The Return of Childish Things

The main argument within the center-left coalition in American politics, for at least 20 years (coinciding with the life of this magazine), has been between Big and Small. It's not liberal versus moderate, or the people versus the powerful. Rather, it's between a progressivism of big gestures, emphatic programs, and ballsy claims to power, on the one hand, and on the other, small, tactical, non-scary transactional bargains that nudge the country, or some subset of us, in a better direction.

Somehow, most of the time, small wins. And last night, although the State of the Union Address was strong in many respects in tone and substance, Barack Obama signed a nonaggression pact with small.

I've usually found myself on the side of big. When I worked on Bill Bradley's presidential campaign in 2000, our case -- and the principal progressive critique of the Clinton administration -- was that it had thought too small. After the disasters of 1993 and 1994, Clinton and Gore had scaled down to the "micro-initiatives" devised by Mark Penn, passing up opportunities to decisively change the country's direction. A year ago, this magazine joined in hosting a conference enjoining the new administration and Congress to "think big." Big ideas, not more liberal ideas, were the defining distinction. And it wasn't just about policy: Big was also a strategy about how to govern, by presenting a clear, uncompromised alternative vision compelling enough to animate a movement, intimidate opponents, and realign politics. Indeed, even the conflicts in the late days of the health-reform fight -- such as whether to oppose a bill without a public option -- were as much about setting a high standard for bargaining as they were conflicts of ideology.

Small had dominated Democratic politics through the 2004 election. (Recall, for example, John Kerry's health-care plan, which had a sort of ship-in-a-bottle brilliance, as if he'd asked the smartest policy minds to design the tiniest possible policy that might still improve the system.) Domestic policies were often created out of dozens of tax credits and the responses to Republican initiatives were defensive and partial.

A year ago, after a tremendous progressive and Democratic resurgence, and the rise of Obama, everything seemed aligned for thinking big to finally get its shot. The problems were colossal in scale, and the political opportunity was unprecedented -- a Democrat elected with a solid majority of the vote, control of both houses of Congress, and a mobilized political base. The Bush years proved that defiance of the natural inertia of politics could succeed, and Obama set the tone in his Inaugural: "The time has come to set aside childish things."

And yet, in his first real State of the Union, Obama had to look back on the year and say, "Let's try common sense." He presented a somewhat cluttered agenda of contradictory impulses (another dozen tax credits, plus a spending freeze, pay-as-you-go budgeting, and job creation), some great ideas (I believe it's the first time income-contingent student-loan repayment has made it to the big speech), and generalized soft encouragement on the really big ideas (health care and energy). There was strong language on Republican obstruction, the Bush legacy, Democratic timidity ("people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills"), the media and even the Supreme Court, but it was all language -- the idea that a big vision of change could roll over those forces of resistance was lost.

I tend to forgive Obama of responsibility for systemic or institutional failings -- as Hendrik Hertzberg wrote recently, "Sometimes excuses actually excuse." There is much in the system that makes it almost impossible to be Franklin Roosevelt. Congressional small-mindedness is reinforced by a public that can quickly get nervous and exhausted at the prospect of change -- especially if the word "health" is involved. But in many ways Obama was a flawed messenger for the "thinking big" approach. As Rick Perlstein argued in our recent dialogue, you need not only an ambitious agenda but a president willing to be confrontational and daring. To the extent Bush succeeded with a big agenda, which was less than half the time, it was by compromising as little as possible. A president who wants things that are just plain harder than tax cuts and wars can't play that way, and if forced to, will fail.

So what Obama wound up with, especially on health reform, was a situation in which the smallness of Washington made a big project seem compromised, small, and illegitimate. If, as Karen Tumulty claims, everyone in Massachusetts seemed aware of the "Cornhusker Kickback" -- the Medicaid deal for Nebraska that bought Sen. Ben Nelson's support -- and as suggested by a Washington Post poll, based their growing opposition to health reform mainly on discomfort with that type of procedural bargaining -- then you have the irony that an ostensibly conservative Democrat created the conditions that made people feel a piece of legislation was too liberal. These are the contradictions of small politics, and they are not easy to overcome, except by embracing an agenda of gestures and symbolism that matches them, like a key to a lock. And so, if the Blue Dog Democrats need to hear something about reducing the deficit, give them something meaningless about reducing the deficit. They're not serious about it (many of them favor permanent repeal of the estate tax, a deficit disaster), but you can't make them set aside childish things.

In this it had the feel of Bill Clinton's State of the Union speeches, most of which I remember disliking -- they seemed like formless laundry lists glued together with strong words. But I have to admit that Clinton was the master of the form, and, as Paul Waldman notes, Clinton was the only recent president whose State of the Union addresses consistently boosted his popularity.

Remember too that the last productive period for progressive legislation was 1997-1998, when among other things, the State Children's Health Insurance Program was created. Our criticism of later Clintonism wasn't quite right: It is possible to create some big things out of smaller, salable pieces, and the art of Clinton's speeches was in taking that one moment when a good portion of the public is paying attention and using it to break down politics into manageable pieces. I suspect that many Americans who are anxious about health reform for a dozen reasons had never heard the basic components explained as clearly. If there is a chance to move health reform, it will be boosted by this reassertion of the case for it in modest, non-scary, incremental terms.

It's now been two years since Obama became the dominant figure on the American political landscape. In that time, I've charted and encouraged a kind of slow settling back to earth. Political passion and commitment are hard to sustain. The settling is now complete, and there's no returning to a "big ideas" agenda, not anytime soon. It will always be out there, untested, like that perfect Marxism that was never quite tried, or the conservatives' fantasy of the real small-government president that they never got. But incremental politics, in which we slowly construct serious change out of smaller pieces, some of them imperfect, can sometimes work and may be better suited to the times and to Obama's skills.

You may also like