Published in the New York Post on November 4, 2010
Now that President Obama has experienced the same baptism of fire as President Bill Clinton did in the 1994 midterm elections, the obvious question is: Will he move to the center in a bid to save his presidency and win re-election?
The move worked well for Clinton: He sought to combine the best aspects of each party’s program in a third approach that became known as triangulation.
But Obama won’t follow suit because he can’t, even if he wants to. Today’s issues are different from those that separated the parties in 1994 and don’t lend themselves to common ground.
Obama’s programs have been so far-reaching and fundamental that any compromise would leave the nation far to the left of where it’s always been and wants to be. When he took office, government (federal, state and local combined) controlled 35 percent of the US economy — 15th among the two-dozen advanced countries. Now, it controls 44.7 percent, ranking us 7th, ahead of Germany and Britain. So where’s the compromise — leave government in control of, say, 40 percent?
Add the overriding need for sharp deficit reduction, to bring down the debt before it strangles our economy.
Republicans are pushing to begin this by rolling back spending to pre-Obama levels. The alternative would be to raise taxes to pay the bills run up by the Democratic Congress that the voters just repudiated. Yet even partly covering that tab would lock in a government that big — hoarding capital, pouncing on all available credit and taking away such a major portion of national income — would be anathema to our free-enterprise system.
Yet a zero tax-hike policy will require budget cuts that Obama and the left will find unacceptable.
Even with some tax hikes, the slashes in social spending needed to start reducing the debt will also preclude a search for middle ground.
What triangulation is possible on health care? The fundamental building block of Obama’s program is the individual mandate to buy insurance. Absent that, all that’s left is a consumer-protection bill that limits insurance-company practices. Yet the mandate can’t be scaled back but still preserved: It’s either in place or it isn’t. There’s no middle ground.
On “cap and trade,” the other major pillar of Obama’s secular temple, either we tax carbon, or we don’t. The left will deride any program without coercion or tax increases (even though the evidence suggests that voluntary measures are bringing down our carbon emissions nicely). Again, faced with a choice between a tax and no tax, there’s no middle ground.
We can easily see how far Obama has moved off the center of gravity of the American people by measuring his losses in the House. If Republicans stick to their principles and pass their programs in the House, they’ll set forth an agenda that the nation can follow. If they compromise to suit Obama’s big-government objectives, they’ll muddy the waters, antagonize their energetic base and provide no clear alternative to his socialism.
It’s time for bold, clear contrasts. It’s not 1994.