success”–a viable, self-supporting and friendly Afghan state–and then inferred from this the resources that will be needed to achieve it. Fine in theory, but Iraq is just the latest reminder that the politics works the other way round. The fight in Afghanistan is already far from popular, and support seems more likely to fall with time than rise. If no compelling rationale can be put before the public,  it may make better sense to accept that the constraint on resources will tighten, and ask how much can be achieved with what little will be available.

This was Gilles Dorronsoro’s argument in a recent FT op-ed. (Though see this letter to the editor in response.) Match goals to means, he argued. Politics rules out the converse. I would like somebody to change my mind, but I find this view depressingly persuasive. Here and here are fuller statements of Dorronsoro’s thinking. He posts other commentary on his Carnegie Endowment page.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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