March 27th, 2010
07:09 AM ET

Dear President Obama #432: The not so simple majority

Reporter's Note: Some of President Obama’s chief legislative victories have been won by the thinnest of margins. Which is one reason my stack of letters to the White House continues to grow thicker by the day.

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Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

A win is a win is a win. We all know that. But we all also know that some wins are better than others. A general who takes the hill but loses half of his troops in the process had better make sure that the high ground was worth it. A husband who out argues his wife by some tiny technicality is still facing a night on the sofa. And a president or political party that keeps winning legislative victories by razor thin margins is playing a dangerous game. Not merely because the stats suggest they are courting eventual failure (which they are,) but because every 51 percent victory leaves 49 percent in opposition to what was passed. And that’s not good.

We have seen so much of this kind of ruling in recent years. When Republicans roared ahead with bare majority votes, Dems were incensed. Now that you and your team are doing the same, it’s the GOP’s turn to steam…and scream.

But the country as a whole is, to borrow reality TV parlance, the biggest loser in the game of 51 percent. Such victories hardly constitute a mandate. They become exclusionary; instead of uniting the population around a cultural and political change, they embrace one side and shove the other into the wasteland. And the message to the losing side is the same: “Wait your turn. This is not your time to be Americans.”

I’m not writing about policy here. Certainly either party should fight vigorously for its beliefs and do all it can to get them passed. What I’m saying is that the more each side pushes plans that are simply incapable of winning broad support, the more those victories become pyrrhic at best; shadows of real leadership and real legislation. And the very instability of the win undermines the policy for which the party fought so hard.

Let’s think about health care reform, since it is in the headlines. At this moment, you can say that roughly half the country (more or less depending on how you figure) is doubting its effectiveness and wisdom, or vigorously searching for ways to resist, circumvent, or even dismantle it. Unless sizeable numbers of those folks get on board and support this plan, how effective do you really think it can be?

If doctors say, “We are too overtaxed and we can’t take the extra patients;” if employers say “The hidden costs are too frightening, so I’d better cut my staff;” if voters say “The Dems made a mess of this, we’d better throw them out and let the Republicans repeal it;” if any of those things happen, it could completely destroy your calculations on how this might work. And if that happens, what will we gain as a country except heartache, lost time, and lost money?

For all the calls from both sides of the aisle for more honest brokering of agreements, more bipartisanship, more united effort in the United States, the temptation to accept a 51 percent solution is eroding even the best intentions. Is it much harder to win bipartisan victories with larger margins? Of course it is, but real leaders know that great generals do not merely give orders. They inspire confidence. They lead armies in which the soldiers want to follow. Napoleon’s power did not lie solely in his strategic genius. It rested in the overwhelming faith and loyalty he inspired in the Grand Army of France. That’s not a 51 percent quality.

We speak too easily in American politics these days of landslides and mandates when votes produce mere 56 percent victories or the like. It’s a lie. Those are neither landslides nor mandates, and the major parties are doing a disservice to us all by making such claims. Then they turn around and say, “Well it is just too hard today to win by 65 percent. And 70 percent, or 80 percent? That will never happen.”

They are right. As long as both parties keep finagling to grab tiny, technical wins that too often include rampant nose-thumbing at the 49 percent on the down side, we are poisoning our chances for genuine victories that bring us all together for our common good.

The party that rises above 51 percent and says, “We must not settle. We must not declare a victory until we have unequivocal, and broad majorities of support in both the Congress and the electorate,” will emerge as the real winning party in this century.

Unfortunately, I don’t see either side showing much interest in that these days.

Sorry to be such a downer on a Saturday, but you know what my mom always told me, “All sunshine and no rain makes a desert.” I’m around, running a lot of errands today, so use my cell if you need to call. I told you that I accidentally destroyed it again? Well, I have the replacement now.



Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Wendy Gray

    Don't I remember Obama saying he wouldn't settle for a 50+1 majority to pass health care?

    March 27, 2010 at 4:45 pm |
  2. Carolyn

    But the country is almost evenly divided on everything. Back in 2000, Bush and Gore were so even that the outcome is still disputed. Most polls come out ridiculously close. So, how can you expect legislation to pass in any other way??

    March 27, 2010 at 4:20 pm |
  3. Ratna, New York, NY

    Dear Tom,

    The heath care system was set up in a certain way that it depended on the a consumer-provider system: only those who can afford health care got it!

    But then the system of Health Insurance companies made it possible to ease access to health care and that the provider gets paid.

    now we are facing episodes of increase in chronic conditions and some acute pandemic threats world wide.

    But now we can't jump to a system that everybody gets access to health care and then keep the premiums high.

    Adjustments have been made.

    This is a historical moment.

    I am not intimidated!!!!

    March 27, 2010 at 1:24 pm |
  4. Mike Donovan from Canada

    you write "if doctors say ... If employers say ... if voters say ..." Do they ALL say that ? No – you should write "SOME doctors say ..." And how many doctors , employers and voters are really saying this (complaining about HCR) ? Probably much less than 51% .

    March 27, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  5. Shane

    Tom, being so insightful and all knowing about the failure of not having a significant majority (let's remember the lack of majority for both of Bush's terms), how do work and garner Republican support when their strategy is to vote "no" on everthing (including bills they previously sponsored)! Republican's are not willing to work with Democrats on legislation, unless the bill consists of all their points and contains no Demcratoc ideas.

    March 27, 2010 at 10:56 am |

    Well said. 65% needs to be the winning point, not 51%.

    March 27, 2010 at 10:20 am |
  7. Robert Salvin

    That just sounds like the polite sour grapes of someone who is restrained enough to know not to throw bricks.

    March 27, 2010 at 10:06 am |
  8. giancarlo

    i would make a long,very long speach,but this is for more quiet periods.My thought?Let's pass green policy bill and then MR President will say(i think) 'Hey we are here to make a better country,i made what i promised,now every proposal to help the economy is well accepted from every side'.

    March 27, 2010 at 9:22 am |