They’re not mutually exclusive

THEY’RE NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE…. Michael Tomasky has a good piece in the Guardian this morning, arguing that President Obama’s success on the stimulus package is a “triumph” and “an enormous political victory for Obama.” Tomasky has heard the concerns about what transpired last week, but he’s not buying the arguments.

Well, it’s already happened. Barely two weeks into the job and President Barack Obama has compromised fundamental principles, timorously caved in to Republicans and conservative Democrats in the Senate and lost control of his agenda.

Or … wait. Maybe it’s the case that, a mere two weeks into the job, President Obama has already changed the country’s direction in remarkable ways. He’s on the verge of a massive political victory when the Senate passes the stimulus package tomorrow, as expected, and the Republicans are apoplectic and divided and intellectually bankrupt.

Which is it? Friends, I usher you on a tour of the liberal mind.

As Tomasky sees it, liberals are “happy being unhappy,” and have “a general tendency to accentuate the negative.” But I think this is a misread of the progressive reaction to the stimulus debate.

I, for example, am pleased that the bill is likely to pass and I’m disappointed by what transpired. The problem isn’t that Obama “compromised fundamental principles,” it’s that Sens. Collins, Nelson, Lieberman, and others made a good bill worse; the economy needed more; and the White House strategy miscalculated the Republican lawmakers’ capacity for responsible behavior.

Paul Krugman makes the compelling case today that Obama’s drive to pass a bill with Republican support got the debate off on the wrong foot, and led to a weaker package: “…Obama was reduced to bargaining for the votes of those centrists. And the centrists, predictably, extracted a pound of flesh — not, as far as anyone can tell, based on any coherent economic argument, but simply to demonstrate their centrist mojo. They probably would have demanded that $100 billion or so be cut from anything Mr. Obama proposed; by coming in with such a low initial bid, the president guaranteed that the final deal would be much too small. Such are the perils of negotiating with yourself.”

Tomasky’s point is well taken, but the criticism isn’t directed at Obama for having “caved”; it’s that he positioned a handful of Republicans to hold the bill hostage until they made it worse.

To be sure, if the legislation progresses and reaches the president’s desk quickly, there will be reason to cheer. But it’s also worth taking lessons from this process and applying them to future debates. The efficacy of legislation has to be a higher priority than the percentage of Republicans willing to support it.

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