How Hilary Rosen saved Barack Obama from a more damaging episode

Hilary Rosen’s snark at Ann Romney may have sent President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign reaching for the Maalox, but she may have done it a major favor. The dust-up obscured a far more dangerous burst of friendly fire, one that illustrates one of the few reliable rules of political warfare.

On Saturday, as the Sunday talk shows were readying their “war-on-mothers” programs, the New York Times published an op-ed article arguing that the Obama administration’s assertion about the cost of its health care programs was flat-out wrong. While arguing that Republican proposals “would eviscerate Medicare rather than preserve it,” the author, Steve Rattner, also charged that the administration was “double-counting’” about $1 trillion, asserting that the same trillion dollars would pay for new programs and bend the Medicare cost curve.

“The truth,” Rattner said, “is that the law will either be fully paid for or it will begin to address the Medicare problem--but not both.”

What’s eye-opening is not so much the assertion--congressional Republicans have regularly pummeled Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s secretary of health and human services, on this point—but its source. Rattner is a major Wall Street player who has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democrats, and who led the Obama administration’s so-far-successful efforts to save the American auto industry. (Yes, he was the “car czar.”)

Rattner’s article, which passed virtually unnoticed, was a striking example of what is usually one of the most significant of political events: when “your own man says so!”

I grew up in New York City, where we played highly unorganized sports: stick ball, stoop ball, and the occasional game of baseball with no adult supervision. My neighborhood was overwhelmingly Jewish, and virtually every close play ended in a heated argument. The disputes ended when one of the players conceded, “Yeah, I think our guy was out,” or “Yeah, the ball your guy hit was fair.”

“Your own man says so!” went the cry, and the game resumed (at least for a play or two).

[Related: Michelle Obama on Rosen comments: Families are off limits]

In politics, the power of this argument is most obvious when it comes to defections from a candidacy. When the New York Herald-Tribune, the semi-official voice of the east coast Republican Party, endorsed Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964, that was an unmistakable signal. So was AFL-CIO President George Meany’s refusal to support George McGovern in 1972. More recently, a number of Republican politicians (William Weld, Lincoln Chafee, Colin Powell ) and conservative intellectuals (Doug Kmieck, Francis Fukuyama, Kenneth Adelman) openly backed Barack Obama against John McCain in 2008.

When it comes to matters of policy, this rule has both durability and potency. When a number of key Congressional Democrats shunned FDR’s court-packing plan in 1937, it doomed the plan to defeat and severely wounded FDR’s congressional clout. When the Democratic Party split over the Vietnam War, LBJ’s presidency faltered. And when six Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach Richard Nixon in 1974, his fate was effectively sealed. By contrast, the all but unanimous Democratic support for Bill Clinton ensured that he would survive impeachment, and the all but unanimous Republican backing for George W. Bush’s domestic program in 2001 secured its passage despite an almost evenly divided Congress.

This history, however, comes with a cautionary note: in today’s political universe, the willingness of a “team member” to concede that the other guys have a point is something of an endangered species. At times, it appears that what we are watching is less a debate about policy and more an argument about theology. Take, for example, the supply-side argument that cutting tax rates can increase tax revenues.  Recently, Alan Viard, an economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, was quoted in the New York Times Magazine as saying: “The Reagan tax cuts, on the whole, reduced revenue ... The Bush tax cuts clearly reduced revenue. There is no dispute among economists about that.”

Will that assertion have any effect on the Republican Party’s pretense that tax cuts have no effect on the deficit? Is there any condition—war, peace, huge surpluses, huge deficits, sunshine, snowstorm—when tax cuts are not the answer? In this case, the dissents of Reagan stalwarts like the onetime budget director David Stockman and the supply-side pioneer Bruce Bartlett have had no impact whatsoever on the rhetoric of GOP leaders.

Nor does it seem likely that Democrats will head into the 2012 campaign with even a nod of recognition that the president’s most ambitious domestic initiative is viewed as seriously flawed by a prominent member of his own party who is also a former member of his administration.

I mourn the disappearance of the “your-own-man-says-so!” phenomenon. It is one more surrender to the notion that political discourse is nothing more than a battle of assertions, whose worth is measured only by volume and intensity.