Sunday, January 24, 2010

Was I Wrong to Defend Obama - After Massachusetts

After the polls closed in Massachusetts on Tuesday, the fate of the health care bill never seemed more bleak. It calls into question my previous post celebrating Obama's tack in pursuing the Health Care bill. My interpretation is that the results exploited what I take to be Obama's core weakness and in fact do represent a strong rebuff to Obama's tact. Indeed, I have been over-optimistic in evaluating Obama's strategy. However, given that I think the weakness is apparent it offers a sense of how to move forward. The health care bill should be passed and electioneering should be fully embraced. Let the 2010 election begin!

Brown's victory does fully indicate both the anti-establishment energy symbolized, though not encapsulated, by the Teabaggers. It also revealed democrats misunderstanding of their mandate after the 2008 season. Voters had finally recognized that the Republican party was running our country off the rails and wanted a new course. However, our primary demand as voters was to fix the decayed government structure (both regulatory and budgetary). Health Care was, initially, a great vehicle for doing this and demonstrating how Democrats are in fact different governors than Republicans. The ultimate failure is that there was no broad discursive framing and leadership by Democrats tying the Health Care bill to setting the right course.

Conservatives began pulling ahead of Democrats in late Spring 2009 as "Death Panels" and such caught fire. Conservatives successfully tied the apprehension and disappointment with government management to health care and effectively began turning swing voters. We shouldn't look at this as a wide-spread rational decision that health care is communism or an irrational manipulation of voters through sensationalism. Rather, I believe, in general, voters began to distrust the bill and the process because they can't evaluate the bill itself (few in this country can really) and they are genuinely upset about the economy and mistrust government's ability to keep its house in order.

The Democrats' and Obama's failure was their inability to reframe the bill as a jobs and economy bill. It's a given that liberal America in general does not have the kind of media army that Republicans have. However, there has not been a significant media campaign for the Democratic Plan that has been able to grasp the mainstream media's attention. This, I believe, is Obama's mistake. If Obama had taken more authorship of the bill in the field of media, a genuine Democratic framing could have emerged in mainstream discourse to counteract voters' apprehension. All of this is water under the bridge now that the whole approach to the bill itself is under review.

I would love to see a push to count the votes. Put together a great bill, challenge Republicans and centrist democrats to put their votes on the books, and fight it out in the elections. I don't think anyone with power to do this also has the gall and confidence that the votes are there to push this strategy. So, in terms of a compromise, I believe a pared down bill sold simply on government responsibility, job creation, and budget reduction would be the best strategy. These values are easy to tie into the spirit of the vote in Massachusetts and can still accomplish the most of what is left in Health Care. I think Republicans would be confident enough to put their votes on the books to get the votes in November. What this does though is put Democrats on the offensive in setting the agenda given that it's their bill. Supposing such a bill might pass in March or April perhaps, it leaves a full seven or eight months to get a jobs and budget bill and fight it out in the voting booths.

The Health Care bill is not the death of the Democratic Party. We can't forget that the Republican Party has a distinct and recent track record of irresponsibility. There is a strong, internal fight in the party between "true" conservatives and moderates that will polarize the party and alienate them from the middle. There is no Republican vision for the country. There are tag lines of less government and fiscal responsibility, but no actual plans; particularly given that, any conservative-favored budget cuts on the social safety-net would be roundly rejected in a recession and Democrats are actually winning on foreign policy. The 2010 elections are still Democrats' to lose.

That being said, Democrats recent electoral track-record shows the party's own inability to effectively frame its policies in terms of basic, common American values. Obama was incredibly effective at making these connections and his re-engagement in the electoral process indicates Democrats will fair better than their recent elections indicate. The real question is whether or not the candidates they field will actually be able to do their job. That, for me, is the million dollar question. As well as the now unlimited corporate donations to the election process.

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