David Brooks / Syndicated columnist
With trust broken, the choices ahead are ugly for Democrats
If, at this moment of rage and cynicism, the ruling class goes even further and snubs popular opinion, then that will set off an ugly, destructive, and yet fully justified popular rebellion.
In November 2008, William A. Galston and Elaine C. Kamarck wrote a report called "Change You Can Believe In Needs a Government You Can Trust." Galston and Kamarck, who served in senior positions in the Clinton administration, threw up some warning flags for the Obama administration.
Despite the Democratic triumph that month, they noted, public distrust of government remains intensely high.
Historically, it has been nearly impossible to pass major domestic reforms in the face of that kind of distrust. Therefore, they counseled, the new administration should move cautiously to rebuild trust before beginning a transformational agenda.
The Obama administration interpreted the political climate in an entirely different way. As John F. Harris and Carol E. Lee wrote in a smart piece in Politico on Wednesday, the administration interpreted the 2008 election as a rejection of not only George W. Bush-style conservatism, but also Bill Clinton-style moderation. The country was ready for a New Deal-size change. It had a leader in Barack Obama who could uniquely inspire a national transformation.
As happens every four years, hubris defeated caution, and the administration began its big-bang approach.
As always, it backfired. Instead of building trust in government, the Democrats have magnified distrust. The country already believed Washington is out of touch with its core concerns. So while most families were concerned about jobs, Democrats in Washington spent nine months arguing about health care. The country was already tired of self-serving backroom deals, so the Democrats negotiated a series of dirty deals with the pharmaceutical industry, the unions and certain senators. Americans already felt Washington doesn't understand their fears and insecurities. So at the moment when economic insecurity was at its peak, the Democrats in Washington added another layer of insecurity by threatening to change everything at once.
Instead of building a new majority, the Democrats have set off a distrust insurrection (which is not the same as a conservative insurrection). Republicans are enraged. Independents are furious. Democrats are disheartened. Health-care reform is brutally unpopular. Even voters in Massachusetts decided it was time to send a message.
The Democrats now have four bad options. The first is what you might call the Heedless and Arrogant Approach. A clear majority of Americans are against the congressional health-care reform plan. Democrats could say: We know this is unpopular, but we think it is good policy and we are going to ram it through and you voters can judge us by the results.
The second route is what you might call the Weak and Feckless Approach. Democrats could say: We have received and respect the message voters are sending. We are not going to shove the biggest social transformation in a generation down the throats of a country that has judged and rejected it. We are not going to concentrate immense new powers in a Washington the country detests.
Instead, we will regroup and reorganize. Perhaps we will try incremental reforms. Perhaps we will use federal money to support a series of state reform efforts — like the one in Massachusetts — which are closer to the people. (In 2007, Russ Feingold, a Democrat, and Lindsey Graham, a Republican, co-sponsored the State-Based Health Care Reform Act to spark this kind of local experimentation.)
The third approach is the Dangerous and Demagogic Approach. This begins with the presumption that what Americans really want is a bunch of pseudopopulists to tell them they can have everything for free. This would mean stripping the health bills of anything that might be unpopular — like Medicare cuts and tax increases — and passing the rest regardless of the cost.
The fourth approach is the Incoherent and Internecine Approach. This would involve settling on no coherent policy but just blaming each other for cowardice and stupidity for the next month. Liberals, who make up 20 percent of the country, could complain because they didn't get their version of reform. The Senate and the House could bash each other. The intelligentsia could bash the public.
Right now, Incoherent and Internecine is winning, but the hard choice is between the first two approaches. Galston, ironically, now supports Heedless and Arrogant. It was a mistake to rush into health care, he believes, but now that the party is down the road it would be suicide to turn back. Democrats should stand for what they believe in. If the policy works, then public trust will follow.
I support the Weak and Feckless Approach. Trust is based on mutual respect and reciprocity. If, at this moment of rage and cynicism, the ruling class goes even further and snubs popular opinion, then that will set off an ugly, destructive, and yet fully justified popular rebellion. Trust in government will be irrevocably broken. It will decimate policymaking for a generation.
These are the choices ahead. Have a nice day.
David Brooks is a regular columnist for The New York Times.