Success has many parents (of both sexes), and in this case needed more than one Godfather. I won’t dissent from Jonathan Chait’s praise of the President, John Judis’ kudos to pressure from grassroots Democrats, or—especially, since it flatters my Whiggish sympathies and corrects for the presidentialist bias of the press—Steve Benen’s and Mike’s (Update: and James’) emphasis on Speaker Pelosi as the colossus who bestrode the whole process.
But I’d like to single out one person who deserves more praise than he’s going to claim or is likely to get: Steve Benen himself. After Scott Brown won, Democrats’ first reaction was panic. The analogy most often drawn, though it in retrospect seems deranged to compare the loss of a Senate super-majority to the loss of both Houses, was to Clinton’s situation, and his reaction, after the Republican victories of 1994. Steve stepped in on January 20—just a day after Coakley’s loss, a full week before the State of the Union—with an alternative: “pass the damn bill,” and then amend it via reconciliation. I believe he invented the slogan, though Kevin Drum picked it up a few hours later. I know that he flogged it, immediately, relentlessly and repeatedly, through good news and bad: see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. It became proverbial. It became the popular title—and, thanks to alert fans, the easy-to-remember URL—of Steve’s pithy, powerful strategy memo making the case for moving forward. It cemented Democratic opinion around the idea that failure was not an option—and, more important, that incremental reform counted as failure.
I’ve spent a lot of time lately researching what Thomas Schelling called “focal points”: salient or obvious places to rally at, meet at, or aim towards. Focal points solve what are called coordination problems, the kind of problem that when each member of a group wants to go where a lot of other people will be going but nobody has a clear idea where that might be. There are many applications. In warfare, or politics, the main takeaway lesson is that a determined and courageous leader, regardless of whether he or she is a brilliant strategist, can by conspicuous presence and force of example make the difference between a successful attack, a panicky rout, and everything in between. In this campaign, Obama provided the rhetoric, Pelosi and her people the toughness and legislative legwork, and Andy Stern and others the grassroots pressure. But “pass the damn bill” provided the focal point: not failure, not incremental reform, but the imperfect, landmark bill that the Senate had already passed. Once that was set, and only then, incremental reform or putting off the whole process started to seem cowardly and crabbed, a strategy almost impossible for a serious Democrat to justify. Steve’s explicit and successful model was William Kristol’s 1994 memo, which made all-out-opposition into the tragically successful focal point for Republicans faced with Clinton’s health reform plan.
Had the post-1994 Clinton Point (a.k.a. the Panic Point) crystallized and become focal, I’m not sure that all the leadership and pressure in the world could have led to more than a bitter failure. The pressure might not even have been attempted. (Remember the Daley rule: “Don’t back no losers.”)
Benen’s conceptual leadership wasn’t sufficient by itself. But it was necessary. No Benen, no bill. Thanks, Steve. A lot of sick people owe their future lives to you.
Update: Ken D. (see comment below) is right to give Brian Beutler credit for bringing up the “pass the damn bill” strategy before Steve did. And another reader emailed me to say that Kevin Drum called on the House to “pass the damn bill” in this context before Steve did—in fact, on the morning of the Massachusetts election, when Coakley’s loss was a fear but not a fact. The same reader also pointed out the role of Kevin’s great graphic in spreading the idea. Though that graphic appeared in the link above, I honestly hadn’t noticed its influence in the debate or even its presence—because I almost never note anything visual, full stop (chalk it up to extreme nearsightedness, and no glasses until I was eight). But the graphic made quite an impression on normal people; now that I’ve looked, I’ve seen it everywhere. I’m a tremendous fan of Kevin’s and read his blog daily; he hereby gets big props for the slogan and the sign.
But the larger point of my post stands. It was Benen who most tenaciously pursued the idea, argued it, explained it, built a compelling strategy memo out of it, and was most responsible for making it the focal point. Since posting, I’ve had nothing but confirmation from email, other blog posts, and comments here and elsewhere about how influential Steve was. It was of course a team effort, and there were many standouts on the team. But Steve got us singing the Marseillaise.