In Defense of Obama’s Compromise Strategy

The Burden of Proof Rests with Liberal Critics

In a speech Tuesday night at the Democratic National Convention, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick admonished viewers across the country that “it’s time for Democrats to stiffen our backbone and stand up for what we believe.” His remarks were aimed at mobilizing Democrats to rally in defense of President Obama’s achievements, particularly passage of health care reform.

Yet as a sound bite repeated in news coverage, Patrick’s speech no doubt resonates with many liberal commentators and advocates who have criticized Obama for failing to stake out a strong liberal position in legislative battles with Republicans.

Not surprisingly, in feedback to our “Polarization Paradox” article at the Breakthrough Journal, this argument has been prominent. Consider the exchange I had on Twitter with blogger David Roberts, who replied to a post about our article. “Obama spent years vigorously ‘reaching out’ & searching for policy compromises. Didn't work. So now what?” Roberts followed with similar arguments in this exchange with Alex Trembath.

But Roberts’ complaint and similar responses misread both the necessity and success of Obama’s efforts at compromise.

Even if Obama didn’t gain Republican votes on health care legislation or on a debt deal, by consistently reaching out to Republicans, the strategy enabled Obama to win and maintain support among moderates within his own party and to gain support from key industry partners.

On health care, for example, especially critical was the deal struck with the pharmaceutical industry, which warned Congressional negotiators that it could unleash $200 million in spending to oppose the bill. In response, Congressional leaders and the White House brokered a deal over Medicare prices and the importation of Canadian drugs. In return, the industry association would support the bill, agree to cost savings, and run an advertising campaign in support.

One of the major hurdles to passing the eventual bill included dissent from the liberal wing of the party when the “public option” was dropped from the legislation, a move necessary to solidify support among moderate Democrats. Howard Dean and MSNBC host Keith Olbermann urged progressives to “kill the bill.”

Yet when the bill came up for vote in the Senate in 2009, because of Obama’s effort at compromise, all 60 Senators in the Democratic coalition voted in favor with all 40 Republicans voting against.

Obama’s consistent willingness to strike a deal on debt reduction also gave credibility to the argument that Republicans were in fact the “party of no,” sacrificing progress on pressing problems in order to win power. This argument is now driving election discussion.

For liberal advocates and commentators who fault Obama’s efforts at compromise, the burden of proof is on them to explain how a hardline ideological strategy would deliver votes in the Midwest and swing Congressional districts, much less help unify support for legislation among moderate members of their own Congressional caucus.