Lighting a fire, intentionally or not

LIGHTING A FIRE, INTENTIONALLY OR NOT…. Perhaps the White House intended to signal a willingness to drop the public option, perhaps not. I’ve seen compelling arguments in both directions. Either way, whether intended or not, they sparked a furious response from liberals who saw more compromising than they are willing to accept.

Noam Scheiber argues, persuasively, that the aggressive pushback from the left is great news. The two dominant forces in the larger debate of late have been a malleable White House, looking for a moderate, cautious reform package, and a hysterical right, screaming about euthanasia and Nazis. This week, progressives got back in the game.

Around the conference table at TNR, we’ve been saying for weeks that what Obama really needed was a group of equally vocal, equally zealous critics on the left, pulling the debate’s center of gravity in the other direction. And, wouldn’t you know, that’s exactly what’s happened over the last 48 hours. We’ve now got a pole on the left to match the intensity of the pole on the right. (Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting a moral equivalence between the two. As far as I’m concerned, the critics on the left are basically right and the critics on the right are either insane or deeply cynical.) From a sheer tactical perspective, I think the White House and the Democratic leadership in Congress have dramatically improved their position.

The benefits arise both in the broader national debate and in the congressional negotiations. In the national debate, Obama now looks like the centrist voice of reason instead of an over-ambitious lefty (I’m caricaturing, of course, in the spirit of the cable-news coverage). Inside Congress, Obama may not get a public option, but if he doesn’t, he was never going to get it. And now he can extract a ton of concessions in return, because he can point to a left-wing of his party that’s ready to eat him alive for failing to deliver on it (whereas that left-wing outrage was largely hypothetical before now). That kind of leverage is extremely helpful.

It is, indeed.

Once in a while, when something like this happens, I’ll get emails from Obama supporters saying, “See? This guy’s a ninja playing multi-dimensional chess! He’s taking subtle steps, thinking several moves ahead! Looking at the trees, instead of the forest, obscures the genius of the larger strategy!”

To which I say, maybe. There are some pretty sharp folks in the West Wing, and it’s possible they’ve crafted a clever plan that’s coming together just as they’d hoped. But watching the developments of the last several days, I’m inclined to think it’s often better to be lucky than good.