Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Progressive's View of Senator Brown's Election

That is, the other Senator Brown. This is about the new guy, not the one from my homestate (and indeed, hometown of Mansfield!) Ohio. But you already knew that. Unless you were living under a rock the past 24 hours, you were almost certainly aware that the voters of Massachusetts elected to the US Senate a little-known local politician instead of the Commonwealth's Attorney General. And as you probably heard since that fairly dramatic upset, this represents real trouble for both President Obama and the Democratic party as a whole, which is fairly astonishing given that Obama and his party swept into power with enormous popularity only one year ago. What seemed inconceivable only a few months ago now seems within the realm of possibility: that the Republican party, who gave us eight straight years of George W. Bush and some of the most odious policies in the history of the Republic, might return to power in the House (it is statistically impossible in the Senate, which has only 17 Democratic seats up for grabs; even if all were lost to Republicans the majority would drop to 52).

So who is responsible for this and what lessons can be drawn? First, one should dispense with some of the  nonsense uttered by some of the Democratic party establishment in Massachusetts. "Any analysis of this that does anything but celebrate Martha Coakley--her service and the efforts of this campaign--misses the boat," says Dem state party chairman John Walsh, in what has to be one of the more spectacular expressions of denial in recent years. Walsh may be trying to protect some turf in his self-serving foolishness, but nearly everyone else recognizes that this was a debacle: Brown's victory occurred in a state where the majority philosophy leans toward the Democratic party, and strongly so. That Brown could have achieved such a large margin of victory, even with a fairly large turnout (2.2 million people voted yesterday), speaks to the complete disintegration of the Coakley campaign. Making pleasant sounds about Coakley in the aftermath, as Walsh suggests, is like putting a cherry on top of a pile of dung and declaring it a sundae.

There are to my mind three major reasons for Coakley's loss: her breathtaking arrogance; the perception that Obama is in the pocket of Wall Street; and the Democratic party's handling of healthcare reform. The first item about Coakley's ineptitude and political tin ear is a relatively local affair and I won't discuss much further, except to note that her fall from grace has been tremendously precipitous. It's not merely that she was nearly 30 points up only a few weeks ago; she was a very popular and well-liked politician in this state, second only to John Kerry, even more popular than the Governor, Duval Patrick. That she could lose by such a large margin speaks to her ability to alienate people, and I suspect she has permanently damaged her brand among the Massachusetts electorate, which is quite a pity since she is a highly competent Attorney General. Simply put, Scott Brown never took one vote for granted and never condescended to the people of Massachusetts. Neither of those are compelling reasons to have voted for the man, but he deserves immense credit for his hustle.

More important for the President are the second two reasons, and Coakley can't really be blamed for either. Leave aside Obama's troublingly cozy relationship with the financial industry for a moment, the question is: with regard to healthcare reform, what should Obama have done differently? To me, the answer lies in two separate flaws in the plan, the first a tactical mistake that is only clear in hindsight, the second--which is much more concerning--lies in a major character flaw of the President.

The tactical mistake was created in the wake of the failure of the Clinton plan in 1993, which was perceived by Congress as being imposing and top-down in structure, with the Clinton White House (and, in particular, its soon-to-be-unpopular first lady) dictating terms to congressional leaders. Obama, hoping to avoid this problem, only created another by "leaving the bill writing to Congress while it tries to charm an industry that controls nearly one-fifth of the US economy," as Ceci Connolly aptly put in the pages of the Washington Post last June. Consequently Obama tended to other duties--which, one grants, are not insubstantial with two ongoing wars, problems with the banking industry, staggering unemployment and a host of other, minor problems such as global warming.

But the tactic backfired: congressional leaders squabbled, "centrists" like Max Baucus and Joe Lieberman suddenly were extracting pounds of political flesh (an apt simile in this case) to a cowed Senate majority leader, while Republicans congealed together a host of exaggerations and outright lies to drag down the popularity of a once-popular notion. By the fall, it was clear the process had run amok, and Obama's hands-off approach in retrospect had failed miserably. Had Obama merely tried to nudge the legislation along, using his formidable powers as an orator to advocate for what he wanted, filling up auditoriums around the country as an out-front advocate for healthcare reform, explaining to the American people his vision for the legislation, a good deal of pressure might have been brought to bear on several senators and representatives who probably intentionally dithered for reasons ranging from humbuggery to outright corruption. Instead, for more than six months there was mostly a vacuum of advocacy, and worse, the White House never really found its footing, saying on one day that the public option was non-negotiable, followed by the exact opposite indicator a few days later. Is it any wonder that Congress couldn't move the proverbial ball past the goal line?

The second reason underlying Obama's failure to shepherd along a meaningful or decent healthcare bill lies in who President Obama is, and that is, namely, one whose primary aim is to achieve consensus rather than to advocate for a given belief. We have seen what such consensus-seeking did for the Clinton presidency: after the 1994 congressional drubbing that landed the Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, Democratic party faithful were given a moderate Republican president in all but name, who stood before that congress proudly declaring that "the era of big government is over," who happily signed the Defense of Marriage Act, who sought to further enable the kinds of financial shenanigans that led to the economic crisis we find ourselves in right now. It only took a small sliver of disaffected Democrats to turn away from Clinton's successor and hand the Presidency to George W. Bush. Against all odds President Obama has followed Clinton's script. Contrary to the mildly insane claims of some pundits and politicians, President Obama has given his left-leaning base precisely nothing of what it has asked for. Glenn Greenwald pointed out quite accurately today:

In what universe must someone be living to believe that the Democratic Party is controlled by "the Left," let alone "the furthest left elements" of the Party?  As Ezra Klein says, the Left "ha[s] gotten exactly nothing they wanted in recent months."  The Left wanted a single-payer system, then settled for a public option, then an opt-out public option, then Medicare expansion -- only to get none of it, instead being handed a bill that forces every American to buy health insurance from the private insurance industry.  Nor was it "the Left" -- but rather corporatist Democrats like Evan Bayh and Lanny Davis -- who cheered for the hated Wall Street bailout; blocked drug re-importation; are stopping genuine reform of the financial industry; prevented a larger stimulus package to lower unemployment; refuse to allow programs to help Americans with foreclosures; supported escalation in Afghanistan (twice); and favor the same Bush/Cheney terrorism policies of indefinite detention, military commissions, and state secrets. 

This is not the approach of a robust advocate for traditional Democratic policies. This is the winning-is-more-important-than-fighting stance of a neoliberal, like Clinton before him; it is the pose, it pains me to say, of a wuss. And said wuss has fought for very little--indeed, nothing--he promised his base, the very people who catapulted him over the Hillary Clinton juggernaut one year ago. As I recall, this man, who offered such a thoughtful critique of the Iraq war (when it was far from politically expedient to do so), came to us with the promise of hope and change. Since the election we have been given hollow platitudes by a man unwilling to capitalize on his success, proceeding far too cautiously on the national stage (both links to Paul Krugman's column/blog in NYT).

Contrast Obama's lack of full-throated advocacy over the summer with George Bush's re-election in 2004. Bush, you will recall, had just managed to eke out a narrow victory, as a sitting war President, over another Massachusetts politician with a tin ear. Still, despite Bush's underwhelming performance (he garnered 50.7% of the vote and won by 2.4 points) he came before the American people the following day and confidently declared, "I have political capital, and I intend to spend it." Whether or not one finds that statement astonishing in its chutzpah, Bush immediately proceeded to campaign, election-style, for the privatization of Social Security, and did so in the face of enormous uncertainty, given Social Security's popularity. Bush of course did lose that fight, but as I see it the lesson here was that Bush was willing to fight for his party's beliefs at all.

President Obama? I have not only not seen such boldness on the whole, I have seen its opposite. You see, as I write this, the New York Times is leading with a headline that can only be described as dumbfounding. It reads, "Obama Weighs Shift In Health Plan, Seeking G.O.P. Backing." In the first graf: "President Obama on Wednesday signaled that he might be willing to set aside his goal of achieving near-universal health coverage for all Americans in favor of a stripped-down measure with bipartisan support." He has 59 votes in the Senate, and he might be willing to set aside his goal? Would the last President have asked for progressive input had he held a 59-seat majority in the upper chamber? I'm thinking not.

As a progressive, I think there is now only one option, and that is to declare war. On the Obama Presidency. He has not merely lost my support, he has lost my vote. Whether another politician will try to wrest control of the party from him in the coming few years remains to be seen, but barring a total turnaround, I am finished with him.

Update #1: I have some additional thoughts which I can't write until later today, but in the meantime there was one error in the original post: in 1994 the Democrats lost control of both chambers, not just the House. The text above is corrected.

Update #2: Several thoughts.
One reader on Facebook asks: "[Obama's lack of courage] doesn't explain why MA voted for Brown. If voters thought the country so badly needs healthcare reform (and were frustrated for lack of progress), how is electing Brown going to help?" In the short run, of course, it won't--although to my mind even when Kennedy/Kirk was Senator and the Dems did have that supposedly precious filibuster-proof majority, the best the Senate could produce was a handsome subsidy for the private insurance industry. The House in all likelihood would not accept the Senate bill--after all, they still could, and rightly have given no indication that they want to pass it. In the upper chamber, politicians like Baucus, Lieberman, and Ben Nelson to name only a few have made it clear that if even a hair of their version of the legislation is tampered with, there won't be enough votes for cloture. Thus, Brown's presence on the political scene makes only a modest amount of difference. This is President Obama's fault. This is entirely President Obama's fault.

Also, it should be noted that (obviously) elections have binary outcomes even though the motivations of the voters run the gamut. (Technically there were three outcomes, not two given the Libertarian party candidate Joseph Kennedy--no laughing out there--but you get the point.) My back-of-the-napkin calculation goes something like this: of Scott Brown's majority of 52%, something like just under 15% represented the hard-core social conservative or ideological libertarian vote, who were not only in the bag but energized to vote. Another 20% represented the moderate members of the Republican base, socially progressive but friendly to business interests, and who generally determine what Republicans are viable for statewide office (Brown slipped by because everyone had left him for dead and no moderate Republican cared to lose to Coakley). About another, say, 13% represent mostly blue-collar workers in the suburbs who usually vote Democrat but were either alienated by Coakley's arrogance or charmed by Brown's little-engine-that-could shtick or both. Now all Brown's gotta do to win is pick off a fairly small percentage of disenchanted voters who are disgusted with "what's going on in Washington," regardless of whether or not they could offer a cogent critique, and wanted "to send a message." Add to that a lower voter turnout than usual due to the off-off cycle (turnout was 40 percent; turnout at Obama's election was a near-record 72 percent; typically in a non-Presidential but regular cycle it would be closer to 50 percent) and a disillusioned base, and bing! You have the making of a stunning upset. Basically, Coakley was able to count on urban voters and lefties (several Republicans in MA are also "liberals," so not the best term even though the two are almost interchangeable outside New England). That got her to 47 percent--actually an impressive number given how small lefty blocs are in other states--but it wasn't nearly enough. There is some question as to whether the other highly qualified candidate, congressional representative Mike Capuano, would have done better in the working class suburbs, but for me that's useless second-guessing. Though I'm glad I didn't wake up Wednesday morning being Capuano, wondering what could have been. Still, one might think that Capuano is actually now the odds-on favorite to win the Senate seat back in 2012, even though Brown just won!

As I said, Brown's ascension to Senator does not help Democrats' goals in the short run. But in the case of Republicans, neither did the wildcat candidacy of Douglas Hoffman in the NY 23rd district, whose tea party run (technically he was the "Conservative Party" candidate) against Republican Dede Scozzafava led to the election of Democrat Bill Owens in a reliably Red district. There, the conservative base found Scozzafava so unpalatable that they would rather have lost the election than vote for her. What did they get in return? In the short run, Owens. But less than two years from now, they are almost certainly going to get "their" candidate, whomever that is (and quite possibly Hoffman himself), on the ticket, and Owens will be playing defense. I think the political views of most of these people are totally nuts, but I deeply admire their resolve, and more importantly, I recognize that their strategy is almost certain to succeed. Incredibly, that strategy may well succeed not only in the NY-23 but in swing districts across the country, returning the Republican party to power only two years after the most disastrous defeat they have suffered in decades.

President Obama, on the whole, bears responsibility for this, and, although I am aware that I am opening myself to the charge of "left-wing nutcase" by suggesting this, he needs to be succeeded by another leader. He seemed like a highly thoughtful, extremely articulate, bold and confident leader. He continues to have the first two qualities but lacks the latter two, and we need the latter two. We have needed them for two generations. Think about this for a moment--here is the list of our national party leaders since our last truly effective leader, Lyndon Johnson (that could start a fight, but I'll stand by it): Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton (blech!), Gore, Kerry, and Obama. With the exception of the current Prez, just look at that list! What a sorry collection of milquetoasts! And, alas, Obama's missteps have shown him to be of a piece with them. Yes, he has three years left and I do realize it sounds insane to write off his presidency. But I've seen not one shred of evidence to suggest that he's capable of even understanding his errors over the past several months, let alone attempt a course correction (or succeed at it). He needs to go, and if party loyalists stick by their man, they're going to go down.

Healthcare reform is quite probably dead for another generation. As I see it, there is only one way to avoid such a mess in the future: take a page from the Republican playbook, and refuse to vote for candidates who do not meet a litmus test, even if it means losing elections for a cycle or two...or more. I am not advocating a wide-ranging litmus test: I have mildly strong opinions about abortion, I have stronger ones about gun control, and stronger ones still about gay rights, but I recognize that the party needs to allow for minority views as part of a successful coalition. But healthcare reform and bank regulation? These seem to me pretty easy issues where Democrats can say, "Look, this party stands for federal government-backed health insurance, period. If you don't agree with that principle, you do not belong here, and we will not vote for you even if it means that we will lose a House or Senate district, or the Presidency itself." Then when you finally do win big, like the Dems did only one brief year ago, you won't squander the golden opportunity that dropped into your lap.

Another friend linked to a piece analyzing the structural peculiarities of the Democratic party. It has a slightly different take from my own, but I don't have any qualms about his writing except for the fact that Republicans, too, have their own structural issues, harmonizing the desires of libertarians, social conservatives, religious fundamentalists, and corporate interests, and they seem to have done a fairly good job of things since Ronald Reagan's election. And while I interpret Obama's motivations differently than Anonymous #1, I certainly see where he or she is coming from.

Update #3: How could the President redeem himself? Here's a thought: the radically right-wing Supreme Court just ruled today in a 5-4 vote that "corporations cannot be banned from using their general funds to pay for political advertising." As Andrew Leonard of "How the World Works" points out, this is going to profoundly influence Wall Street's reaction to the President's come-to-Jesus moment on banking reform, with the likely scenario being a huge influx of money supporting candidates who will block reform at every turn. So what can be done given a demoralized base and a surly electorate? How about a Constitutional Amendment barring such contributions? I'd like to see Joe Lieberman explain his vote against that. I'd also love to see Obama breathe fire on the campaign trail in, say August of this year--setting up a Constitutional Amendment vote just in time for the elections. Make that the story of the campaign. After all, the Republicans thought flag burning and gay marriage were such critical issues that they didn't hesitate to introduce CA's banning them; surely the Dems could do the same, especially as they (theoretically) oppose the Supremes' decision. Will we see the President adopt such aggressive tactics? I'm not holding my breath.

Update #4: I know I'm rambling, but just thought I'd add that the only person on the national stage that I can think of in my lifetime who was a politically viable Dem who simultaneously appeared to show genuine resolve was Howard Dean.


  1. I agree with your sentiments in many respects, and I agree that Obama has betrayed his political base. Roosevelt gave the American people a New Deal. Obama has given Americans a raw deal.

    However, I disagree with your assessment that Obama is wuss. On the contrary, I think that he is doing this quite deliberately and is a deceitful manipulator of the first order. As evidence of his true character I offer his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Advocating just wars in that context is like justifying corporal punishment at a conference on preventing child abuse.

    He has used the cover of "consensus" to conceal what I think his agenda has been all along. I.e. to strengthen the multi-national corporations hold on our economy and political institutions.

    What is especially disturbing are all the emails I get from the Democratic party asking for money so they can continue their "fight" against corporate interests. These requests are outright lies as they are not fighting corporate interests at all.

    Anyone read Animal Farm by George Orwell?

  2. Thanks, Anon. Reply above at the end of "Update #2." I see your point although I suspect he just got caught flat-footed and isn't by nature a guy who relishes a brawl. It's low-stakes when you want to play nicey-nice with some Federalist Society types in law school and allow them onto the editorial staff of the Harvard Law Review (as Obama did as the Editor in Chief); it's a disaster when you're "Editor in Chief" of the United States!

  3. Billy, I agree with most of your thought, but please, please, give him some time. Things need to percolate. Let's judge the president by the end result, not the means.