It doesn’t seem very likely to me that it matters in the sense of genuinely being a major policy difference. In other words: I’m skeptical of the Clinton campaign talking point that this somehow proves that Obama is not really committed to major health-care reform and effective universal access to health care. Nor do I think Obama would have any difficulty changing his mind if and when he’s elected – all he has to say, when confronted with his own prior opposition, is say that new facts have come to light, and quote Keynes (when the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do?).
And yet: I wonder why the Obama campaign decided to make this a big issue. Hillary Clinton attacked Obama – hard – on this difference in their plans. The Obama campaign could have deflected. He could have said that he knew Hillary Clinton knew more than any other sitting Senator about health care and he would certainly seek her advice as President, and would hope to count on her assistance to get a bill passed through the Senate, but that he had a better track record of getting health care legislation passed in the Illinois Senate than Clinton did when she headed her health care task force. Clinton has had to run away from or against her own (or her husband’s) record on issues from Iraq to NAFTA; opposition to mandates is not even meaningfully a part of Obama’s record, so why let Clinton make an issue of it? The overall Obama campaign message is: all us Democrats basically agree on domestic policy; I (Obama) am proposing a real new start in foreign policy; plus I have better judgement than my main rival; plus I’m better at disarming the opposition; plus I’m more likely to have big coattails that can give Democrats a bigger majority to pass more legislation we like. That message seems to be working pretty well for him. I don’t see a real reason that he had to respond with his own strong attack on mandates. So why did he?
I can think of four possible reasons, with different consequences for how we should view the Obama campaign.
One possibility is that Obama genuinely thinks mandates are a bad idea, for precisely the reasons he has articulated (that it could mean putting lower-income people in temporary financial difficulties if truly enforced, and would be meaningless if not truly enforced). If that’s the case, then nobody from either side should draw many conclusions. But while this is possibly part of the reason, it is insufficient; just because you believe something doesn’t mean you have to make a big deal about it. And the Obama campaign joined the Clinton campaign in making a big deal about this.
Second, I suspect that Obama feels that you always have to return fire. Clinton attacked him on the mandate issue. It isn’t enough to respond by deflecting: you have to strike back. So he attacked her on the mandate issue. This isn’t the image that the Obama campaign has projected, but I suspect it is part of the truth. And there is a bit of a pattern of this kind of behavior. It is, in particular, the correct way of reconciling the divergent impressions of how race has played out in the campaign: the Clinton campaign initiated by trying to turn Obama’s overwhelming black support into a liability, and the Obama campaign returned fire strongly by making that tactic itself the issue, and establishing the notion that there was a pattern of behavior on the part of the Clinton campaign in this regard that put them on the defensive more generally. To the extent that a desire to return fire is part of the reason for the hard tactics over mandates, it should encourage Democrats who are worried about whether Obama will know how to deal with the “Republican noise machine.” Otherwise it shouldn’t matter.
Third, it may be that Obama is looking forward to the general election, and looking for ways to get to Hillary Clinton’s right and blunt potential GOP attacks. Obama’s record, after all, is about as left-wing as they come, across a host of issues. If he tried to outbid Clinton on health care, the GOP attack line pretty much would write itself (or so Obama may think). If, on the other hand, he can position himself as the guy who favors health-care for all (not to mention abortions for some, and minuature American flags for others) but has been critical of Hillarycare as too authoritarian, then he may be in the catbird seat for the general election. Again, I suspect this is a part of the Obama campaign’s calculation. To the extent that it is, that should again reassure Democrats worried about whether Obama is savvy enough about the overall electorate and how he needs to be positioned – though it could give pause to Democrats who subscribe to the view that this is the optimal election for full-throated liberalism to make an unabashed comeback, no positioning necessary. But this can’t be the whole story either, because Obama started on this tack much too early for general election calculations to be decisive.
Fourth, and most intriguingly to me, Obama may have felt that this line of attack would be effective in a Democratic primary. From my limited position as an occasional observer, the liberal blogosphere appears to have formed a consensus that the Obama campaign’s line of attack amounts to adopting Republican or insurance-industry talking points. You would think that attacks of that nature wouldn’t play especially well in a Democratic primary. Which would make it a stupid move on Obama’s part to make this attack. If the Obama campaign had a different read, that means they think Democratic primary voters (I suspect primarily working-class non-black Democratic primary voters) would be moved by a concern that they would be forced to buy health insurance they could not (albeit temporarily) afford. If the Obama campaign is right about that, it has significant implications for the general election – ones that the Democratic leadership class is not, I think, generally cognizant of. Bottom line: if this was a tactic designed for the primary, not just the general election, and determined based on the issue itself, not just on a desire to “hit back hard,” then that means Obama understands the (electoral) politics of health care rather differently than most Democrats. He could be wrong, in which case I’d expect him to shift course. Or he could be right – in which case there are going to be a lot of disappointed Democrats out there on this issue.