From 1991 to 2005, the Atlanta Braves won every division title but just a single World Series. A common refrain then was that, in baseball, you build a team one way for the 162-game regular season and another way for the shorter playoff rounds. The Braves, built perfectly for April to September, had flaws come October.
We may have reached a comparable point in politics.
Since 2000, Americans have elected two men as president who were very talented at campaigning and connecting with voters but far less effective at selling their biggest ideas once in office.
George W. Bush’s proposals to transform Social Security died quickly and rather quietly, and he managed only to expand the spiraling Medicare. Barack Obama got further with his health care plan, but that proposal appears ready for burial beside labor-union “card check” and cap and trade.
Personality, it turns out, helps only so much once it’s time to govern. More than that, the decision between Candidate A and Candidate B may be binary, but shaping policies that affect more than 300 million people is not.
Now, a week after Democrats lost their 60th Senate vote, Obama faces calls from some members of his own party to take health reform in smaller chunks.
“Think small” is also the advice coming from the right. Ross Douthat of The New York Times says liberals created a federal government “too big to reform” and recommends that policymakers embrace fixes that reflect “modesty, simplicity and incrementalism.”
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander likewise counsels his fellow Republicans to go “step-by-step in the right direction to solve problems in a way that re-earns the trust of the American people.”
They’re right. To make a solution “comprehensive” is, in our nation of competing and entrenched interests, to render it unworkable.
But can you win an election with a 12-step approach to reform? That won’t fit in a Tweet, much less on a bumper sticker.
Getting back to our baseball analogy, voters reward candidates who swing for the fences — even if governing is more akin to “small ball,” where it takes two or three plays to score. You just don’t see that many home runs in politics.
Consider Albert Pujols. The St. Louis Cardinals’ first baseman is the best hitter in baseball. He hit 47 home runs last year. But to do so, he went to bat 700 times and saw 2,690 pitches.
In baseball, that rate of success makes you an MVP. In real life, not so much.
So, we need to think small. Let’s also think backward.
Part of the reason that government has become too big to reform is that we tend to “solve” problems by adding new laws, new regulations, new programs on top of the old failed ones.
Here, let’s change metaphors from baseball to something else familiar to Americans — heart attacks.
In so many problematic areas — health care, education, the financial and housing markets — our problems are the result of bad policy after bad policy, like plaque building up in an artery.
We go to the doctor, and the doctor essentially prescribes a bacon double cheeseburger: still more bad policy on top of the old ones.
We don’t need to replace one unresponsive health care bureaucracy with another one; we need to remove some of the government-imposed barriers to a functioning market. We don’t need to codify “too big to fail” by charging banks for their taxpayer guarantee; we need to unwind the steps we took that made them so unwieldy.
The public servants willing to work slowly backward are the ones to lead us boldly forward.