Matt Miller - The Archives
Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2008
Some "Sister Souljahs" on policy to boost Obama's crossover cred

Some liberals fret that Barack Obama is tacking to the center after his acquiescence to the Supreme Court's repeal of Washington's handgun law, his shift on telephone company immunity for cooperating with wiretaps, and his call for more faith-based social programs. But this is just the beginning; the logic of the race will shortly lead Sen. Obama to buck bigger liberal pieties on core priorities like schools, taxes and health care in order to win.

In a sense this is overdue. For all the Illinois senator's talk about reaching out to Republicans and independents, Mr. Obama's proposals have been far less challenging to conventional liberal thinking than were Bill Clinton's in 1992, when Mr. Clinton forced Democrats to overhaul their approach to such central issues as welfare, trade and crime. Mr. Obama's true audacity (and accomplishment) thus far has been to re-brand liberal goals on health care and economic security as "common sense" reforms behind which all Americans can unite.

You can't criticize Mr. Obama for not taking on antique Democratic thinking when it turned out he could win his party's nod without having to. That's just smart politics. But it won't work any longer.

As the general election takes shape, Mr. Obama now faces the one line of attack he didn't have to deal with in his long battle with Hillary Clinton: the charge that he is an extreme liberal whose tax-and-spend instincts will put America on the road to socialism. This drumbeat is already being sounded by conservative commentators who note the gap between the candidate's post-partisan rhetoric and what they dub his "redistributionist" agenda. It will become a roar from the McCain camp that Mr. Obama must silence if he's to sustain his broad appeal.

If the "too liberal" label sticks, Mr. Obama won't win. And if he doesn't demonstrate his openness to more ideologically androgynous means to achieve his goals, he won't be able to govern.

That means Mr. Obama needs three biggish ideas he can punch back with as the charges crescendo. "John McCain would have you believe I'm practically a socialist," Mr. Obama needs to be able to say with a laugh. "Well, ask yourselves this: Is a typical liberal for x, y and z?" These three proposals need to be so self-evidently a break with conventional liberal thinking and interest groups that it will instantly trump the GOP charge in the press, as well as in the eyes of independent voters and open-minded Republicans. Think of them as the policy equivalents of what Bill Clinton did when he distanced himself from the ugly racial animus of hip-hop artist Sister Souljah in 1992.

So what should Obama's three "Sister Souljahs" on policy be? Here are my candidates:
  1. A new deal for teachers. Mr. Obama knows we need to attract a new generation of teachers to the nation's poorest schools, which today recruit from the bottom third of the college class. While money isn't the only answer (prestige and working conditions also matter greatly), even conservatives admit we'll never lure the talent we need unless the earnings trajectory for teachers in high poverty schools goes well beyond today's average starting wage of around $40,000, peaking after 20 years near $80,000. But we don't need to raise teacher salaries across the board—it's the specialties (like math and science) and the toughest neighborhoods that face real crises.

    Mr. Obama should therefore go beyond vague talk of modest pay reform and offer a bold new "grand bargain" to reshape the profession. He should make a $30 billion pot of federal money available to states and districts to boost salaries in poor schools, provided the teachers unions make two key concessions. First, they have to scrap their traditional "lockstep" pay scale. In this scheme, a physics grad has to be paid the same as a phys-ed major if both have the same tenure in the classroom, and a teacher whose students make remarkable gains each year gets rewarded no differently than one whose students languish. Second, it has to be easy to fire the awful teachers that are blighting the lives of a million poor children.

    The unions will scream. But college students and younger teachers will crave the chance to earn, say, $150,000 if they excel. And smart union leaders know that something like this money-for-reform deal is the only way the public will ever invest to bolster teaching. Mr. Obama mentioned the idea of merit pay once a year ago. But the union blowback was so great that he didn't broach the subject again until a few days ago in an address to the National Education Association, when (to his credit) he stood his ground and faced some boos from his union audience as a result.

    But now that he's dipped his toe in, he can capture the public's imagination by aiming much higher, and explicitly endorsing something like the breakthrough deal being pushed by Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee, under which teachers could opt into a new pay schedule that gives them a chance to earn up to $130,000, but requires them to relinquish tenure and seniority rights as part of the bargain. A fresh Obama call for such "market-based pay" to elevate the status of teaching would be a common-sense, cost-effective way to get the teachers we need to the kids who need them most.

  2. Lower corporate taxes. Corporate tax rates in the U.S. are the second highest among developed countries. Democrats act as if these taxes are somehow a "freebie," paid by impersonal entities. But "corporations" don't pay taxes, people do. These taxes are ultimately borne by shareholders or employees. And corporate taxes help determine where multinational firms choose to locate, decisions that should be a major concern of policy makers who want to keep good jobs in the U.S. Mr. Obama has hinted he'd "consider" lowering corporate taxes at some point. Better now to say he'll make it a priority (tied to closing corporate loopholes and broadening the base) and parry liberal moans by explaining how high corporate taxes hurt American workers.

  3. Health savings accounts "done right." Liberals sensibly reject "consumer-directed health plans" loved by Republicans when these plans' high co-pays and deductibles put undue burdens on the sick and the poor. But there's a simple way to structure such plans to address these concerns while still bringing consumer incentives to bear on runaway health costs. The answer is to require such plans to limit the total medical costs a person can incur in a year to a reasonable percentage of income. By calling for annual out-of-pocket maximums to be tied explicitly to earnings, Mr. Obama would forge a new "third way" on health care, and cast himself as an innovator not beholden to the far left view that market forces should play no role in health care at all.

    Mr. Obama likes to say, "We need a president who tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear." But as a candidate he's rarely made good on this pledge. By embracing this trio of common-sense ideas that will nonetheless raise hackles among his liberal supporters, Mr. Obama can go a long way toward slipping the lefty label that could sink him.