*Their cries aren’t his problem

THEIR CRIES AREN’T HIS PROBLEM…. When Newt Gingrich criticized President Obama’s move on stem-cell research, he didn’t criticize the substance so much as the political tactics involved. The president’s announcement, the former House Speaker said, “increases the coalition which decides it has a collective interest in stopping everything.”

In other words, Obama should avoid a good idea in order to satisfy the concerns of those who already oppose everything the White House wants to do.

The Washington Post‘s Jackson Diehl made a similar argument about the president’s proposal on health care reform. As Diehl sees is, the president shouldn’t deliver on his campaign promise about raising the top marginal rate to 39.6% because it “allow[s] Republicans to raise the cries of ‘socialism’ and ‘class warfare.'”

Matt Yglesias’ response was spot on:

The problem with Obama’s health care plan is not the plan. Nor is it the proposed source of funding for the plan. Rather, it’s that the choice of proposed funding source, though Diehl doesn’t object to it on the merits, will “allow” Republicans to oppose it on the grounds of “socialism” and “class warfare.”

Really? Obama should have somehow denied them permission to criticize his plan? His plan is not, after all, “socialism” and yet failure to propose socialism has not prevented Republicans from raising the cry of “socialism.” Nor has the fact that it’s not a proposal to tax small businesses prevented Republicans from raising the cry that Obama is raising taxes on small businesses. Surely it’s the responsibility of Obama’s opponents to avoid responding to his initiatives in a hysterical manner. And if Jackson Diehl doesn’t like the hysteria, he should consider blaming the hysterics.

Quite right. Diehl’s (and Gingrich’s) thinking represents the dynamic of governing from a defensive crouch, and it comes up in the discourse with some regularity. Don’t pursue a stimulus package, Mr. President, or it might allow Republicans to call you a “big spender.” Don’t reverse Bush-era restrictions on medical science, or it might allow conservatives to organize a culture war. Don’t deliver on health care, or it might allow Republicans to make silly arguments about “socialized medicine.” Don’t deliver on the tax proposal you campaigned on, or conservatives will complain about “class warfare.”

Obviously, it makes some sense for any leader to consider what the opposition is going to say/do in response to various proposals. But this notion that the president should avoid good ideas in order to steer clear of baseless criticism is crazy. A debate over the substance of Obama’s agenda is fine; worrying about what the agenda will “allow” his critics to complain about is a recipe for inaction.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation