Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Five Reasons Why Ted Kennedy's Senate Seat Went to a Teabagger Troglodyte

This is my post-mortem of the election results in Massachusetts. Five is an arbitrary number in no particular order of importance. The reasons for the Democrats losing the Massachusetts Senate seat to a right wing “Tea Party” mysoginistic Republican could number two, or seven, or ten or more. Please feel free to contribute your views.
1. Timidity: Jon Stewart had one of his famous on-air coniptions when he wondered why George W. Bush and the Republicans in Congress could do any “fucking” thing they wanted with 50 votes, but somehow anything shy of 61 votes required endless negotiations, and cave-in compromises on national legislation for 300 million Americans to senators who represent states with less that 2 million people at the bottom, and 5 million at the top -- all of whom could comfortably fit inside New York City, or LA, with plenty of uninsured Americans to spare. Think on this: The Republican Party hasn't had 60 votes in the Senate since 1923!

2. Capitulation: President Obama called it bipartisanship. Progressives (this blog) rightly criticized the President for surrendering the progressive Democratic agenda to Republican reactionaries Chuck Grassley, Olympia Snowe (“I really like Olympia Snowe,” said President Obama in a moment of supreme naiveté), and John McCain, among others (DINOs Max Baucus, Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, Evan Bayh, and of course “Traitor” Joe Lieberman). How many times can you reach out to reactionary Republicans and Democrats only to get your arm chewed out? Definition of insanity: Repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Perhaps the President conflated progressives and the right. Progressives accepted the craven compromises of Rham Emanuel with reactionaries so often because we are tolerant and pragmatic. We went along with the proposition that one-half loaf is better than none; but not because we're cut from the same cloth as the right. Progressives (this blog) incessantly pleaded with President Obama not to waste his time reaching out to conservatives; but the President had a surprising tin ear. He wouldn't listen.

3. Hubris: Some commentators refer to the Senate as housing 100 presidents. It's more like 47 tin-pot despots and dictators with the power and authority to bring government to a standstill. When Senate “rules,” specifically the filibuster, are used to undermine democratic government and majority rule, as if it were nothing but a sporting match, then it’s time to change the Senate rules. When the Constitution permits the election of a president with millions of fewer votes than the losing candidate -- like the ultimate hackable Diebold machine -- then it’s time to change the Constitution. It’s been done several times before. When first enacted the Constitution limited elections to white male property owners. (Astro-turf corporate Tea Party owners are no doubt OK with that.)

4. Complacency and arrogance: This applies both to the Massachusetts and national Democratic Party. Ted Kennedy never took the voters for granted. He never felt he could just sit on his lead and not work for every single vote. He had the common touch, cared about his constituents, and showed through tireless campaigning and in the Senate that he would work hard for them. It's amazing how few otherwise honest politicians fail to grasp this. Unlike Martha Coakley who disdained such retail campaigning, Teddy loved pumping hands outside Fenway Park. Coakley may be a good AG, but she will go down as one of the worst campaigners in Massachusetts -- and American -- history.

5. Deserting the dance partner who brung you here in the middle of the ballroom floor: Also called “the Rham Emanuelization of the Democratic Party” (Thom Hartmann, progressive radio commentator). There is a debate in the liberal community between those who argue for incrementalism and including Blue Dog Democrats in the governing majority, and those who say the progressives that elected the President should determine the Democratic agenda, not the Blue Dogs. Jonathan Alter, journalist and FDR historian, argues for incrementalism and big tent inclusion. Firebrand film maker Michael Moore and liberal talk show host Ed Schultz are among those pressing full steam ahead with the progressive agenda, the Blue Dogs be damned.
Jonathan points to Social Security as an example of transformative social legislation that became what it is today -- a robust social safety net for retired seniors -- over decades of incremental improvements. He notes that when Social Security was first adopted it excluded entire classes of people and did not provide such benefits as disability. His conclusion is that Democrats should take what the Blue Dogs will accept on healthcare reform as a foundation that can be improved upon in the coming years and decades.

Michael and Ed argue that the party that decisively won the last two election cycles (the third is in November of 2010; special elections do not count as cycles) has earned the right and received a mandate from the electorate to push through the agenda on which it campaigned. To the extent that the Democratic Party reneged on its responsibility to carry out the people's agenda, it was punished at the polls by the voters. There is a tendency among pundits to overanalyze and nationalize election results where local issues trump the national agenda. Not “all politics is local” to be sure, but much more of it than is generally recognized, is.

With all due respect to Jonathan, the result in Massachusetts if anything shows that Michael and Ed were right all along. Ceding the progressive agenda that carried Barack Obama to the presidency to Blue Dog Democrats representing districts carried by John McCain and conservative Republicans has been disastrous for the Democratic Party.

It's worth noting that Micheal and Ed represent today's “new” electronic and digital media and Jonathan represents the “old” print and paper medium. FDR did not have to contend with a 24/7 news cycle, sound bites, and “optics.” Little more than 30 years after the enactment of Social Security, President Johnson took far less time to pass comprehensive Medicare and Medicaid, self-contained transformative legislation -- Parts A and B -- that was changed only (for the worst, in my view) with the passage of Part C cosmetic enhancements and a flawed prescription drug program that benefited private insurers as much, or more, as it did seniors.

Given these historical political and technological realities, it stands to reason that healthcare reform should have been enacted in less than six months, with less complexity, loopholes, and trade-offs, and should have included popular (consumer but anti-corporate) elements such as the public option which was consistently favored in public polls. The foundation was in place. Absent single-payer, Medicare for all was the way to go. Simplify and sell. That was the President's task. In this blog, we have consistently called for the President's leadership and early engagement. Instead, the President stood on the sidelines flirting with Grassley and Snowe, never campaigned (as President) for the public option, drew no lines in the sand -- “Retreat! Retreat! Retreat!” was Rham Emanuel’s clarion call through it all -- and waited and waited and waited to step in to close the deal. Too little, too late. BIG MISTAKE.

In an NPR interview a few weeks ago, President Obama said our claim that the insurance companies want this healthcare bill is “nonsense.” If that is so, Mr. President, why did insurance company stocks shoot up when the public option was killed then fluctuate wildly after Brown “41” was elected in Massachusetts? Either way, whether or not the insurance companies get this bill, it's a win-win for corporate interests. There is no other explanation for insurance companies hosting a fundraiser for losing MA Democrat Martha Coakley one week before the vote, playing both sides against their own self-interest.

If the Massachusetts election derails President Obama's agenda it will be entirely his fault. Progressives are most disappointed not only by the President's absent leadership on healthcare, but by his cozy relationship with Wall Street bankers and insurance companies. There is more “talk” and far less “walk” on the financial regulatory front, witness the gutting of strong banking and financial regulatory reforms in Congress with a lobbyist-driven watered down SEC enforcement arm and consumer financial protection agency. The Senate healthcare bill is a veritable Xmas tree of goodies for corporations and entrenched self-interests, including reactionary Democratic senators from sparsely populated states.

Gramps McCain took to the Senate floor to say “begin from the beginning.” He may yet get his wish to kill healthcare reform. The DINOs, including DINO-come-lately Jim Webb of Virginia, are already talking about incrementalism and retrenchment, i.e., protecting their own hides. Healthcare and financial regulatory reform are on life support thanks to corporatist capitulators Rham Emanuel, Tim Geithner, and Larry Summers. They have not served the President well and they should be gone. If the President's policies, as Presidential adviser David Axelrod said, “are widely misunderstood,” whose fault is that, Mr. Axelrod; aren't you the “optics” guy?

The progressive agenda in the Senate breaks down to 53-47. That's how many votes it would take to pass real healthcare reform, with a public option, paid for by a tax on the wealthiest 2%. That's very close to the percentage of the President's election. Instead of passing healthcare reform with this solid majority rather than squandering an entire year trying to convince 47 conservatives to go along with it, the President now finds himself in a position where he has surrendered his agenda to the right and ironically enjoys only about 47% or less support for his policies.

Congressman John Lewis, a hero of the great civil rights struggles of the 60s, in times like these asked, “what would Bobby do?” Win or lose, RFK wouldn't have been afraid of mixing it up with his rich and powerful opponents, and getting in their face on behalf of the people, especially the weak and voiceless. He would never have stood on the sidelines waiting for things to break his way, trying to protect his “lead,” i.e., popularity. He never cared about the polls; he was confident that if he stuck to his principles people would follow. And if they didn't, he'd get up, brush himself off, and move on to the next fight, with a clear conscience.

There's a lesson in there somewhere for the President and the Democratic Party.

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