Political junkies like me have added the forthcoming book "The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election" by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson to our reading list. The extensive excerpt that appeared in the Washington Post yesterday whetted the appetite and I learned two things that were slightly surprising, one disconcerting and the other hopeful.
This disconcerting thing was this. In an interview after the election, the President-elect gives the authors his take on the election and notes, among other things, "the shift that’s taken place in the salience of some of the culture wars that emerged in the 60s that really were the dominant force in our politics, starting with Ronald Reagan, and how they had less power. Which, by the way, includes why the issue of Reverend Wright or Bill Ayers never caught as powerfully as it might have 15 or 20 years ago."
The problem with this analysis is that he appears to think the cultural issues emerged in the 60s but only began to dominate politics in the Reagan years. In other words, it was not the liberal challenge to cultural norms that dominated politics but the conservative backlash. President Obama of all politicians should know that the religious right was every bit as much of a grassroots phenomenon as anything he ever did on the Southside of Chicago. First in the fight against sex education in local school and then in the fight against the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, conservatives organized themselves to oppose what they saw as the intrusion of essentially Dewey-esque beliefs into their children’s schools. This grassroots movement existed before Reagan, was decisive in several key Senate races in 1978, had mostly backed Jimmy Carter’s bid for the White House on account of his evangelical credentials, had effectively shut down the city of Charleston, West Virginia when the literature curriculum for the public schools was set to include books that many conservative Christians found hostile to their faith and to their patriotism. Liberals like to think that the conservative movement was cooked up by pollsters and GOP operatives, but that is not the way it happened.
The hopeful part of the excerpt is the account of a July 15 meeting with his staff in which, according to the authors, "The campaign lacked crispness and good execution…He told his team members they were all doing B-level work." This tale contradicts or at least modifies the reputation of "No Drama Obama" and does so in a way that I find comforting. There are times it is worth getting upset. Indeed, if it was unacceptable for his staff to be doing B-level work on the campaign, how much more unacceptable is it when they are called upon to achieve universal health insurance!
During the August congressional recess, Obama and his staff can ponder what happened last week at the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The committee voted in favor of an amendment from Congressman Bart Stupak that would have prevented the federal government from mandating abortion coverage by private insurance plans. In short, keep the status quo. But, Committee Chairman Henry Waxman brought the amendment back for reconsideration and got Congressman Bart Gordon to change his vote, so the amendment failed. Mr. Obama and his staff need to understand that those Catholics who voted for Obama in 2008 but who voted for George W. Bush in 2004 were the decisive swing votes, and that they can swing back. Mr. Obama and his staff need to know that all their appeals for common ground on abortion will go out the window if Waxman and his ilk succeed in sneaking abortion coverage into the health care reform bill. I do not have any special insight into the internal deliberations of the White House staff. The President himself was pretty clear in an interview last week that he expected the health care reform to be neutral on the abortion issue. If that is the case, and no one from his staff called Waxman to object to the re-vote or called Gordon to tell him to stick to his guns, well, that qualifies as "B-level" work in my book.
Mr. President, please listen to those of us who want to support your efforts to enact health care reform, who applaud putting diplomacy at the center of our foreign policy, who commend you for taking on Wall Street and coming to the aid of the auto industry, who are thrilled about Cap & Trade legislation finally moving through Congress but who will not be able to continue to support your administration unless you ensure that no end-run around the Hyde Amendment occurs as part of the health care reform. We want to support you. We worry that some in your administration may not be telling you the depth of our concern or who, for whatever reason, have failed to suggest a simple means of resolving the issue, namely, permitting insurance companies to sell riders for abortion coverage that are paid for by the consumer not the government. Indeed, we worry that some members of your administration would prefer to see the Hyde Amendment overturned.
The swing vote is already precarious in states like Ohio and Michigan which have been hit hard by the recession. If the Hyde Amendment is effectively overturned, those Catholics and evangelical Christians who gave you the benefit of the doubt on the abortion issue because you promised to seek common ground will bolt in 2010 and 2012 and beyond. It is not a large slice of the electorate, but it is a decisive slice. Tell whoever failed to call Waxman that B-level work is not acceptable at this time.