Peggy Noonan — who's become more readable now that she's shaken off a lot of the "Obama's a great man of history" pollen from her shawl — has penned an interesting column in this week's Wall Street Journal. Her theme is whether Obama will learn humility from the ongoing health care disaster.
Noonan sets up her thesis by noting correctly that Obama's political strategy to get this through has failed — more than that, it has backfired horribly.
Health care as a subject is extraordinarily sticky, messy and confusing. It's inherently complicated, and it's personal. There are land mines all over the place. Don't make the mistake the Clintons made and create a plan that gets picked apart, shot down, and injures the standing of the president. Instead, push it off on Congress. Let them come up with a dozen plans. It will keep them busy. It will convince them yet again of their importance and autonomy. It will allow them to vent, and perhaps even exhaust, their animal spirits. Various items and elements within each bill will get picked off by the public. Fine, that's to be expected. The bills may in fact yield a target-rich environment. Fine again. Maybe health care's foes will get lost in the din and run out of ammo. Maybe they'll exhaust their animal spirits, too.
Summer will pass, the fight confined to the public versus Congress. And at the end, in the fall, the beauty part: The president swoops in and saves the day, forcing together an ultimate and more moderate plan that doesn't contain the more controversial elements but does constitute a successful first step toward universal health care.
That's not what happened.
No. That's not what happened, but it's feasible to believe this is the strategy old Clinton hand Rahm Emanuel intended. Trouble is, he and his political team didn't seem to account for Obama's unfounded confidence in his rhetorical talents — and his stubbornness in employing them.
Sure, when Obama's speaking about gauzy concepts like "hope" and "change," he's gold. But by inserting himself into the details-filled health care debate so personally, he turned himself into a salesman of rotten sausage. Though individual members of Congress were being read the riot act about the details in the various health care schemes, Obama made himself the embodiment of the whole bloody mess in the national psyche.
When the contentious townhall is over, Arlen Specter and John Dingell can walk out of the local community center, head on home and pretend it didn't happen — and cancel Thursday's townhall. Obama doesn't have that luxury. He has to — or, more accurately, has chosen to — defend the details of several plans he didn't even write every single day. It's hard to imagine a political and rhetorical strategy more doomed for failure than that.
So, back to Noonan. Among many great points she makes — including how Clinton and the country were blessed by the Gingrich-led Republican revolution in Congress — Noonan is sadly and typically naive. She imagines a world in which Obama will become as humble as JFK after the Bay of Pigs debacle.
In a more beautiful world, the whole health-care chapter could become, for the president, that helpful thing, the teachable moment. The president the past month has been taught a lot by the American people. It's all there in the polls. He could still step back, rethink, say it didn't work, promise to return with something better.
When presidents make clear, with modesty and even some chagrin, that they have made a mistake but that they've learned a lesson and won't be making it again, the American people tend to respond with sympathy. It is our tradition and our impulse.
Such admissions are not a sign of weakness. John F. Kennedy knew this after the Bay of Pigs. He didn't blame his Republican predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, or the agencies that had begun the invasion's tentative planning under Ike. JFK made it clear he'd learned a great deal, which increased confidence in his leadership. His personal popularity rose so high that he later wryly noted that the more mistakes he made, the more popular he became.
I suspect the American people would appreciate seeing Barack Obama learn from this, and keep going.
Oh, Obama will keep going all right. But I doubt it will be with the humility and modesty that turned JFK's presidency around. Audacity defines this president, not humility. And in assessing today's Democratic political dynamic in Washington, Noonan certainly has this right:
It's not especially pleasurable to see history held hostage to ideological vanity, but it's not the first time. And if they keep it up, they'll help solve the president's problem. He'll have a Republican congress soon enough.
We can only hope.