How could such smart people do so many stupid things? That question, or variations on it, is being asked in Washington and around the country about the Obama administration.
The same people who directed the campaign that defeated Hillary Clinton and routed John McCain, a campaign that raised far more money and attracted far more volunteers than any before it, have within a year come up with a legislative program that is crashing in ruins and that, to judge from recent polls, has left the Democratic Party weaker than I have seen it in almost 50 years of closely following politics.
The 2008 campaign was an impressive achievement. So, in a negative way, is the 2009 legislative program that has left the Democrats in such woeful shape in 2010.
Some in Washington say that the problem is that Barack Obama has chosen to rely on his campaign staff rather than the wise old heads in Washington. But Obama and his team has had the benefit of advice from those wise old heads and from the smartest political strategist the Democratic Party has produced in the past half-century, Bill Clinton.
A truly wise Washington analyst, National Journal's Jonathan Rauch, says the problem is one-party government. Presidents lead better, he argues, when they are constrained by the need to get bipartisan support.
There's something to that. Obama's three predecessors all had bipartisan initiatives: the 1990 tax package for George Bush 41, NAFTA approval for Clinton, the 2001 education bill and the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit for George Bush 43. Obama has had no bipartisan initiatives of his own.
The fact that Democrats, from last July until last week, had a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate to go along with Nancy Pelosi's strong majority in the House seems to have tempted Team Obama to go the all-Democratic route on health care, cap-and-trade and fiscal policy. But even strong temptations should sometimes be resisted.
I think the problem is more basic and helps to explain why the people who put together a successful campaign have not, so far at least, provided successful governance.
Obama campaigned as someone who would rise above partisan divisions. He first attracted national attention in 2004, when our politics was a kind of culture war, by stressing what red state America and blue state America had in common. He campaigned in a similar vein in 2007 and 2008.
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