Obama's Right, Cranky Liberals Need To Be More Realistic

It's fine that the GOP is the "Party of No," but Democrats can't be the "Party of Never Enough"

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The message from the White House toward political progressives is consistent, even if the tone has varying levels of politeness. The left needs to be “drug tested” (Press Secretary Robert Gibbs), should “stop whining” (Vice President Joe Biden), or needs to compare the performance of the Obama administration not to the “Almighty,” but “to the alternative” (President Obama).

This is arguably not a very nice way to talk to the people whose votes you desperately need to keep a GOP tidal wave this fall from becoming an out-and-out tsunami. But the truth sometimes hurts, and the White House is right.

Despite a toxic partisan environment on Capitol Hill, Obama has delivered on much of what he promised to accomplish. But it’s still not enough for the party’s cranky left flank, which seems to believe that the president can get whatever he wants just because he’s president. That’s a view, notably, that incensed the left during the presidency of George W. Bush, an administration progressives accused of asserting way too much executive power.

So Obama gets a healthcare package passed, succeeding where predecessors had failed for 40 years. The left is complaining that Obama didn’t try hard enough for a public option. Nice in theory; dead wrong in reality. The Senate would never have passed such a provision, and insisting on it would have left Obama with exactly what Sen. Edward M. Kennedy had when he battled with former President Nixon on healthcare: nothing. Kennedy once told me that one of his greatest regrets is that he didn’t cut a deal with Nixon on healthcare then--at least, Kennedy said a few years before he died, they would have had a structure for some kind of universal healthcare. Details could be improved in later years, he said, but it’s rare when the momentum and political climate exist to pass a big piece of legislation. Obama--not much older than Kennedy was when the Massachusetts senator was sticking to his demands for a straight-up national healthcare program--figured that out earlier, and got a bill. Conservatives hate it, and that’s valid. But for progressives to suggest that Obama could have gotten something more sweeping through Congress is exasperatingly naïve.

[See a slide show of 10 things that are (and aren't) in the healthcare bill.]

Meanwhile, Obama has managed to sign into law a credit card reform package, an equal-pay law, and a financial services regulation package. The last item is another disappointment for progressives, who wanted a tougher bill. They might have gotten one written up, but it never would have passed Congress.

By definition, when a party has majorities as big as the Democrats now enjoy, a substantial chunk of the caucus is this close to being on the other side of the aisle. Democrats, for much of the healthcare debate, had 60 votes in the Senate. But this is not a 60-40 country, ideologically, and so some of nominally Democratic seats are held by moderate-to-conservative lawmakers. Progressives could work to defeat those conservative Democrats, and in some cases, have indeed tried to do so in primaries. But in most cases, the only candidate those districts will pick to replace a conservative Democrat is an actual Republican.

Obama, in an upcoming interview with Rolling Stone, summed up his approach nicely:

You've got to make a set of decisions in terms of "What are we trying to do here? Are we trying to just keep everybody ginned up for the next election, or at some point do you try to win elections because you're actually trying to govern?" I made a decision early on in my presidency that if I had an opportunity to do things that would make a difference for years to come, I'm going to go ahead and take it.

Republicans may rightly be criticized for being the Party of No. But there’s no defense for Democrats becoming the Party of Never Enough.