To this point in his presidency, there are many issues on which I have felt that Obama has taken too conciliatory a stand. I wanted to see him take a harder line on the public option in the health care debate, I wanted to see him push harder for the DADT repeal, things like that. If you had asked me to name my primary complaint about Obama a few months ago, I think I would have said his tendency to seek compromise too often and too easily.
Recent events in Wisconsin have made me rethink this. As the two major parties become increasingly polarized and ideologically separated (I would argue this is due to a dramatic rightward shift in the Republican party), I expect that we will see more conflicts like that we’ve seen the last few weeks in Madison. This conflict escalated over Governor Walker’s absolute unwillingness to negotiate in good faith (or even in bad faith, really) with the Democratic senators. It’s exactly the kind of hard-headed, stick-to-your-guns approach that I had thought I wanted out of Obama for so long.
But where does this get us? Public opinion has turned pretty sharply against Walker, with 42% strongly opposing the plan and 9% somewhat opposed in a poll taken before the shenanigans Wednesday night, compared to 32% strongly in favor and 14% somewhat in favor. More notably, the Wisconsinites polled were in favor of Walker’s pursuing a compromise solution by a margin of 65% to 33%.
Now that the original bill has been railroaded through in such a questionable manner, I would be surprised if those numbers don’t turn even more sharply against Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans. This could have electoral implications as soon as April 5, when JoAnn Kloppenburg (D) challenges incumbent David Prosser (R) for the swing seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Recall petitions are already circling, and the events of the past month will certainly play a role in the next gubernatorial election (if Walker makes it that far without being recalled himself).
It would be tempting, were Democrats to regain control of the legislature or Governor’s office in Wisconsin, to attempt to reverse the damage wrought by Walker’s bill if it remains in effect. It would also be tempting for Wisconsin Democrats to give as good as they got, and pass bills that are only popular among the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.* This overreach would likely result in just another swing back to Republican control, and the cycle would start anew.
This is a recipe for utter disaster. Nothing would ever get done, and anything that might would be repealed when the next wave came through.
So maybe Obama is right to be more conciliatory than I would have liked over the past two years. I may take issue with his messaging, and his inability to show the American people how damaging the Republicans’ refusal to work with Democrats has been (remember when Democrats loaded the stimulus with tax cuts and received not a single Republican vote for it?), but I’m beginning to see that my initial reaction of “the Republicans did it to us for years, it’s our turn now” is not a viable long-term strategy. It may be good politically in the short run, but there are more important things at stake here.
This does not mean that I will stop arguing (vehemently) for those policies in which I truly believe, and trying to convince people to share my beliefs. But if our political system is going to be fixed (because I think it’s pretty clear at this point that something isn’t right with it…), it’s going to require compromise. I think Obama realizes that.
* Given the way that Democrats usually behave, I don’t really expect this to happen. But it would certainly be tempting, and I would expect there to be people calling for this in the spirit of retribution.