Power: WWDD?

On the one-year anniversary of Barak Obama’s inauguration, it seems timely to ask, in light of endangered health care legislation, Copenhagen, bail-outs, the surge, and the Massachusetts Senate race: what would Dubya do?  Imagine, if you will, Karl Rove advising President Obama on political strategy.  Would things be any different?

They would, in several ways. First of all, Obama would have abandoned his pledge to rise above “the partisan politics of the past,” all the while blaming Republicans for, you guessed it, destructive partisan politics. He would have declared early on that, like Dubya in January 2004, he had political capital and he was going to spend it.

But spend it on what? In spite of the talk-radio conservative rant, Obama’s more of a cautious left-centrist than a left-wing populist. Just look at who populates his cabinet: Clinton-istas. So he never would have used that political capital, that power, to push Congress to reign in Wall Street, to pass real health care reform, to provide a bold stimulus plan, or to unilaterally wind down our Middle East adventures.

But let’s imagine that Rove had his ear. What might have been? First, assuming the president wanted to play to his left-wing base, and gather up a few populist libertarians along the way, he would have guided Wall Street and the banking industry through a big back-loop (i.e. collapse). The industry was on its knees, so he could have dictated terms, and essentially re-regulated and restructured it to many smaller, more customer-centered firms. But his Clinton hold-overs, and Wall Street insiders like Tim Geithner, made sure this never happened.

Second, he would have worked on health care actively with congress, instead of farming it out to die a slow death with the Senate six.  He would have called out the tea-baggers immediately as health insurance corporate shills, keeping this fringe group small, and knowing that he would never win them over anyway.  Dubya did the same with the left wing.  His strategy: if you aren’t with us, you’re with the terrorists.  Obama could have employed this approach with “birthers”as well.  Certainly Rove would have had his boss questioning the patriotism of people who so virulently attacked their president.

As for the Middle East, Obama has essentially continued Bush’s policies out of political necessity.  But he probably could have batted at least .333 on the three big Middle East issues: Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. The easiest course would have been to immediately and irrevocably shut down Guantanamo and challenge “torture-lovers” to stop him. The former two problems are just a bit more intractable.

On climate change, Rove would have accelerated the EPA ruling on CO2, forcing congress’s hand on climate change.  And you can be sure he would have lit a fire under Martha Coakley’s rear end to campaign wire-to-wire instead of taking three weeks off for the Christmas holidays.  Rove also would have been spending a lot of time in Virginia and New Jersey, shoring up those gubernatorial races. If Rahm Emanuel tried all this, it sure doesn’t show.

Republicans and Democrats clearly have a different approach to attaining and using power. Democrats by their nature, have a much deeper commitment to the process of reaching consensus, with each other and with adversaries (Republicans also value consensus internally, if not the process). But Rove and Dubya understood perhaps better than the Democrats, that you can’t get much done, even by consensus, without power.

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