Any notion that the Democrats' "pivot" away from health care and toward more popular programs like a jobs bill and financial sector reform was going to be easy has been rudely disproven over the 48 hours by the goings-on in the Senate, where Harry Reid torpedoed a bipartisan measure touted by Max Baucus and Chuck Grassley after complaints from liberals that the bill contained many provisions that have nothing to do with the employment situation, and may also have required compromise on other, unrelated legislation such as the estate tax.
Reid is correct on the substance of the matter, although his "partisan" version of the bill itself is something of a compromise, as it is quite small and consists overwhelmingly of tax credits. Many of the infrastructure programs, for instance, which were present in the House's bill are absent from the Senate's, although Reid has indicated that he wants to break the jobs "agenda" up into stages and they may be passed under separate cover.
So perhaps Reid is making the best of a bad situation. But this shouldn't be a bad situation for the Democrats! The jobs bill -- specifically, a $100 billion jobs bill that would consist of a combination of tax credits and infrastructure programs -- is favored 72-22 (!) by the public according to yesterday's Quinnipiac poll, including by 70 percent of independents and 49 percent of Republicans. Bloomberg polling has also found that the individual components of the bill are quite popular. And yet, in December, House Republicans unanimously opposed a bill very similar to the one that Quinnipiac described.
This should be a trap, in other words, for Republicans. If you support the bill, you necessarily make it "bipartisan", at least by the Beltway's definition of the term, since bipartisanship in the most narrow sense has nothing to do with the philosophical orientation of a bill but instead simply who votes for it. You also help the Democrats to shave a few decimal points off the unemployment rate by November. And you may be tacitly acknowledging that the stimulus bill wasn't so bad after all, since whatever label the Democrats want to put on it, a well-constructed jobs bill is indeed more stimulus. Or ... you can oppose a bill that 72 percent of the public supports (not that bloviating pundits have noticed), and risk looking like hypocrites after telling the Democrats for months that they should be more focused on the jobs picture.
Instead, Democrats seem hellbent on setting a trap for themselves, breaking up their full house to draw to two pair. Although there's a chance that Democrats could still win a few news cycles out of the debate, for the time being they've let it devolve into yet another process story while at the same time limiting their options to a menu of choices all of which seem inadequate to the scope of the program.
It seems obvious that the Democratic leadership is confused and perhaps even a bit shellshocked after the Masspocalypse. Everyone agrees that, whatever becomes of the health care bill, most of the focus in 2010 ought to be on popular programs that focus more directly on righting the economy and reforming the financial sector. But -- how exactly to do it? Is it more important to reach out to Republicans -- or to let them take their lumps and cast some unpopular votes, at the risk of triggering some process stories about trying to "muscle" legislation through? Why is the public angry -- because you haven't accomplished very much, or because they don't like the things that you've tried to accomplish? Is the public upset about the substance of the legislation you've tried to advance -- or more by the process?
Nobody, certainly including the White House, seems to be in any agreement on these points, and yet having some opinion on them is essential to forging the way forward. And honestly, it may not be as important to come up with the right answer as simply to have an answer, so that you can have some sort of coherent messaging strategy going forward.