Waiting to Be Stimulated

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Now we've got a stimulus package about to land on the president's desk, so you can finally move on to something more exciting, like watching the mold grow on your two-week-old leftover lasagna in the fridge. Did it move? Quick, share the newfound life with your roommate.

Obama's first at-bat in Congress wasn't a strikeout, but it was closer to a weak ground-ball single to left field. He let Congressional Democrats write up a kitchen sink-style stimulus package that was sure to set the stage for a deep partisan split, then sat back for a while to see if inviting a few Republicans to cocktail hour might get them to waver. They didn't. At least, not much. Love them or hate them, Republicans know how to circle the wagons and cry "liberal attack." They won the media war on the stimulus bill, and Obama-the only commander-in-chief in history with a hint of abs when he takes his shirt off-should OWN the media war. Obama countered earlier this week with a rally of his own, but polling on the stimulus package is barely over the 50 percent hump.

Is this the death of Obama's "new Washington" idea, where Democrats and Republicans join together and hold joint bake sales in the Capitol cafeteria? Not yet, my friends. There may be hope in something the pundits are calling the "gang system."

Capitol Hill gangs are roving bands of moderates from both parties. In the past they've swooped in to save the day (see the Gang of 14, circa 2005), but then its members disband and slink back to their party corners. But maybe this year the gang sticks around for coffee and then some members invite a few others upstairs to watch football and order pizza. Then a spontaneous game of strip Twister breaks out (not recommended for senior citizens). You get the picture.

We don't need a lovefest between Democrats and Republicans for the next four years, we just need 10 on each side to agree on a few things once in a while. After the stiff opposition by all but three Republicans to the stimulus package, this scenario seems more distant. Obama can no longer pretend that he will "change the way things are done in Washington." On the other hand, he may have a shot at handing out enough sugar cubes to moderates to get most of his policies enacted. Not as sexy as the campaign rhetoric, but we'll take it.

What you've seen with the stimulus bill will play out several more times in Obama's first term. Health care, emissions standards, education reform-the dynamics in Congress won't change on these major policy reforms, if they ever do make it onto the legislative radar.

The current Gang in the Middle is fragile, of course. Each member is pulled in ten different directions. They don't have cool uniforms, and they're lousy at intimidating the neighborhood kids by hanging out on the corner. But they all share a common politician's desire: to take credit, and be remembered for something. You gain credit only by voting on the winning side of things and brokering deals between parties. The gang is in a perfect position to do both, and they know it. If a U.S. Senator sees her friend getting credit, she's asking directions to the bandwagon so she can get credit, too.

Obama's strength, among many, is the malleability of his image. For the politically ignorant, he's an iconic figure and a good logo for T-shirts. For political junkies, he's either the second coming of FDR or the socialist anti-Christ bringing doom to America as we know it. Ultimately, though, we just need a leader, not a messiah who does it all. Some people assumed from his incredible campaign and election that a few of his rallying speeches would be all that's needed to whip things back into shape.

It's the Gang that will push major bills through, and those bills will be more centrist than your average latte-liberal Berkeleyan would like. There are plenty of Democrats who would be happy to give the Scalia a salute to the other side and pass whatever they please-they're already licking their chops over a possible third consecutive sweep in 2010, reaching the 60-vote platform outright. But this understandable impulse is short-sighted.

Obama's strategy should be to grow the Gang in the Middle from its current paltry three Republican votes to something substantial, like 10. This is a lot harder than it sounds, as he found out this past month. But yes, he can.


Form your own Gang in the Middle with Josh at [email protected]

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