Thursday, November 19, 2009

Hell hath no fury.

Just when I had convinced myself that behind the curtain, hidden from public view, Barack Obama had a plan—for Afghanistan, for the Middle East, for Iran, for Russia, for education, for energy, for financial regulation, for health care… or at least for some of them—I saw Obama Campaign Manager David Plouffe pitching his book on The Daily Show.

Plouffe was in full campaign mode, selling the successes of the first year of the Obama presidency, as well as his new book—The Audacity of Winning. Grinning and determined, he spoke with an evangelical fervor.

The Audacity of Winning. Coming from the Obama campaign manager, the title itself is at best an ironic commentary on hope as a political strategy, but at worst the title bluntly mocks the electorate that invested their hopes and dreams in the Obama campaign.

Electoral losses this month in New Jersey and Virginia provided a grim reminder to Plouffe and the Democrats of the fragility of their electoral victories of just one year ago. If 2008 was an election year when young and independent voters set their cynicism aside and embraced the hope that a different tenor might come to national politics, 2009 saw young voters abandon politics and independent voters abandon the hope briefly flickered a year earlier.

The voters in New Jersey and Virginia did not get it wrong. They were not impatient. They were not premature in their assessment. By all accounts, the hope Obama offered—the belief that Washington can shift to a new trajectory and engage the real and deep challenges that threaten our nation’s future—is, if not dead, on life support. The past year has been one of deep and unremitting partisan rancor. A year has been lost with nothing to show for it but growing evidence that national politics is indeed a rigged game.

The easy response—and we have heard it for months—is that the Republicans are responsible for the intransigence in Washington. After all, it takes two to tango. But at a defining moment in the healthcare debate, John Boehner threw down the gauntlet. Healthcare reform, he stated, would be Obama’s Waterloo. Defeat healthcare legislation and you defeat Obama. Game on.

But at that moment, President Obama failed to engage the overarching issue of politics and partisanship, and instead the healthcare debate devolved into little more than another Washington food fight. Obama abdicated his commitment to reframe political debate and ceded the field to Congressional leaders with no interest or inclination to keep hope alive.

Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi had no interest in Obama’s pledge to young and independent voters to change the tenor of politics in Washington, because it is their politics. For Reid and Pelosi, the political price of setting aside the interests of the SEIU and the Trial Lawyers and others in favor of a bi-partisan deal was too high to pay. Instead of reaching across the aisle, Democratic leaders preferred instead to mute industry opposition to healthcare legislation by bringing the industry heavyweights—big pharma, the hospitals association and ultimately the insurance companies—inside the tent. After all, that would only cost money.

The result is legislation that makes a mockery of sensible healthcare reform. It is expensive. It continues deeply entrenched incentives to overspending. Its financing is dishonest. And it protects those industry interests—promising expanding markets and limited cost controls—along with the interests of unions and lawyers heavily invested in the status quo, proving once again the power of lobbyists and contributors to take any major piece of legislation and manipulate it to their benefit.

So was it all just words? One year in, where is the evidence that the campaign that was designed to win by building on the hopes and dreams of the electorate was something more than just tactics? Where is the courage to take the long view? Where is the courage to take on your friends and occasionally accommodate your adversaries? And where is the courage to take on the contributors and lobbyists that neuter and manipulate one legislative initiative after another.

Have we seen any of that?

This year, we have watched events unmatched perhaps since the Gilded Age a century ago, as bankers have dipped their hands deeply into our pockets and those of our children to protect and enrich themselves, and nothing but whimpers from our elected representatives who tell us that this is the way it has to be—even as they take some of that very same money for their own campaigns.

But it is not just the bankers. The pharmaceuticals and insurance industries will dig deeper into the federal trough as subsidized drugs and insurance mandates are enacted. Energy companies and traders are eagerly ogling the new carbon trading bonanza that looms under the cover of cap and trade legislation. And out in the heartland, Monsanto is rewriting the rules of the farm economy under the protection of intellectual property laws that give it greater and greater control over the agricultural economy and farm incomes.

November’s results were not haphazard. Voters have not forgotten or forgiven the Republican sins and profligacy of the Bush years. But that was then and this is now, and Dick Cheney is not on the ballot. But 2010 looms large, and 2012 not long after that, and for all the mocking of the Teaparties, Democrats are skating on thin ice, and there is real anger out there, and disgust and disappointment.

In all likelihood there will be no healthcare bill this year, and that may well be for the better. The Democrat strategy of relying on a narrow, partisan margin was undone in the House when an anti-abortion Democrats upended the political calculus and may leave Democrats to deal with their own internal battles. Then, perhaps, David Plouffe and his associates will look in the mirror. And perhaps they will not like what they see. Barack Obama is not doing well, despite what Plouffe insisted to an incredulous Jon Stewart.

If Barack Obama wants to get reelected, and win votes one more time from the young and independent voters who put him over the top, perhaps it is time he stop playing politics and govern like a president who is willing to lose. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are not doing Obama any favors, and will not win a single young or independent voter to his side next time. Unless he redeems his campaign slogans about changing our politics and demonstrates the courage to do what he promised to do the first time around, Obama will lose anyway, and have nothing to show for it but words.

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