Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Celestial Navigation

Do you remember the last year or so of George H.W. Bush's presidency?

He was like a moth on a summer night, frantically drawn to whichever light beckoned to him from the many competing beams that seemed to be shining. And, for the last painful months of the first Bush presidency, he was bouncing from one light source to another, only to discover they were never among his famous "thousand points of light."

Moths, they say, are attracted to light because they fly using a form of celestial navigation so they zero in on a light source and that keeps them flying in a reasonably straight line. It's an act of faith, I suppose ... inasmuch as moths are capable of having faith in anything.

Anyway, back in 1992, Bush was drawn to whichever light seemed to promise him guidance to victory in the election. I guess they were all dead ends or mere reflections of light (and not actual light sources) because Bush lost the presidency to Bill Clinton in a big way, and his party was reduced to a minority status that was almost identical to the one in which Republicans found themselves after the 2008 elections.

After Clinton took office, the hard times lingered. Despite different policies, improvements were slow. And, with the passage of time, Clinton — to use a phrase that has gained popularity in recent years — took ownership of the economy in the eyes of the voters. He insisted on reminding voters that he inherited the bad economy, but that point was irrelevant. Two years after Clinton was elected and Democrats took huge majorities in Congress, the voters handed legislative power to the Republicans.

Now, in terms of the numbers (of displaced workers, of sluggish economic performance, general severity, etc.), comparing the economy of the early '90s to the one facing this country today is like comparing tinker toys to steel girders.

But today's Democrats — and their leader, Barack Obama — have insisted on treating the steel–girder recession like it's the tinker–toy recession. Their words may have said one thing, but their actions have said something else.

Their actions — whether intended or not — have conveyed an inattentiveness to, an utter disinterest in the plight of the unemployed.

As I have mentioned on several occasions, Obama never said a word in public about unemployment on Labor Day weekend 2009 (when his approval ratings were still in the 50s), but he's been singing a much different tune in 2010, when those approval numbers have slid into the low 40s.

And, with polls showing Democrats on the brink of a hammering that may be historic in terms of its scope, he seems to be emulating "41" (as the elder Bush was affectionately known) by bouncing from one topic to another in what can only be seen as politically motivated moves.

In less than eight weeks, the American people will go to the polls. And Obama, in true George H.W. Bush style, has been indulging in his own "Message: I care" moments — i.e., this week's transparent push for new economic proposals — that are intended to mollify the voters until they've voted for the party in power.

Then the voters can be forgotten again.

I really have a hard time following the logic. A year ago, you might have been greeted with, at least, an incredulous look if you had suggested that the voters might be on the verge of giving legislative power to the party that has been in the minority since January 2007. But not so today.

Today, the conventional wisdom and the polls favor a Republican electoral wave in November that may well exceed the one that swept the Democrats from power in 1994.

The warnings seem to be everywhere — like that week in August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina was crossing the Gulf of Mexico or the post–9/11 claims from intelligence sources that the terrorists' electronic "chatter" was deafening in the summer of 2001.

The warnings have been out there for months.

Byron York writes about it in the Washington Examiner. York is a conservative, but I could hardly have expected a gentler treatment of the subject from anyone at the other end of the political spectrum.

"The American people don't expect Obama to perform miracles," York writes in describing the bewilderment of Republican strategists. "They know he inherited a mess. They don't think the unemployment rate will magically fall to 4.5 percent. But they do expect the president to devote himself completely to the economy, and they want to see signs of progress by election day. By 'progress,' they mean not just a good month but the clear sense that the economy is moving in the right direction.

"Instead, they got policy potpourri and 'Recovery Summer.' "

Conventional wisdom suggests that it is much too late for anything to happen domestically that could turn things around for the Democrats. When I was studying political science in college, we talked of how voters' attitudes tend to "harden" about five or six months before an election. In my experience, that has been true. It certainly seems to have been true in 1994.

Speaking of 1994, I learned from that experience. I've been a Democrat most of my life (until earlier this year, in fact). I've been studying voting trends most of my life, too.

I was a registered Democrat in 1994. And, frankly, the tsunami that washed over the country that year came as a shock to me, coming as it did only two years after Democrats won huge congressional majorities, as well as the presidency itself.

But, as I say, I learned from that experience. And one of the things I learned was that, when a president takes office in the midst of hard times, that president must address the issues that are of the most concern to the most people. Usually, that means encouraging job creation.

The president may not want to devote his time and energy to jobs. He may have grander ideas for his presidency. Most presidents, it seems to me, are driven by a desire to lead, but when times are hard, they must do what may be counterintuitive to them and follow — follow, for as long as it takes, the will of the people. Respond to their needs and concerns.

A president can't choose the times in which he serves, but he can choose how he handles the challenges of his times. And the nature of the times is almost always dictated by the state of the economy. Bad economies require a focus on pocketbook issues. If the voters don't get that from their leaders, they will choose new leaders.

If, in the last 20 months, the voters had gotten what York calls "the clear sense that the economy is moving in the right direction," they might have been more receptive to the things for which Obama clearly wants to be remembered. But they haven't gotten that sense.

"Wait a minute!" Obama's defenders say. "Isn't the president pressing a bold economic plan even as we speak?"

Yes. But York has a compelling response: "If these are such great ideas, why wasn't the president pushing them earlier?"

It's a fair question. And today, I can see no circumstances — other than an international incident — that can save Democratic lawmakers in November. Perhaps — by the sheer grace of God — they may be able to salvage either the House or the Senate.

I don't think they will be able to save both. I think they're more likely to lose both.

But unless they can save both, I expect a fight in Congress next year over the repeal of the health care reform package upon which Obama gambled his presidency. And a prolonged fight over health care reform is going to delay any efforts to encourage job creation.

Sure, you can find the Pollyannas of the Democratic Party, like Susan Estrich, who wrote, in a recent column for Creators Syndicate, that, no matter how grim things may seem, the Democrats do have a thing or two on their side.

Nevertheless, Estrich did feel compelled to give a disclaimer, "What all this means is not that Democrats will hold on to the House come next fall, but that they can."

Her experience as Michael Dukakis' campaign manager 22 years ago must have taught her the value of spin because she quickly added that "even if they don't, it hardly spells doom for the president. The one area where the gap between the parties is clearest is that of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm comes from activists and ideologues. Instead of attacking them, this president and his team have to remember to spend some time wooing them."

Is it just me, or does that sound reminiscent of Obama's attempts last year to appease the Republicans in Congress? Well, we all know how well that worked, don't we?

So, logically, it will work even better, now that it's the Democrats, and not the Republicans, who are on the ropes. Right?

That kind of logic reminds me of a monologue I saw David Letterman give on The Tonight Show before he became a late–night host.

In the monologue, Letterman observed that, if a patron complained about the quality of the food, the approach at many restaurants at that time was to bring that patron more of that item.

"If there's anything better than bad food, it's lots of it," Letterman said.

I guess, if you're going to apply that line to current political tactics, you could say that "if there's anything better than bad legislative strategy, it's lots of it."

Well, I guess you could say that if you're a Republican. Not if you're a Democrat.

If health care reform is repealed, the centerpiece of Obama's presidency will be gone with no chance to get it back before Obama himself must face the voters. Without health care reform, what will be the basis for his argument to be given another four years?

And if voters continue to get the sense that the economy is not moving in the right direction in 2011, as they almost surely will not if the administration must constantly engage in skirmishes on Capitol Hill over health care reform — the issue that won't go away and can't be resolved — Obama can forget about a second term.

It didn't have to be this way.

I've seen this coming. I've been warning about it on this blog since before Obama took office. I've seen other people warning about it, too.

But I've been increasingly frustrated by the dawning knowledge that today's Democrats are intent upon forgetting (or ignoring) the recent past.

I could understand their hesitance to take decisive steps that could at least mitigate the damage in a midterm election — which almost always goes against the party in power, anyway, but not always decisively, as seems likely this year — if they were farther removed from the last time the opposing party took control of Congress. In 1994, it had been 40 years since the last time Republicans were in the majority in both chambers.

Most, if not all, of the Democrats who lived through the flip in the 1950s were gone by 1994. They couldn't warn the new generation of Democrats.

But, in 2010, the Democrats are only 16 years removed from the last time that happened. Joe Biden was a senator for more than 30 years. He's seen presidents from both parties wrestle with hard times. He lived through the 1994 midterms. And, when he was in the Senate, he tended to be blunt about what was needed to reverse the tide. But he's been the enabler–in–chief as vice president.

They couldn't have forgotten so quickly, could they?

Apparently, the answer to that is a resounding "yes they could."

And, in 55 days, we will find out exactly how much they have forgotten.

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