Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Whither Democrats?

Last night's debacle is over. It actually ended up better than I feared. When I went to bed, MSNBC was projecting a net gain of 80 seats in the House. It ended up less than 60, which means we stole back 20 seats from the jaws of defeat.

So what to make of this difficult election? I thought I'd follow up yesterday's critique of Obama with a critique of Congress.

Let's look back for a moment and see what could have been done better.

First, the legislative agenda was completely screwed up, and for that, we have to blame Pelosi and Reid. There should have been a meeting between Reid, Pelosi and Obama in December of 2008 that set priorities, and I'm betting there was.

But the follow up was sorely lacking and it showed. Reid and Pelosi, but mostly Reid, should have caucused with the Democrats and hammered home a final bill for healthcare reform, the bank bailout and the stimulus package. That they got all this accomplished in the first two years is a testament to the will of Obama's underlings to get him re-elected, but Obama's presidency was never about the first term.

It was about the first two years: the golden moment when he'd own Congress.

I understand the laxity. After all, you had a bulletproof majority in the House and a near-bulletproof majority in the Senate. But near bulletproof is not bulletproof and the second any politician senses an opportunity to grab more power, he or she is going to do so.

It was mission critical for Obama that Senators like Nelson and Lincoln (who thankfully lost last night) and Congresscritters like Bart Stupak be brought into the fold and a unified front be presented to the nation and the Republicans.

Had the people of America seen the bills as pre-packaged law, they would have known that Democrats had things under control and would have felt better about the future. Likely, Dems would have retained both houses comfortably.

But there's more: someone over there needs to take control of getting everyone on message.

Say what you will about the GOP: they may be brutish nasty little fucks, but they're ALL brutish nasty little fucks with the same message.

Here's what should have happened.

The second wave of bank bailouts, a follow up to Bush's short-sighted and selfish money pit, should have been rolled out first. It should have been called or at least characterized "Emergency (Rescue works even better) Liquidity Loans".

"Loans" being the operative word. Then as each bank repaid the Fed, Obama should have held a schmaltzy ceremony with an oversize check made out to Uncle Sam which included the amount loaned and interest. A photo op proving that the economy was getting back on its feet.

People know what a "bailout" means. It means that you have low expectations of getting your money back, that it's a gift.

Next up, tackle the stimulus bill. It has to follow quickly, and the reason these all should have been pre-packaged was to avoid the shambles of Senators trying to get a bigger piece of the pie.

Two points should have been hammered home in the passage of this bill: one, it contained the single largest tax cut in American history ($300 billion) for 95% of Americans, and it was being passed by Democrats, not Republicans. That should have been the centerpiece of the discussion of the bill and not the "shovel-ready projects" nonsense that was featured.

Second, the additional stimulus spending was given to state and local governments to spend on projects most critical to them. "Shovel-ready" to me meant that these were projects that in an already declining economy, those governments had committed to seeing thru. They were critical. Additional funding would allow those projects to expand without the need for local revenue, freeing those to retain teachers and firefighters. They should have been called "critical repairs" or "vital infrastructure," with images of the I-35 collapse played over and over again on the TeeVee.

"Shovel-ready" to other people just sounded like a pile of horseshit waiting to be moved.

The most important political reason this bill needed to be passed quickly was to get the money into the hands of people. The most important political reason to pass it in the fashion I suggested was to force the GOP to oppose a tax cut. Highlight that fact, early and often, and you can run a year later on that opposition. Also, it blunts the Teabaggers' most effective and contrived weapon.

One more point on this bill: the deficits were out of control, it's true. What the Democrats should have pointed out, and much much more forcefully, is that when Obama took over, the national debt stood at $11 trillion and will come in around $13 trillion this year.

When Bush took over, the national debt was $6 trillion. That's right, Bush's tax cuts and war-mongering cost us $5 trillion, with no consummate spike in economic activity (Bush actually ran a negative job growth figure until 2005, despite his enormous expansion of the government AND three tax cuts). This lays the groundwork for two things: one, this spending is necessary and two, we're going to have to adjust taxes to account for it.

Third, healthcare reform. As I pointed out yesterday, it took a year from proposal to passage. THat was too long, for a very important logistical reason: implementation of even the simplest parts took six months.

Had the bill been passed in the fall of 2009, or better still, the spring, Congress would have had real success stories coming out of HCR. Denial of coverage would have been a thing of the past. Children would be allowed to stay on their parents' plans. On those alone, much good would have been reported upon. Think about the economy and how if people could take money they were spending on emergency healthcare and spend it on paying down the mortgage or even finding some way to buy a few nice things, we'd have an economy primed for recovery already.

It would already have encouraged maintaining good health over specialized care, which to me will be the most important element of the bill. A free mammogram is going to be cheaper for everyone than an uninsured's mastectomy. That's just common sense, and that portion of HCR would be in effect already.

The Democratic leadership blew the roll-out of the Obama agenda and as such, deserved the losses they suffered.

But what to do going forward?

Undoubtedly Boehner will try to push thru some of the Teabagger agenda of lowering taxes and cutting spending. He'll fail miserably at it, but some legislation will get thru, and will get stoned in the Senate.

He'll fail because there really isn't much spending to cut and cutting revenues now will only serve to lower an already decrepit tax revenue stream. Something like 60-70% of Federal expenditures are for defense or Social Security and Medicare.

If you'll recall, much of the Teabagger anger was at "keeping government hands off my Medicare!"

Yea, so Boehner tries it, and he'll see an uprising.

I'm tempted to say to the Dems in the House, sit back and enjoy the show. But there's an opportunity here to mediate the conflict, and to come off as the party of reason between the oligarchists and the populists. This, along with Obama's coattails in 2012, should be enough to recapture the House, if they finally find a message mill who can frame the discussion for them (I'm available, of course).

Keep pointing out that the House was never in this much disarray under Pelosi, that the Congress got more accomplished for the American people and should have earned their trust (for the reasons I mentioned above) but were so focused on doing good work that Democrats forgot we needed to polish up our resumes.

In the Senate, well, I hope they oust Reid as Majority Leader, but I don't see it happening. What Reid needs to do is to hand off the public face of the Democratic leadership to another, more popular Senator. Feinstein's an interesting choice for this, so is Schumer, but my dark horse here is NY's other Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand. She has centrist chops, to be sure, but she's photogenic and has shown a capacity to understand and execute orders. Failing that, Patrick Leahy or Amy Klobuchar would make excellent major domos.

Legislatively, there's an opportunity to pull off a surprise: work with Rand Paul. Bernie Sanders, the Socialist from Vermont, surprisingly had a good rapport with Paul's father, Ron and claimed he was able to work with him. Ask Sanders to approach Rand in the same fashion, and the 2012 campaign can be blunted by pointing to Rand Paul's cooperation with Dems.

The Senate under Reid for the next two years will be the Senate under Reid for the past two years: a place where bills go to die (unless they water them down). With a majority party in opposition in the House, this should be a pretty dull Senate session.

I can't recall a situation in recent memory where the Senate was firmly held by one party and the House by the other. This ought to be an interesting two years.