Permission Structure

In the president’s press conference this morning, he was asked the usual question about his inability to get deals with congressional Republicans (on the sequester specifically), and Obama made an interesting comment:

I think there are members certainly in the Senate right now and, I suspect, members in the House as well who understand that deep down, but they’re worried about their politics. It’s tough. Their base thinks that compromise with me is somehow a betrayal. They’re worried about primaries. And I understand all that. And we’re going to try to do everything we can to create a permission structure for them to be able to do what’s going to be best for the country. But it’s going to take some time.

I know a lot of progressives are under the impression that Obama is entirely naive about the nature of the contemporary Republican Party and/or shares too many of their ideological tenets. I don’t agree. But there is a problem in that the president professes to believe there’s something tangible he can do about Republican obstructionism. Last year he suggested that his own re-election might “break the fever.” That clearly didn’t happen. Now he’s talking about working to create a “permission structure” that allows Republicans to work with him without fear of “the base” or of primaries.

Good luck with that, Mr. President. I suppose “permission structure” means assembling enough conservative support, and/or framing legislation so that it addresses the concerns of “the base” (e.g., border enforcement on immigration) in a way that makes bipartisanship possible. But as we saw in the supreme example of the Affordable Care Act, even adopting conservative policy prescriptions right out of the Heritage Foundation playbook, as implemented by the man who would become the next GOP presidential nomination, didn’t prevent them from being demonized as representing the imposition of an alien “European-style” “government takeover of health care” aimed at totalitarianism and the slaughter of old people.

It’s instructive that even as Obama searches for a “permission structure” to help Republicans move along on immigration policy, fiscal issues, and perhaps gun regulation, his earlier effort on health care is in danger of being unraveled by Republican guerilla warfare aimed at its implementation, to the point where in today’s press conference Obama was reduced to boasting about the reforms that have already been implemented (which have indeed been underreported).

Perhaps the White House’s new emphasis on letting bipartisan “gangs” in Congress take the lead on the tough issues is what he means by “permission structures.” It hasn’t worked on fiscal issues so far and didn’t work on gun regulation. Maybe with immigration the third time will be the charm. But you don’t have to be one of those folk who expect Obama to magically impose his will via fiery speeches and tough-guy talk to wonder if a different strategy is in order. I’d recommend about four straight speeches about filibuster reform, followed by four straight speeches on what the sabotaging of the Affordable Care Act will actually mean for actual people. At a minimum, a Plan B to deploy if his umpteenth effort at bipartisanship fails is in order. Otherwise, there’s little reason to think anything will much change before 2017 at the soonest.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.