Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Brave New World

It's been a week since the voters in Massachusetts chose Republican Scott Brown to replace Edward Kennedy in the Senate.

It's been a brave new world longer than that.

In the world of presidential politics, though, a week sometimes can seem like an eternity. It should be more than enough time to decide how to respond to an electoral setback — which the loss in Massachusetts certainly appears to be for Obama and the Democrats in Congress — and define yourself in the public eye before your opponents can.

But it's the out–of–power Republicans who seem to have seized the initiative — and it is the White House– and Congress–controlling Democrats, who look like they're flailing about in search of an identity.

There has been no shortage of suggestions about what is wrong and what should be done. But no one, in the White House, at least, seems to be listening to any of it. Obama is determined to continue to press for health care reform — and to continue to provide the illustration for Einstein's definition of insanity.

Maybe he's been getting some good advice he hasn't been taking. Maybe he's as egocentric as he often appears. "I'd rather be a really good one–term president than a mediocre two–term president," he told ABC's Diane Sawyer yesterday.

Well, with survey after survey showing doubts about the health care plan, continuing to fight for it without alleviating those concerns sounds to me like when Richard Nixon was justifying his actions in Vietnam because he didn't want to be the first president to lose a war.

When a president's words focus on himself instead of the people, I know who his real priority is — and it ain't me. Doesn't matter how poetic the words are.

Circular firing squad, anyone?

Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, who was at one time mentioned as a possible running mate for Obama, has been urging the party to move more to the center. I think that should have been done a long time ago, but the White House hasn't acted on that recommendation yet. And, based on its rhetoric, I am not encouraged that it will.

Perhaps it will when everything else implodes — the way Bill Clinton did after the 1994 midterms. But, by then, it may be too late.

Steve Benen writes, in Washington Monthly, that it's time for Democrats to attack Republicans. That's been an effective strategy — for both parties — in the past. But it doesn't really seem adequate for Americans who thought they were voting for change in 2008.

People voted for many kinds of change, but most seemed to be in favor of one in particular — a change in the tone of Washington. To his credit, Obama did try to forge bipartisan support for his policies, but the fact that he so openly courted bipartisanship is the very reason why bashing the opposition would be so unseemly for him now.

Can't you hear it now? Disillusioned voters, hearing Obama slam the Republicans, asking each other, "What's this? This doesn't sound like bipartisanship. It sounds like business as usual."

Obama has talked a good game on bipartisanship. But he's really been following an approach that has more in common with Bush's "my way or the highway" philosophy. He shouldn't be surprised that he was unable to recruit any congressional right–wingers to support a leftist agenda.

He should have been more incremental on health care, and he should have focused on crises that affect every district, like joblessness. Now, it may be too late.

Building a consensus means finding common ground. Basing political campaigns only on attacking the other guys seems hopelessly outdated.

And it certainly doesn't offer anything to voters who have tired of always voting against and would much rather go to the polls armed with reasons to vote for a candidate.

Anyway, while the Democrats seem to be stuck in neutral with their wheels spinning furiously but taking them nowhere, the Republicans are moving forward. Monica Davey reports, in the New York Times, that the GOP has turned its attention to Barack Obama's home state of Illinois, where the Senate seat he once occupied is up for grabs.

Meanwhile, Liz Sidoti writes, for RealClearPolitics, that things have become "even more troubling" for Democrats in the past week. The vice president's son opted not to run for his father's old Senate seat in Delaware, and Marion Berry, a seven–term representative from Arkansas with a moderate voting record, decided to retire.

(Chris Cillizza reports, in the Washington Post, that Senate seats that have been held by appointees are seen as vulnerable — i.e., Obama's old seat in Illinois, Joe Biden's old seat in Delaware — now that Kennedy's seat has fallen.)

Berry represents Arkansas' First District, which has been represented by Democrats nonstop for 120 years. His colleague in the Second District, Vic Snyder, announced his retirement more than a week ago. That's half of the state's representation in the House — and two–thirds of its Democrats.

If the two open House seats — along with the Senate seat currently held by Blanche Lincoln — flip to the Republicans this year, that would mean that more than half of Arkansas' congressional delegation would be Republican.

And that is something that was totally inconceivable when I was growing up there.

Well, the Republicans probably won't be that successful in Arkansas this year, but who knows? I was looking at the website for the newspaper in my hometown last night, and an online poll of readers was posted on the main page. One–third of respondents thought the state's congressional delegation will be split 50–50 next year. Another one–third thought Republicans would hold a 4–to–2 advantage.

Glenn Thrush provides a little insight into Berry's mindset in a piece he wrote for Politico.

"Berry's parting shot, published in the Arkansas Democrat–Gazette ... offers a warning to moderate Democrats and border state moderates — warning of a midterm bloodbath comparable to the 54–seat D–to–R swing in 1994," he writes. "But the jaw–dropper is Berry's claim that President Obama personally dismissed any comparison between Democrats now and under Bill Clinton 16 years ago — by saying his personal popularity would bail everybody out."

Well, if his popularity didn't bail out Martha Coakley in liberal Massachusetts, why should Democrats in more moderate states think affiliation with Obama will be more help to them than Clinton was in 1994?

I think Obama and his advisers are delusional. The Washington Times is more blunt, saying the president is losing his grip on reality. And it's hard to argue the point when Obama insists on claiming that Brown's victory in Massachusetts last week was powered by the same force that resulted in Obama's victory in 2008.

As the Times writes, "The glitch in that worldview is that Mr. Brown ran explicitly against the Obama agenda."

Obama's case is a tough sell for me. OK, I understand the frustration voters had with Republicans and how that led to Democratic triumphs in 2006 and 2008. But I have been observing American politics most of my life. And there are a few fundamental truths I think have been overlooked — if not downright ignored — by the Democrats. If they don't address them, they're going to be in a world of hurt come November.

In no particular order, they are:
  • Attention spans are short.

    Democrats have consistently reminded me that Republicans were in charge when things went sour — economically, militarily, diplomatically. The economy melted down when Bush was president. America became mired in two wars while Bush was president. Much of the world grew to hate us while Bush was president.

    These are points I can't dispute. But I'm a student of history, and I know that most people are not. Most people don't care how a bad situation began. They only care about the here and now. As they see it, the people who are in office were elected to make things better. If things aren't better now, they'll give someone else a chance.

    In a way, most Americans are like preschoolers who never grew up. Have you ever noticed that, until they learn to tell time — and even for awhile after that — children really only understand two times of day — now and not now?

    If they walk into the kitchen and ask you if dinner is ready, the only meaningful response you can give is "No." You can try to be positive, to give them a little hope by saying "It will be ready soon" or "It will be ready in half an hour," but that introduces a concept they don't understand — yet.

    And it won't help to tell children you've been in the kitchen for a few hours working on it. Voters, like children, care only about results.

    So ...

  • Are things getting better?

    That, I suppose, is a matter of opinion. When Ronald Reagan ran against President Carter in 1980, he connected with voters by asking, at the end of their one and only debate, if they were better off than they were when Carter was elected four years earlier.

    For most folks, it doesn't get much more basic than that. Obama and the Democrats can trot out all the facts and figures they want — improvements in the performance of the stock market, how X plus Y equals Z and when Z is achieved things are better, whatever — but most voters aren't economists. They don't comprehend complex formulas, but they do understand the unemployment rate. They know it was 7.1% nationally in December 2008, and it was 9.7% (adjusted) in December 2009.

    Voters may not know economic theories backwards and forwards, but they know that escalating unemployment is not something that happens when things are getting better.

    Saying it does when it doesn't simply defies logic.

    Consequently ...

  • What have you done for me lately?

    Tip O'Neill used to say, "All politics is local." And so it is.

    This may be elementary, but the whole idea behind public servants is that they serve the public, not themselves. Obama has been president for a year. Democrats have been in the majority in Congress for three years. They can blame Bush and the Republicans all they want, but if they can't point to any recent, major accomplishments that improve things for the people, like putting a dent in unemployment, voters will wonder what became of that "hope" and "change" rhetoric.

    Sure, you can remind them how it felt on Election Night 2008 when Obama was the winner and hundreds of thousands of people crowded into Grant Park to hear the One speak.

    But the problem is they already bought that bill of goods. Now they want to see what they got for their investment. Some folks are concluding they didn't get what they thought they were getting.

  • Voting a certain way in an election does not equal a lifetime commitment.

    I can't tell you how many people have told me that certain states will not vote Republican because they voted for Obama in 2008. Did the voters in those states sign a loyalty oath? I'm no lawyer, but I believe it is illegal to force someone to sign a loyalty oath as a condition for voting.

    In 2008, it was shocking when states like Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina voted Democratic. That was something those states hadn't done in a long time. But the fact that they did in no way committed them to do so again.

    And I would argue that history suggests that most states follow certain trends, even if they occasionally go in a different direction. That's how Massachusetts came to be known as a liberal Democratic state.

    At least until a week ago.
In the end, Bob Herbert of the New York Times asks a question today that needs to be answered: "Who is Barack Obama?"

You may think you know because you know his personal story. A lot of people felt that way when they went to the polls in November 2008. But now, after a year of Obama, many Americans are wondering who he is, as Herbert points out.

It is unsettling to feel that you don't really know who your president is, even after he has been in office a year.

"Mr. Obama is in danger of being perceived as someone whose rhetoric, however skillful, cannot always be trusted," Herbert writes. "He is creating a credibility gap for himself, and if it widens much more he won't be able to close it."

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