When playing chess, there often comes a time toward the end of the game when the outcome is preordained, even though the final moves have yet to be made. The positions of the pieces, and the relative strengths between the two sides are such that no combination of moves can prevent one of the players from winning the game. When both of the players are very experienced, the player in the winning position will often say “Mate in X moves”. This is a signal to the losing player to examine the board and see that the other player does indeed have a path to checkmate that cannot be blocked. Usually, the losing player will then “tip the King” to surrender the game, saving everyone time.
When players are of unequal experience, this often becomes a teaching exercise. The more experienced player will declare that checkmate is imminent, but the losing player doesn’t see how that is possible. The game then continues, with the loser learning a valuable lesson about end game strategies.
Obama’s Healthcare bill in Congress reached a point yesterday where the outcome is preordained, however as an inexperienced player, he is continuing to play the game, not yet realizing that he cannot win.
As I wrote last week, Obama has a bad hand to play here (my apologies for mixing metaphors). He expended his political capital on the stimulus, but did not use it when he had it to pass healthcare. Instead he waited until the political fallout from the stimulus began to erode his public support, and has been trying to hurry through a bill before it eroded further. This has resulted in a legislative game where the quality of the bill is irrelevant, only the speed at which something must pass matters. The irony is that with a 72 seat majority in the House and a 20 seat majority in the Senate, he still can’t get a piece of legislation that will pass in Congress.
On Tuesday, the outcome was still in doubt. Both Pelosi and Reid were willing to give Obama a chance to sway public opinion in favor of the bill. They were waiting for his press conference to see if he could use his personal charm to turn public opinion in the direction of trusting him with their health. On Wednesday night, Obama turned in arguably the worst public performance of his career, even drawing criticism from usually sympathetic journalistic outlets such as the Associated Press, the New York Times and MSNBC. As Howard Fineman said:
“His prime time press conference was worse than a waste of time. He spent an hour (with the aide of a soporific White House press corps) pouring sand (one grain at a time) into the already-slowing gears of the machinery of health-care reform.”
After this debacle, Congressional leadership realized that quick passage of the legislation would be impossible without public support and announced that no vote would occur in either chamber. Today, Nancy Pelosi appears to have been pressured by the White House (Rahm Emmanuel in particular) to violate House rules and bring the bill to a House vote next week, without approval by the Energy and Commerce committee. If this does occur, it will be a pyrrhic victory, having insulted the committees in order to pass legislation that the Senate will do nothing with. It also has a strong possibility of losing, especially if public funding for abortion is not explicitly prohibited in the bill.
Regardless of what happens in the House, the Senate will go into the August recess without voting on a healthcare bill. This will send the members of congress back to their home districts, where they will meet with a firestorm of opposition. Many members of the House, especially from Republican leaning districts have been stunned by the anger they have received from constituents over the Cap & Trade vote. That is going to be minor compared to this, especially if a Blue Dog has caved and voted in the House for this bill.
Let’s look at the cratering of public support for Obama in the last year. In November, 2008 after the Presidential Election, Rasmussen’s party affiliation tracking showed identification of 41.4% Democrat, 33.8% Republican, and 24.7% Independent. The June poll reflects how that has changed since, with 38.9% Democrat, 32.2% Republican, and 28.9% Independent. This means that Independents are self identified 4% higher than in November, with a 3% loss from Democrats and 1% loss from Republicans. Yesterday’s daily Presidential tracking poll, for the first time, showed Obama support among likely voters had dropped below 50%, hitting 49%. Note that Rasmussen uses a likely voter model, where other polls use an “all adults” model, which yields a higher approval result.
It’s not just Rasmussen. If you dig into the internals of the AP/Gfk poll, which is a poll of 1007 adults, you can see an interesting shift over time. Their July poll showed a 48% Democrat vs. a 38% Republican partisan split. But if you compare it to their May poll, and dig into the internals you see that 6% moved from “Strong Democrat” to “Moderate Democrat”, and 7% went from “Independent” to “Independent-Lean Republican”. This shows a significant shift from the left toward the right.
Both of these polling firms show significant opposition to the healthcare bill. Rasmussen is showing 53% opposition to the bill. AP/Gfk (now 2 weeks old) shows a 50/43 split toward approval, but the highest category is “Strongly Disapprove” which rose from 18% to 34% in 3 months.
So what is going to happen between now and the end of the August recess? Well Obama purposely withheld the July budget report, delaying it into August. The most likely reason is that it will show the deficit growing faster than expected, with significantly reduced revenues. Additionally, we have a July and August jobs report that will hit between now and when Congress reconvenes. There is a strong possibility that unemployment is going to pass the psychological barrier of 10%, which will create a great deal of political emphasis on the economy and stimulus, making Healthcare much less important. Additionally, Obama is going to try and pressure recalcitrant Democrats to vote for his bill during the recess. Juan Williams talked to White House contacts yesterday, and found that the plan is to remind Democrats how important it is for them to support a Democrat President, and that it will affect their fund raising efforts if they continue to resist.
In other words, Obama does not plan to try and build public support for his plan. His efforts will focus solely on political pressure on other Democrats.
This is a tactic that will not work for him.
Democrat members of the House and Senate are looking at polls and their need for votes from their constituents. They see the strong recruiting efforts of the Republicans. They will need to decide which they need more, MoveOn.org’s money or votes. They are going to choose votes.
Obama also hopes to use grassroots efforts to “get them onboard”, hoping that with a strong local push, they will change their minds. But how many Acorn grassroots efforts are going to be successful in the critical districts, compared to the people that are already showing up for these townhall meetings? We haven’t even begun to mobilize tea-party efforts. The result will be a strong push against Obama’s legislative efforts within the districts due to dissatisfaction with the bill, crumbling popularity of Obama, rising economic concerns, and fear of losing reelection.
The game is over. Obama is just too inexperienced a player to realize it is time to tip his King.