Fittingly for a politician who represents Las Vegas, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., this week doubled down on his party's defining political bet.
From the White House to Capitol Hill, Democrats are wagering that they can sell Americans on a sweeping and in some ways unprecedented expansion of government's reach to confront both the immediate economic downturn and such long-term challenges as health care and climate change. Reid raised the ante when he pledged to incorporate into the Senate health bill an aggressive version of the public competitor to private insurance companies that liberals prize and conservatives loathe. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., prefers an even more ambitious approach.
Democratic moderates may well compel both leaders to accept more-limited variations of the public option. But even if that happens, few, if any, Republicans in either chamber are likely to support health care reform. Their unbending resistance captures the fundamental bet that Republicans are placing this year -- that they can regain power by riding a public backlash against government overreach.
On every front, the chasm is widening between the parties over Washington's proper role. In some cases, such as aid to troubled banks and automakers, President Obama has accepted new responsibilities only reluctantly. But many of his initiatives are intended to lastingly enlarge federal influence.
In the stimulus bill, Obama won massive public investment in infrastructure, education, and clean energy. He is now proposing, among other things, to limit carbon emissions, raise taxes on the wealthy, toughen financial regulation, restructure Wall Street's pay patterns, require individuals to purchase health insurance, tax high-end "Cadillac" health plans, and create that public insurance option. And all of this is occurring as the annual federal deficit, already swelled by George W. Bush's policies, has reached $1.4 trillion.
Republican Party thinking hasn't received much attention, but the GOP is moving just as aggressively to retrench government. Nearly four-fifths of House Republicans voted this April to convert Medicare into a voucher for all Americans younger than 55. Most House and Senate Republicans voted to reduce the top income-tax rate for the wealthy to 25 percent, the lowest level since 1931. Last week, the Republicans on the House Financial Services Committee voted 27-1 against establishing a Consumer Financial Protection Agency. Equally telling, even though the dispute could hand Democrats a longtime GOP House seat, Sarah Palin and other conservative icons are backing the Conservative Party candidate in next week's upstate New York congressional election, partly because they consider the Republican Party's nominee too soft on government spending.
Both parties see public discontent with Washington.
The parties have formulated inimical assessments of what Americans want from Washington one year after the financial meltdown shattered confidence in government and business. Republicans see a wave building against Big Government like the one that elected Ronald Reagan president in 1980. They point to polling results such as Gallup's recent finding that 57 percent of Americans believe that government is trying to do too much. "Democrats are really pushing the envelope on what the public is willing to accept," GOP pollster Whit Ayres insists. Republican wins in next week's New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races would cement that conviction within the GOP.
Most Democratic strategists acknowledge public anxiety about the financial bailouts, overall spending, and the deficit; it's likely that Obama will nod toward long-term deficit reduction in next year's State of the Union address. But Democrats believe that Republicans are missing Americans' support for job-creating public investments and their desire for government to defend them against powerful interests. They point to polling results like those showing majority backing for tougher financial regulation and a public competitor to private insurers.
Americans want government intervention "where they feel powerful special interests have taken advantage," says David Axelrod, Obama's senior political adviser. "When people see Republicans siding against [those policies]... it squares with a perception of them as guardians of special interests."
Both parties see public discontent with Washington. Who could miss it? But Republicans believe that Americans have concluded, Reagan-like, that "government is the problem." Democrats see something closer to the attitude that Andrew Jackson popularized in the 1820s and '30s, rage that the rich and powerful are manipulating government to their advantage.
The Reagan diagnosis argues for less government; the Jackson interpretation, for an agenda that constrains the powerful and bolsters working families. The Democrats' bet on a new burst of federal activism will ride on whether they can convince Americans that their agenda is advancing those goals, not just engorging a government that many Americans still distrust.
This article appears in the October 31, 2009, edition of National Journal Magazine.