These days, I rarely open an e-mailed article from someone on the Left that doesn’t denounce President Barack Obama as a sell-out, a corporate tool, a coward or worse – with similar assessments applied to the Democratic leadership in Congress.
And that anger on the Left – as much the Obama-is-a-commie/Nazi/anti-Christ fury on the Right – seems likely to shape the political outcomes in 2010, possibly starting with the special election in Massachusetts on Jan. 19 to fill the late Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat.
Some pundits now see the Massachusetts race as a possible upset win for Republicans who are as energized as Democrats are disheartened, especially if the turnout is low. A new Boston Globe poll showed Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Scott Brown tied among those “extremely interested” in the race, although Coakley maintained a 15-point lead among all voters.
A surprise GOP win would give the Senate Republicans the 41 votes they need to filibuster to death health care and other reform legislation – and many on the Left are so angry that they don’t appear to care anymore.
In that way, Election 2010 is beginning to feel a lot like Election 2000, when Ralph Nader’s supporters found “not a dime’s worth of difference” between Al Gore and George W. Bush, thus helping to keep the presidential race close enough for Bush to steal the White House.
If that remains the dynamic this year – if the focus stays on the Democratic failures to bring about the “change” that many Americans wanted – it does appear likely that the Republicans will enjoy a major electoral rebound, possibly starting as early as next Tuesday.
But the electoral dynamic could change if the question were posed differently. Instead of asking what have the Democrats done that deserves support, people might ask: Should the Republicans be rewarded for what they’ve done in thwarting the public will as expressed in Election 2008?
If the issue becomes whether the Republicans should be rewarded – rather than whether the Democrats should be punished – the GOP chances might dim considerably.
As the health-care debate has shown, the Democratic Senate Caucus may have the 60 members needed to shut off a filibuster, but the reality is that as long as Republicans vote as a bloc, it is extremely difficult for the Democrats to line up all their members to act together to pass decent legislation.
Not only are there several conservative Democrats in the caucus, but Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman seems to delight in sabotaging Democratic plans, even after the Democrats forgave his campaigning for John McCain and let him retain his Homeland Security Committee chairmanship.
The Republican unity against health reform has given Lieberman and the conservative Democrats virtually a veto over any provision that they don’t like. They also seem content to sink the entire package if they’re not fully satisfied, while liberals hope to salvage something positive.
It’s true that Obama could have been more aggressive. He could have pushed hard for a public option or an expansion of Medicare – points we’ve made in articles at Consortiumnews.com – but the reality is that the prospects of a strong health-care bill died when “moderate” Republicans like Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins refused to engage in sincere negotiations.
They put party unity – or their fear of being ostracized inside the party – ahead of the nation’s need for health reform. (Snowe’s disingenuous explanation for voting to kill the bill via a filibuster was that the lengthy debate needed to be dragged out even more.)
The truth is that the Republicans made a judgment at the start of Obama’s young presidency that they would replay the strategy that worked so well against President Bill Clinton: vote as a bloc against his initiatives, use the powerful right-wing news media to demonize him; count on the cowardly mainstream media to echo many of those themes; and whip GOP backers into a fever pitch by the mid-term elections.
To make their hardball tactics work this time, the Republicans were willing to beat up any moderate who broke ranks – as three senators did to vote for Obama’s watered-down stimulus bill. The Republicans didn’t seem to mind that their nasty treatment of the defectors drove one of them (Arlen Specter) out of the party. After all, Snowe and Collins were whipped back into line.
Many rank-and-file Democrats tried to warn Obama about what was in store, but – given the institutional weaknesses of the American Left (very little media, few think tanks, etc.) – Obama apparently judged that he had to play ball with the Washington Establishment to accomplish anything.
What Obama was up against was demonstrated in the early months of his presidency when the mainstream media interpreted Republican obstructionism not as a cynical political strategy by the GOP but as “Obama’s failure” to live up to his campaign promise about overcoming Washington’s partisanship.
To deflect that criticism, Obama went the extra mile for bipartisanship. For instance, he allowed the Senate Finance Committee’s health-care talks (involving three Democrats and three Republicans, including Snowe) to extend beyond his August deadline. That gave the GOP more time to disseminate anti-reform propaganda and rally the angry right-wing “base” to disrupt “town hall meetings” and intimidate members of Congress.
Obama’s assiduous courting of Snowe and other Republican “moderates” also ran him headlong into another double-whammy. In the Senate, he ended up making major concessions demanded by Republicans and conservative Democrats (like dropping the public option), but he gained not a single GOP vote while simultaneously infuriating and demoralizing the Democratic “base.”
By late fall 2009, Obama had transformed the health-care debate into the political equivalent of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, as a once powerful army dragged itself through the Russian winter, abandoning equipment and valuables along the way, hoping just to survive.
While Obama could have made other choices, such as demanding Senate leaders apply the majority rule of “reconciliation” for at least parts of the health-care package, the overriding reason for the current state of the health-care bill was the solid wall of GOP obstructionism. The Republicans made a calculation that Obama's failure would mean their success.
Now, as progressives in Massachusetts look toward next week’s special election – and as voters around the country contemplate next November’s congressional balloting – they must weigh this possibility: if they punish Obama and the Democrats for their tactical shortcomings, they will be rewarding the Republicans for their obstructionist strategy.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on January 12, 2010.