Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Failure Wasn't Obama's

You can't miss the hand-wringing: Obama once again gave away too much, Obama could have cut a better deal, Obama governs as a moderate conservative.... And there's truth to all of that. But still, we're speaking of legislation. Remind me again, how many votes does the President get when a bill is being considered by the House or Senate? If a better bill was out there, where is it? I don't even recall one being advanced by a majority of the Senate - sure, such a bill would have been subject to a filibuster, but wouldn't it have been helpful had the Democrats put together a sane, solid proposal and announced to the world, "Here's the wonderful bill you could have if only John Boehner could get his Tea Partiers under control." Even after the deal was struck Boehner had to scramble to keep them in line. Two meetings to convince the inmates that even if they run the asylum, it's best not to make that fact too obvious.

Where does the Democratic Party stand? That has been a fair question throughout Obama's Presidency and the answer has too often been, "In the path of the President's agenda." Obama has been politically cautious from the start, seeming hesitant to even speak publicly on an issue that is before Congress unless he is apt to receive a favorable vote. That is not something that particularly distinguishes himself from his predecessors, and you can see from Bill Clinton's experience with healthcare reform or G.W.'s experience attempting to partially privatize Social Security how much damage a President can do to himself if he takes a strong position and can't obtain support for his agenda even from his own party. Obama thought he had his party's support for healthcare reform, something that has been on the Democratic agenda for decades, something that Republicans feared could devastate their future at the polls, something that had been discussed and debated to death. He made some ugly up-front deals to get the major special interest groups out of the way, turned to his party and said, in effect, "Now produce a bill," and... Congress, in particular the Senate, bungled it.

Thanks to delays resulting in no small part from ineffective Senate leadership, the bill almost died in the face of an onslaught of Republican misinformation and demagoguery, and even after that it almost died due to the huge giveaways demanded by a handful of self-serving Senators. Had Senators Nelson, Lieberman, Landrieu and their ilk been willing to set aside their self-interest, can anybody dispute that we would have had a better bill? By a similar measure, had the Blue Dogs been willing to act responsibly as legislators, rather than echoing Republican talking points, voting against the bill and even running against the bill, could they not have supported the legislation while explaining to their constituents how they made it a better bill through their demands and contributions? After all, fat lot of good it did them to brag about voting against their party and President.

The same is true for the stimulus bill. For energy policy and climate change legislation. For immigration. The Democratic Congress had ample opportunity to put together and pass meaningful reform bills, but instead watered down the stimulus, sold out on healthcare reform, and got all wobbly in the knees about passing any other significant legislation. Their well-known reward was the loss of control of the House and coming close to losing control of the Senate. Good job.

So imagine you're the President and assume that, like most politicians, you wake up in the morning and ask yourself, "What do I have to do to get reelected?" Do you say, "I'll do the same thing I did with stimulus and healthcare reform legislation, back when my party controlled both chambers of Congress, and help my party put together a bill that my own party will insist be watered down, and even assuming I can get a bill with majority support in the Senate ignore the fact that any bill with the Democratic imprimatur will be rejected out-of-hand by the Republican-controlled House and filibustered by Senate Republicans?" Or do you take a look at the political environment, the near-useless media coverage, and your own party's internal divisions and say, "The people say they want a balanced budget, the people say they want government cuts, opinion polls show that a ridiculous number of people believe that government spending causes unemployment to rise. My party can't put together a progressive bill, or even a mediocre bill that would pass in the House. I can work with the Republicans, get a bill that will pass, prevent the economic catastrophe of default, legitimately claim to have engineered a bipartisan compromise, and get a deal that I can point to in the next election to say, 'I'm the adult in the room who's working to balance the budget.'" (Now imagine on top of that, that you personally believe in the virtues of leaner government and a balanced budget.)

Listen to the leaders for the Republican nomination yammer about this vote and you get a good sense of the pathetic state of political media coverage in this country. The Republicans most likely to win the nomination assume that the voters are politically ignorant, speak to them in a manner that an informed voter should find offensive, and expect their demagoguery to carry them into the White House. Yes, the argument can be made that the President could do more to educate the public and attempt to lead opinion, but the reality is a bit different. The President has no chance of winning over the Tea Partiers or making a significant dent in Republican opinions, and the media already knows the true story. The President might try to convince those within his party to support more progressive legislation but that's apt to earn him the same type of criticism from the left that he's received on pretty much every piece of legislation he's signed, not actually get him any more votes for his legislation within his party, and will do nothing to change the fact that the Republicans control the House and can filibuster in the Senate.

The roots of this bill lie in the Democratic Party's perception that their 2008 victory was their opportunity to cash in, as opposed to an opportunity to govern responsibly and pass important legislation. Speaking cynically, that's about what you would expect from politicians. But you might have thought that the Democratic Party would have some memory of how it behaved during the first two years of Clinton's Presidency and how Clinton, having barely survived, became a cautious poll-watcher and triangulator who fastidiously avoided thorny issues for the remainder of his Presidency. They say that those who don't know history are destined to repeat it, but what does it say about you when you do know the history and choose to repeat it?

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