Simply put, legislators are rarely courageous. They're not leaders. They're followers. They don't like doing risky things. They like doing things they know are popular.Think about it. When a case emerges that puts a new twist on, say, child molestation, legislators rush forward with new laws meant to address the problem. The public will back them, and child molesters don't have a lobby.
But changing the country's healthcare system? That's big, and terrifying. It requires taking chances, doing things a new way. Legislators hate that.
In the healthcare case, we can add an ideological element to this. Democratic legislators currently in Congress now have served almost their entire careers during an age of conservative dominance. They've been trained over the course of two or three decades to hear and respond to certain dog whistles.
Lower taxes. Breathe out. Good. More regulation. Tense up. Risky. Free market. Smile. Good. Government. Clench teeth. Scary.
I'm telling you, legislators "reason" in those flash-card sequences. Then, the next thing they think of is their district or state, and they rarely think about the new votes a courageous stand might win them. Instead, they focus nervously on where they might lose votes (and local political, financial and editorial support) as a result of doing something out of the ordinary.
I found all of this pretty compelling. In fact, for most of the "centrist" Democrats who are standing in the way of meaningful, effective reform, they like Obama, they fear Republicans, lobbyists, and the 30-second ads about "socialized medicine."
Tomasky's argument, then, suggests it's time to expand the elements these Dems are afraid of, and include the popular president. It's time, Tomasky says, for Obama to show he can "scare people."
Obviously, different approaches would be needed with different senators. There's probably not too much the White House can do to scare Ben Nelson. But if the vote-counters are lining up support on, say, a genuine public option, I can imagine someone in the West Wing letting Joe Lieberman know, "The president is interested in hosting a town-hall event in Bridgeport, and he's about to tell everyone in the state to call your office." Or maybe calling Arlen Specter to mention, "Obama is going to talk about reform in Pittsburgh, and Joe Sestak might be there."
Or maybe just telling the whole caucus, "If health care drags me down, I'm dragging all of you with me."
There's still time to see how all of this plays out, but when push comes to shove, it's not too much of a stretch to think Obama might turn to his chief of staff for a few ideas on how best to scare members. When it's time to "start banging some heads," I suspect Rahm Emanuel might have a few ideas.