Friday, January 22, 2010

Living in the Past

"Once I used to join in
Every boy and girl was my friend.
Now there's revolution, but they don't know
What they're fighting.
Let us close our eyes;
Outside their lives go on much faster.
Oh, we won't give in,
We'll keep living in the past."

Jethro Tull

From time to time, we've all done it.

We've all made mental trips back to a time when we were happiest. But, sooner or later, most of us give ourselves a mental goose and we come back to the present — as unsatisfying as it may be.

Some of us return to our childhoods to bask in the love of parents and grandparents and others who are gone.

If you used to have your own home, but have been forced out of it by the bad economy and have been living with friends or relatives or living in a shelter, who could blame you for looking back on your days of home ownership with a sense of longing?

If you've had a job most of your adult life but you lost your job in the tsunami that left millions unemployed or underemployed, it should be no wonder if you find yourself wishing you had a place to go each day, a sense of security (and identity) and a stable income.

If you are Barack Obama, apparently, you believe that this is still November 2008, you are president–elect and everyone with whom you come in contact finds it acceptable to blame the Bush administration.

He seems particularly bewildered by the apparent defection of independents, who were instrumental in his election.

"The president's aides were quick to accept some blame yesterday for the loss of the [Massachusetts] Senate seat but also offered a long list of failings by Democratic candidate Martha Coakley and her team, including her decision to vacation during the campaign and a failure to vigorously pursue votes during the final weeks," writes Michael Shear in the Washington Post.

"White House aides rejected the idea that the Massachusetts election was a referendum on Obama. The Democratic candidate was leading by double digits just weeks ago, an indication, they said, that the political environment set by the president was not dragging her down.

"But they struggled to explain how a Democratic Party that found such success in 2008 has now lost three consecutive major races, including contests for governor in New Jersey and Virginia last November."

In other words, this is not Obama's fault. Sounds like a familiar refrain. Well, whose fault is it? Martha Coakley's? She was, after all, being referred to as Martha "Chokely" even before the voters in Massachusetts went to the polls.

There's no doubt, as far as I'm concerned, that Coakley ran a poor campaign. After nailing down her party's nomination last month, she made a lot of mistakes, many of which appear to be the result of her assumption that being a Democrat in Massachusetts entitled her to the Senate seat that was held by Ted Kennedy for so long.

If Massachusetts had been an isolated incident, I might have been inclined to agree with the assessment that comes from the White House, that this was Coakley's defeat, not Obama's, not the Democratic Party's.

But what conclusion can one reach when Democrats also lost their grasp on the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia less than three months ago?

And what kind of a future do they see for themselves when polls are showing difficult Senate races brewing for Democratic incumbents in places like Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Nevada? What about the challenge Democrats face in trying to hold on to seats that are being vacated by Democratic incumbents in places like North Dakota, Obama's home state of Illinois and Vice President Joe Biden's home state of Delaware?

My guess would be that most voters in those states know very little about the kind of campaign Coakley ran in Massachusetts, but they know a lot about what the president has been doing for the last year. They know unemployment is worse than it was when he took office, and they don't like it. They hear the excuses and the rationalizations. They've heard the claims that things would be much worse if the Democrats hadn't done the things they did, and they may concede that there is some truth in that. And they've heard the suggestions that X number of jobs have been "saved" by Obama's policies. They can't verify whether any jobs have been saved, but those who are unemployed can be absolutely certain that their jobs were not among those that were "saved."

What shouldn't be hard for anyone to understand is that these people are in pain. And they know they elect presidents to do something about it. So far, they have not had the sense that this president and this Congress are doing much to ease their suffering.

Charles Krauthammer writes, in the Washington Post, that Democrats missed the point. "After Coakley's defeat, Obama pretended that the real cause was a generalized anger and frustration 'not just because of what's happened in the last year or two years, but what's happened over the last eight years.' Let's get this straight: The antipathy to George W. Bush is so enduring and powerful that ... it just elected a Republican senator in Massachusetts? Why, the man is omnipotent."

Coakley appears to have lost independent voters by a wide margin, and that echoes recent findings in public opinion polls that show dispirited independents across the country abandoning the Democrats little more than a year after helping them win the White House.

"One senior Democratic strategist said that in conversations he had with party leaders, there seemed to be an unwillingness on the part of the White House to acknowledge the party's new problem with independent voters, who were key to Obama's victory," Shear writes.

"Administration officials said the loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat might give upcoming races across the country a jolt, awakening state parties to the perils of fielding weak candidates and giving national Democrats justification to weigh in on problematic campaigns. If there is a silver lining, they said, it is that no Democrats are now unaware of how endangered their power — and their congressional majority — is."

Well, there is wisdom in that, I guess. Obama and the Democrats seem to be encountering the same problems the party faced when Bill Clinton was taken to the woodshed by the voters in his first midterm election. The difference is that they have been given an early warning, thanks to Kennedy's death and the special election to choose his successor.

But, if they had studied their history, they would have seen the parallels between the Obama presidency and the Clinton presidency — which almost certainly would have helped them to see the perils of the path they were taking.

Health care reform is certainly important, but, in a nation facing double–digit unemployment, the more pressing issue now is putting millions of out–of–work Americans back to work. Obama and the Democrats have come across as not particularly caring about that. Through their insistence upon repeatedly blaming others for mounting job losses, they have given voters the less than reassuring sense that they don't know what to do about unemployment so they pass the buck.

Well, if the special election in Massachusetts has opened their eyes to the reality, maybe that's a good thing. Maybe now they will focus their attention where it needs to be focused, which may save some legislative seats for the party — in both the House and Senate.

But a lifetime of observing not just politics in America in general but Democratic politics in particular tells me Democrats will not heed the lesson.

I am reminded of a scene from one of my favorite movies, "Citizen Kane," in which a corrupt politician tries unsuccessfully to blackmail Kane into dropping out of the governor's race by threatening to reveal his extramarital affair.

"If it was anybody else, I'd say what's going to happen to you would be a lesson to you," he told the arrogant Kane. "Only you're going to need more than one lesson. And you're going to get more than one lesson."

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