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Democratic disappointment

It was not supposed to be this way.

The power of the president, Richard Neustadt wrote half a century ago, is the power to persuade -- sometimes with a carrot, sometimes with a stick, sometimes (as President Ronald Reagan did so well) by getting the country behind him, sometimes (as President Lyndon Johnson did) just by wearing his opponents down.

I have no doubt that the president tried all of those things. Tried, but did not succeed.

What Democrats are saying privately bears almost no relationship to what is being said publicly. Publicly, most people are biting their tongues, falling in line, swallowing their disappointment. Privately, it's a different thing entirely. From labor leaders to old-fashioned organizers, from bundlers of big money to people in the line at the market, there is anger and bewilderment and, most of all, disappointment.

How did we end up with such a bad deal? How did we end up with a plan that appeases Wall Street (by averting a default) and Republican stalwarts (by cutting into the safety net and those who provide that safety net), but fails to provide any balance in terms of increased revenue, not even loophole-closing, much less asking the rich to share in the sacrifice?

Vice President Biden is comparing the tea party to terrorists, complaining that the White House was forced to negotiate with a gun held to its head. Help me on that one. I thought we weren't supposed to negotiate with terrorists. I thought that once you did, you would be forever vulnerable. What am I missing?

What I don't understand is how we managed to get from Jan. 20, 2009, to this point; how the president lost the ability to persuade, cajole, use both the carrot and the stick. How did he manage to push health care through and now find himself unable to get a balanced deal? How did he end up being the one who had to say "chicken" to a lousy deal?

Oh, I know. Count the beans. There are fewer Democratic votes in the House. He needed Republicans to win. But last time I checked, the tea party didn't command a majority in the House or in the country. So why, bottom line, did it win?

Every president moves to the middle before an election. That's textbook. If you own the middle -- and the center is not fixed, by any means -- you win. But before you can move to the middle, you need to cement your base. Right now, liberals are restless.

Those Democrats who are willing to write off the next election -- and make no mistake, there are more than whispers -- are unduly pessimistic. In order to win the nomination, the Republicans will all be moving rightward, and they will do so in a way that cannot be shaded. If the Democrats have to negotiate with the "terrorists" of the tea party, the Republicans have to do more: They have to join ranks, leaving them further from the middle than the president is.

For Democrats right now, the biggest thing we have to fear is our own despair. The worst thing that could happen to an incumbent president is a primary challenge. The more serious the challenge, the more likely he is to lose. And yes, the weaker he is, the more likely he is to be challenged. Vicious circles are like that. The best hope is to break them.

This is just one of those times. Hopefully, there won't be too many more. There is, after all, only so much disappointment folks can swallow before they lose the hope that brought us together.

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