Democrats are fond of reminding us that Obama made no secret of his radical leftist agenda when he ran for President. Conservatives are fond of replying that they saw it coming. What this exchange misses is the role that promises of transparency and bipartisanship played in the election. Independent voters did not react to the leftist agenda because Obama promised that whatever he did would be tempered by a process that exposed all of the political dealings and by the need to get Republicans to agree. He might or might not want to nationalize everything in sight, it was no matter because he would have to get many Republicans to agree. The claims of transparency and bipartisanship effectively moved Obama from the left to near the center of American politics.
The claim of bipartisanship was not outrageous on the face of it. We saw it work for a while when President Clinton worked with House Speaker Newt Gingrich to craft the major legislative achievements of the Clinton Administration, including welfare reform and NAFTA. Reagan worked with House Speaker Tip O’Neal to achieve Social Security reform. So it is not as if Obama’s promise should have been dismissed out of hand as impossible. Moreover, it could have been achieved. For example, Republicans were eager to support a ban on exclusion of pre-existing conditions from health insurance, and there were many other points of agreement that seemingly could have been developed into bipartisan legislation.
On transparency, nothing prevented Obama from opening legislative process substantially. I don’t think that backroom strategizing would ever be made entirely public, but the meeting with Republicans at the White House that Obama called late in the game showed promise. Obama, of course, was not really seeking Republican input to legislation. He was posturing to justify slamming through the legislation under reconciliation by hoping to show how Republicans just wouldn’t play ball. For some Americans, the event was the first that they became aware that Republicans even had health care proposals of their own. Such events were shown to be potentially disastrous for Democrats.
The C-SPAN broadcasts of Congressional hearing don’t do the job because Democrats control the agenda. Democrats want to protect the heavy contributions they receive from trial lawyers, so tort reform legislation is killed before it is up for serious debate. The advantage of a “summit” forum is that all the ideas are presented uncensored. It is clear why Obama didn’t want that.
Right after the election, Charlie Rose interviewed Tom Brokaw on television. The question they discussed was what exactly we had gotten with Barrack Obama. Neither claimed to know what was really behind the generic claims of hope and change, transparency and bipartisanship. The accurate prediction would have been, “Brutal strictly-partisan Chicago-style politics to advance the most left-wing agenda we’ve seen since at least Jimmy Carter, and maybe ever.” Rose and Brokaw are astute observers. If they missed it, we cannot blame middle America. Obama pulled off the biggest lie of modern political history.