In November 2008, William A. Galston and Elaine C. Kamarck wrote "Change You Can Believe In Needs a Government You Can Trust," in which they threw up some red flags for the incoming Obama administration.
Despite the Democratic triumph, the two former senior Clinton advisers wrote, public distrust of government remained intensely high. Historically, it has been nearly impossible to pass major domestic reforms in the face of that kind of distrust. So, they counseled Obama to move cautiously to rebuild trust before beginning a transformational agenda.
The Obama administration had an entirely different view. It interpreted the 2008 election as a rejection of not only George W. Bush-style conservatism, but also Bill Clinton-style moderation. The country was ready for a New Deal-size change, and in Barack Obama had a leader who could inspire a transformation.
As happens every four years, hubris defeated caution, and the administration began its big-bang approach. As always, it backfired. Instead of building trust, the Democrats have magnified distrust.
The country believed Washington was out of touch. While most families were concerned about jobs, Democrats spent nine months arguing about health care. The country was tired of self-serving back-room deals, so Democrats negotiated a series of dirty deals with the drug industry, unions and some senators. Americans felt Washington didn't understand their fears and insecurities. So Democrats added another layer of insecurity by threatening to change everything at once.
Instead of building a new majority, the Democrats set off a distrust insurrection (which is not the same as a conservative insurrection). Republicans are enraged. Independents are furious. Democrats are disheartened. And voters in Massachusetts decided to send a message.
Democrats now have four bad options:
• The Heedless and Arrogant Approach. A clear majority of Americans are against the congressional health care reform plan.
Democrats could say: We know this is unpopular, but we think it is good policy and we are going to ram it through and you voters can judge us by the results.
• The Weak and Feckless Approach. Democrats could say: We have received and respect the message voters are sending. We are not going to shove the biggest social change in a generation down their throats; we are not going to concentrate immense new powers in a Washington they detest. Instead, we will regroup, reorganize, and perhaps try incremental reforms.
• The Dangerous and Demagogic Approach. This presumes that what Americans really want is a bunch of pseudopopulists to tell them they can have everything for free. This would mean stripping the health bills of anything that might be unpopular -- like Medicare cuts and tax increases -- and passing the rest regardless of the cost.
• The Incoherent and Internecine Approach. This would involve settling on no coherent policy but just blaming each other for cowardice and stupidity.
Right now, Incoherent and Internecine is winning, but the hard choice is between the first two approaches. Galston now supports Heedless and Arrogant. He believes it was a mistake to rush into health care, but that it would be suicide to turn back now. If the policy works, then public trust will follow.
I support the Weak and Feckless Approach. Trust is based on mutual respect and reciprocity. If, at this moment of rage and cynicism, the ruling class goes even further and snubs popular opinion, that will set off an ugly, destructive, and yet fully justified popular rebellion. Trust in government will be irrevocably broken.
These are the choices ahead. Have a nice day.
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE