Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Rope-a-dope, health reform edition

Back during the spring of 2008, Obama was getting some heat for not standing up stronger to the Clinton campaign, which was mocking him mercilessly and raking up wins in key states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. Obama didn't change his strategy and he didn't get flustered. He stayed relatively positive, knowing that he had enough delegates to prevail in the nomination race.

In September of 2008, Obama was again getting heat for not being tougher on McCain, who was suddenly tied with Obama in the polls. Again, Obama didn't change his strategy and he didn't get flustered. He knew that McCain's poll strength was based on a post-convention bump and would likely subside, which it did.

I think the same sort of thing is going on today. There's a certain mentality among political types that you have to win the media cycle every day. That certainly seemed to be the mindset among the Clinton folks in the 90s, and they got pretty good at it. Obama seems to think that's not necessarily the way things have to go. As Obama said at his June press conference, "I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle. I'm not. OK?" In other words, you don't have to win every battle to prevail in the war.

You can really see this at work in the debate over health care reform. It seemed for a while that Obama had lost control of the debate. Opponents of health reform were saying all sorts of horrendous things about Obama's plans, none of which were being strongly countered by the White House. But that doesn't necessarily spell defeat for Obama's plans. After all, health reform is not being decided by a one-day initiative vote. It's being hammered out by members of Congress (and may end up being formulated largely in a reconciliation committee) in a process that is somewhat removed from public opinion.

And what has happened over the past few weeks? The group opposing health reform has begun to appear crazier and crazier, identified mainly by the guns and swastikas that the more extreme members are bringing to town hall meetings. Members of Congress are now getting favorable press for standing down the mob. And to the extent that those opposing health reform are an organized movement, Sarah Palin is increasingly identified as their leader, thanks to her "death panel" comments. (Now, I know Palin has at least one fan among this blog's readership, so I won't belabor this point. But suffice it to say that she doesn't have the best reputation in American politics right now, and if she is perceived as the leader of your movement, your movement has an image problem.)

And then Obama swoops in and sounds like the sensible centrist, getting press like this:
[Obama] took issue with critics who he said had distorted the debate to stoke fears that health changes will include “death panels that will basically pull the plug on Grandma.” That charge, which has been widely disseminated, has no basis in any of the provisions of the legislative proposals under consideration in Congress.
It's still early, but it's starting to look like Obama managed to get his opponents to reduce themselves to an unhinged, violent cartoon while making himself look more reasonable precisely by not engaging them and trying to win every news cycle.

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