Generally, I’m loath to give the Bush administration credit for much of anything, but if there is one thing they got right, it’s in their approach to passing legislation. President Bush and his advisers realized, correctly, that the partisan make-up of any given vote matters far less than what Beltway insiders normally think. It doesn’t particularly matter if X piece of legislation has bipartisan support so much as it matters that X piece of legislation is popular. The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson seems to get this, and makes a strong case for passing partisan legislation:
The rule among politicians in Washington used to be that when the provincials become restless, as they are now, the safest thing to do is run to the center. But as this sour and unsettled summer ends, the political center looks like the white line running down the middle of a busy street — a foolish place to stand and an excellent place to get run over. […]
It is a core belief of Washington’s political culture that policymaking by compromise — “meeting in the middle” — is the way to gain and keep the support of the vast, moderate, essentially reasonable group of voters who constitute a coherent political center. My problem with this analysis is that so many of the big decisions that have to be made are binary: yes or no. The terrain in the middle consists only of “maybe” or “kind of,” and I see no evidence that the country is in a “maybe” or “kind of” mood.
Of course, the obvious response is that Bush’s method of passing legislation resulted in Republicans losing both houses of Congress and the presidency. But I’m not sure if that’s actually the case; Republican losses last year and in 2006 had far more to do with the party’s failed policies and its obstinate refusal to change course on Iraq than it did with institutional minutiae and partisan composition of floor votes. One could easily imagine a scenario in which various pieces of conservative legislation were wildly successful, and voters rewarded the Republicans with continued control of Congress, even if that legislation was completely partisan.
Plainly put, the “center” does not lead the political conversation, the “poles” do. It’s simply a fact that during the past twenty-plus years of conservative dominance, the “center” reflected the strength of the conservative movement. Accordingly, if Democrats want to gain and keep the support “of the vast, moderate, essentially reasonable group of voters who constitute a coherent political center,” the answer isn’t to propose mealy-mouthed “centrist” policies and hope that voters understand the underlying differences between that and a more liberal proposal, instead, it’s to move full-on with the most effective legislation possible, which in health care at least, happens to be the most liberal form of the legislation. After all, Democrats won’t be punished for partisanship, they’ll be punished for failure.