Tuesday, October 21, 2008

You Play The Hand You're Dealt

This comment, from a venture capitalist, is pretty typical following... well, pretty much any election:
I think Obama has the election pretty wrapped up absent a major external event. I think my parents might vote for him. They are army people, lifelong republicans, who are in their late 70s/early 80s. But if they vote for Obama, they are not really voting for him, they are voting against the GOP and what is has become and what it has done to this country. Obama's mandate, if he wins, will be thin and he should not overplay it. He must win these skeptics who held their nose and voted for him if he wants to govern with a real mandate. And that won't be easy and he must govern from the far center which is where our country really is right now. And I think he can and will do that.
If you recall how G.W. overplayed his hand following the 2004 election ("I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.") this might appear to be common sense. G.W. was narrowly elected, didn't have great public support for the changes he wished to press, and his initiatives failed. Something similar might be said about Bill Clinton's first couple of years, where he was stymied by his own party.

But in both cases, was the problem that they didn't have a strong enough mandate? Or that they overplayed their hands? Bill Clinton probably anticipated greater support from his own party - in retrospect he should have worked to build that consensus, or in its absence to at least build a popular consensus for his initiatives, before he tried to push them through. G.W. wanted to reinvent Social Security, proposing "reforms" that were supported more in theory than in practice within his party and which were viewed skeptically by the public. Like Clinton, and in contrast to the party unity of his first four years in office, he suffered a breakdown in party discipline that made it impossible for him to advance his proposals. After that, his continuing efforts to advance his "reform" agenda eroded his public support.

Don't underestimate G.W.'s tactics merely because they failed. He managed to cram through a great many controversial initiatives during his first two years in office, most of which were treated as minor issues or non-issues by the time the 2004 election rolled around. Saving "Social Security reform" for his second term reflects the greater political risk involved. But the Republicans had the sense to know that initiatives that pass more than two years before an election generally won't be big issues when the election finally comes. News coverage will dwindle, pundits will move on to other issues, voter anger will subside, and in all likelihood the election will turn on other issues.

To advance his agenda, the new President, Obama or McCain, should evaluate his position: What initiatives are likely to be well-received in Congress, by the public, or both? What important initiatives might pass with some finessing of Congress, the public, or both? What initiatives are likely to fail? He can build a first term agenda based upon that analysis.

But what he shouldn't do is worry about whether three or four years later a particular set of swing voters will be offended that he carried out his promises, when they had secretly hoped he would not. Really, what's the advice here? "Wait four years to see if you get a bigger mandate"? Absent catastrophe a President probably has only one chance to be transformative - and that chance most likely comes (and goes) in the first half of the first term. No, certainly, the newly elected President won't want to overplay his hand - but if he wants to change the country in any meaningful way he needs to play his hand for all it's worth.

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