The Third International after Lenin

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Kennedy liberalism after Kennedy

How did this guy win?

Scott Brown, a nearly unknown Republican a few weeks ago, won a comfortable victory over Democrats in the special election for U.S. senator in liberal Massachusetts.

IT WAS pretty clear that Martha Coakley's goose was cooked before the polls closed yesterday in the Massachusetts election to fill Ted Kennedy's seat in the U.S. Senate.

First, only the Democratic candidate's advisers were claiming that their "internal polls" showed Coakley ahead--most major public polls showed her losing to formerly unknown Republican Scott Brown by anywhere from five to nine percentage points. Second, her campaign announced a possible challenge to the results on the grounds of nebulous charges of voter fraud.

And third, Democrats--from the state level to the White House--started blaming each other for what happened. If nothing else, you knew these were signals of a campaign that thought it was going to lose.

And lose it did, with Brown--who vows to be the "41st vote" to uphold Republican filibusters to defeat health care reform legislation being considered in Congress--beating Coakley by a margin of 52 percent to 47 percent.

How, in a state that hadn't sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972, could a third-rate Republican state senator defeat the supposedly popular Democratic state attorney general? How could one of the "bluest" (most pro-Democratic) electorates in the country replace Ted Kennedy--who often called health care reform "the cause of my life"--with a conservative Republican whose main program is to defeat health care reform?

Republican candidate Scott Brown greeting supporters on the campaign trail

True, Coakley ran a lousy campaign. She was a terrible candidate who gave off the aura that she was simply entitled to take over the seat left vacant when Kennedy died. At a time when ordinary Americans are fed up with politicians and business leaders who act as if it's "business as usual" while ordinary people are hurting, this was a kiss of death.

All Brown had to do was to call out Coakley, insisting that he was running for the "people's' seat," in order to tap into the electorate's anger at out-of-touch politicians.

But it's too easy to put the blame on Coakley--which is exactly what the Obama White House and its supporters are trying to do with their post-election spin.

After all, Brown ran chiefly on a national issue--defeating health care reform--aimed right at the heart of the agenda that Barack Obama and the Democrats have championed for most of the last year. If the health care legislation that Congress looked likely to pass until Tuesday was at all popular, Coakley would have won in a walk.

But the health care proposals pushed by the Democratic Congress have become increasingly unpopular as the year has gone on. Incredibly, an issue that Democrats should have been able to use to defeat conservative Republicans for a generation to come has become a political albatross around their necks.

Why? Because the Obama administration turned the legislation into a corporate welfare scheme for the insurance companies, one of the most reviled industries in the country. As Robert Kuttner, editor of the liberal American Prospect, wrote:

By embracing a deal that required the government to come up with a trillion dollars of subsidy for the insurance industry, Obama was forced to pursue policies that were justifiably unpopular--such as taxing premiums of people with decent insurance, or compelling people to buy policies that they often couldn't afford, or diverting money from Medicare. He managed to scare silly the single-most satisfied clientele of our one island of efficient single-payer health insurance--senior citizens--and to alienate one of his most loyal constituencies, trade unionists.

The bill helped about two-thirds of America's uninsured, but did almost nothing for the 85 percent of Americans with insurance that is becoming more costly and unreliable by the day--except frighten them into believing that what little they have is at increased risk of being taken away.

This has made it easy for Republicans to oppose the bill without even having to pay a political price for fronting for the current dysfunctional system.

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REPUBLICANS WILL also claim that the election result in Massachusetts represented a repudiation of the "liberal agenda," "big government," the "Washington elite" and the like. And as surely as day follows night, the clamor of Beltway pundits and conservatives urging Obama and the Democrats to "move to the center" (i.e. to the right) will grow deafening.

The idea that Obama was even pursuing a liberal agenda will come as news to millions of his supporters who have become increasingly demoralized with an administration that seems more interested in helping out Wall Street bankers than "Main Street" Americans losing their jobs and houses.

A September 2009 Economic Policy Institute poll asked a national sample of registered voters to say who they thought had "been helped a lot or some" from the policies the administration enacted. The result: 13 percent said the "average working person," 64 percent identified "large banks," and 54 percent said "Wall Street investment companies."

Democratic consultant Celinda Lake, who did polling for the Coakley campaign, found an even more amazing result in Massachusetts. As she told the Huffington Post:

On the eve of the election, Martha Coakley had a 21-point advantage over Scott Brown on who would fight Wall Street and deliver for Main Street. But it didn't predict to the vote, because voters thought, even if they sent her down here, it wouldn't happen. Fine, she had done it in Massachusetts, but no one was doing it in Washington...

2010 is fast turning out to be a blame election, and I think that either we're going to characterize who deserves the blame--whether that's banks and lobbyists and people who still want to hold on to national Republican economic strategies--or we're going to get the blame. And that's a very different tone than, often, the administration is comfortable with.

If Americans are repudiating "big government," it's because they see the government helping Wall Street, rather than working people--hardly an endorsement of Republican trickle-down economics.

But if Democrats are the party in power and seen as fronting for Wall Street or the insurance cartel, an angry electorate looking for some bums to throw out of office will toss the Democrats. And as long as there's no credible third party alternative from the left, the Republicans and the right will benefit from Democratic losses.



NY Times, January 21, 2010
Obama Weighs Shift in Health Plan, Seeking G.O.P. Backing

WASHINGTON — With Democrats reeling from the Republican victory in the
Massachusetts special Senate election, President Obama on Wednesday
signaled that he might be willing to set aside his goal of achieving
near-universal health coverage for all Americans in favor of a
stripped-down measure with bipartisan support.

“It is very important to look at the substance of this package and for
the American people to understand that a lot of the fear-mongering
around this bill isn’t true,” Mr. Obama said in an interview on ABC
News. “I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around
those elements of the package that people agree on.”

He continued: “We know that we need insurance reform, that the health
insurance companies are taking advantage of people. We know that we have
to have some form of cost containment because if we don’t, then our
budgets are going to blow up and we know that small businesses are going
to need help so that they can provide health insurance to their
families. Those are the core, some of the core elements of, to this bill.”

Mr. Obama’s remarks came as the White House and Democratic congressional
leaders fumbled for a way forward with their major health care overhaul,
and struggled to digest the reality that their top legislative priority
had been derailed by the outcome in Massachusetts.

The White House insisted that Mr. Obama still preferred passage of a
far-reaching health care measure, and Democratic leaders said they were
weighing their options. But some lawmakers in both parties began calling
for a scaled-back bill that could be adopted quickly with bipartisan

As the full Congress returned to Washington to start a new legislative
year — on the first anniversary of Mr. Obama’s inauguration — their
options were limited. House leaders signaled that they had effectively
ruled out the idea of adopting the Senate bill, which would send it
directly to the president for his signature.

The victory in Massachusetts on Tuesday, by the Republican candidate,
Scott Brown, denies Democrats the 60th vote they need to surmount
filibusters and advance a revised health measure. And Senate leaders
said they would not risk antagonizing voters by trying to rush a bill
through before Mr. Brown could be sworn in.

Democrats also grappled with the implications of losing their 60-vote
majority for their wider legislative agenda, including efforts to
tighten regulation of the financial system and to combat global warming,
even as they sensed new urgency to turn their full attention to creating
jobs and improving the economy.

At the White House and at the Capitol, high-level Democrats seemed
stunned by the turn of events, though it had been clear for several days
that they could lose in Massachusetts. “Bottom line,” said one Democrat
who is close to the White House, “In the first 24 hours there is
literally no good option.”

Democrats, from Mr. Obama on down, however, made a concerted effort to
portray the results in Massachusetts as a reflection of long-simmering
populist anger, and not a referendum on the health care legislation or
on the year-old administration, which came into office facing steep

“Here’s my assessment of not just the vote in Massachusetts, but the
mood around the country: the same thing that swept Scott Brown into
office swept me into office,” Mr. Obama said in the interview on ABC.
“People are angry, they are frustrated. Not just because of what’s
happened in the last year or two years, but what’s happened over the
last eight years.”

The Massachusetts race and the ensuing unease among Democrats also
threatened to complicate any chance the White House had of winning
passage this year of legislation to curb global warming through an
emissions trading system.

But the outcome might put further impetus behind efforts to bring down
the budget deficit, a topic the White House has become more visibly
active in addressing in recent days. On Tuesday, the administration and
Congressional Democrats agreed on a plan to create a commission to
recommend ways of attacking the deficit and the national debt.

At a news conference at the Capitol, the Senate majority leader, Harry
Reid of Nevada, made a concerted effort to minimize the health care
issue in relation to other concerns among the American public,
particularly about jobs and the economy. But he made clear that
Democrats did not see a clear path forward.

“The election in Massachusetts changes the math in the Senate,” Mr. Reid
said. “But it doesn’t change the fact that people are hurting.” Pressed
about the health care legislation, Mr. Reid said, “The problems out
there -- it’s certainly more than health care.” Pressed again, he said:
“No decision has been made.”

Several senior Democrats said they did not know if the health care
legislation could be salvaged.

Republicans showed no new signs of willingness to work with the
Democrats. Asked what he would be willing to work on with majority, the
Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, offered meek
praise for Mr. Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan but did not offer a
single example on domestic policy.

Mr. McConnell was asked of the health care bill was dead. “I sure hope
so,” he said. “As we said through the month of December, as you know, we
were here every day, we ought to stop and start over and go step-by-step
to concentrate on fixing the problem.”

Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said she was eager to work
with Democrats in devising an alternative to the health care bill passed
four weeks ago by the Senate on a party-line vote.

“What I hope the White House will do is start from scratch and, instead
of pushing this bill through the House, work with a bipartisan group of
senators to achieve a consensus bill that would have widespread
support,” Ms. Collins said Wednesday. “There are many provisions of the
bill that have bipartisan support. And I believe the president would be
wise to draft a new bill that he could get through both the House and
the Senate with super-majority votes.”

She added: “Many members of our caucus believe that health care reform
is needed, just not this particular bill,” Ms. Collins said. “It is a
mistake for the administration to try to constantly find the 60th vote.
Instead, they should look at the message that was sent by Massachusetts,
representing the views of many Americans that the people of this country
want the administration to pursue a more moderate, inclusive agenda.”

Senator Mark Pryor, Democrat of Arkansas, said it was too early to know
if the health care legislation could be salvaged. Referring to the
Massachusetts election, he said, “We need a few days to let this sink in
and see what it means.”

Mr. Pryor said Democrats should reach across the aisle. “We are a lot
better off when we work in a bipartisan way,” Mr. Pryor said.
“Republicans have a lot of good ideas.” But when he and other Democrats
tried to work with Republicans last year, Mr. Pryor said, “we were
flatly rejected.”

Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Democrat of West Virginia, said he was
skeptical of suggestions to scale back health care legislation and pass
some incremental changes as part of a stripped-down bill.

“That’s probably not so wise,” Mr. Rockefeller said. “That could become
another long process.”

One idea is to pass a bill that focuses on tough federal regulation of
health insurance markets. But Mr. Rockefeller asked, “Does that cover 35
million Americans?” The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that
the House and Senate bills would eventually cover more than 30 million
people who are uninsured.

Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa and chairman of the Senate health
committee, said he had six words of advice for colleagues searching for
a health care strategy: “Don’t panic. Be strong. Be positive.”

Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, said the
message from Massachusetts was that voters “want us to work together and
not do too much at once.”

Mr. Lieberman said that at the weekly caucus lunch, Democrats on
Wednesday had discussed the need to “let things settle down. let people
think a little bit about what happened.”

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