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Obama needs to move to the center

Posted: Wednesday, January 27, 2010

It will take a while for the Democrats to sort out what happened to them last week.

Some haven't gotten the message. Their agenda has died, but they're stuck in the first stage of grief: anger. Some cry "Double down!" They want to ignore the Massachusetts shock wave - the election of Republican Scott Brown in one of the nation's most liberal states. They want to ram through the health care bill, no matter what the political consequences.

But more reasoned voices were soon heard. Senate Democrats pledged not to take any more health care votes until Brown is seated. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts cautioned against any full-speed-ahead approach, and said "electoral results have to be respected."

Lanny Davis, a former aide to President Clinton, wrote that Republicans had successfully "stamped on the Democratic Party the perception that we stand for big government, higher taxes and health insecurity when it comes to Medicare."

Sorry, but the Democrats stamped that on themselves. It would be hard to find in recent history a more perfect example of overreaching than what we've seen in the past year.

The most important trends in the economy and society in recent decades have shared the common theme of decentralization - an evolution from big units to smaller units, away from the giganticism of the immediate post World War II era.

An economy once based on massive, centrally controlled, vertically integrated manufacturing industries has been broken up and a new information and service economy has taken its place. The personal computer swept away the mainframe, and the Internet steadily moved power - in the form of information - to individuals.

Against this tide, the Democrats sought to resurrect the big-government liberalism of the 1960s.

The House and Senate labored for months on giant bills faithfully replicating the top-down, centralized-power mentality of the bad old days of LBJ: We're the government. We'll tell you what health care plans are "acceptable." Never mind what it costs or the long-term implications. Pass the bill now and fix the problems later.

Health care played a dominant role in the Massachusetts election, but it was by no means the only important issue. What happened Tuesday was a classic backlash from voters frightened by runaway spending and the prospect of a huge, permanent increase in the size and intrusiveness of government.

Scott Brown's acceptance speech was loaded with zingers that perfectly channeled the anger of independents, many of whom were fed up after a year that included an impotent, ruinously expensive stimulus package; a job-killing cap-and-trade bill; and the frivolous treatment of security concerns, aptly captured by Brown when he said: "In dealing with terrorists, our tax dollars should pay for weapons to stop them, not lawyers to defend them."

In the immediate aftermath of the election, the Obama White House seemed reluctant to make major adjustments in the president's agenda. Incredibly, Obama continued to blame George Bush. He told ABC News that people are angry not only because of "what's happened in the last year or two years, but what's happened over the last eight years."

On health care reform, David Axelrod signaled that Obama wants to press on. Walking away, he said, "is not an option."

The key to Obama's victory in 2008 was his success in drawing independent voters. But as The Wall Street Journal's Gerald Seib noted, Obama and his crew failed to realize they didn't own those voters. They were only "renting" them.

Last Tuesday, the lease ran out. It's time for Obama to hit the "reset" button, and do what he said he'd do in the campaign: govern from the center.

• E. Thomas McClanahan is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board.



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