Tuesday, January 19, 2010

There's Lots Of Blame To Go Around, But Obama Deserves Plenty

I am one angry Democrat tonight.

As I said in the post title, there's plenty of blame to go around for Martha Coakley's loss. Let's start with Coakley herself. She ran one of the most pathetic campaigns in recent times. Starting out with an overconfidence Ted Kennedy never would have allowed himself, Coakley did virtually no campaigning after the primary. Assuming the primary was a coronation, she never let the voters know her. And when Scott Brown came out of nowhere to challenge her, she proved utterly tone deaf to Massachusetts voters, calling Red Sox legend Curt Schilling a YANKEE fan of all things. She may be a good public servant but is utterly uninspiring. Almost any Democrat could have won this race and she totally blew it.

And then there's Harry Reid. His incompetent Senate leadership made this election matter far more than it should. If the Democrats needed a simple majority to pass legislation, the loss of one vote is dispiriting, but hardly nightmarish. But since he lacks the skill to challenge Republican stalling tactics that are bringing the government to a standstill, tactics which I believe to be the most serious threat to democracy the country has faced in generations, Democrats need sixty votes to pass anything. In addition, his unwillingness to impose even a modicum of party discipline means moderates like Evan Bayh and Joe Lieberman control the party caucus, threatening to veto any legislation by withholding their 60th vote. Reid is operating under difficult conditions with the decline of the Senate as a functional organization, but he has also proven one of the most ineffectual Majority Leaders in American history.

But let's go to someone who deserves an awful lot of blame--Barack Obama. Now, I am not one of those progressives who has turned on Obama and sees him as an enemy because the health care bill isn't as comprehensive as I'd like or because he didn't come down as harshly on the Honduran coup as I'd like. I think his heart is in the right place. But Obama has consistently chosen weak tactics in dealing with Congress, the media, and the public at large. I will deal with all three aspects of this problem.

First, while Obama has presented big ideas to the public, he has shown little leadership in shaping their agenda or forcing Congress to do his bidding. In this, Obama has demonstrated party leadership so incompetent, you have to go back to Grover Cleveland to find a Democratic president worse at it. Obama and his advisers thought the lesson of Clinton's failed health care bill was to let Congress take the lead on shaping legislation and then step in and see the bill through in the end. They were partially wrong. While Clinton clearly erred in not consulting Congressional leaders in 1993, taking a 180 degree turn in congressional dealings has worked no better. Obama failed to recognize the very different makeup of Congress in 2009, not noting the regional shifts that contributed to the 1994 disaster, nor that he commanded a massive majority.

Even before he took office, Washington insiders like David Broder and David Brooks were recycling tired old Republican narratives that Democrats can't govern. But rather than promote his agenda with a consistent media blitz, Obama and Congress proved conventional wisdom true. Democratic infighting helped undermine Obama's agenda right away. Obama addressed the nation a couple of times, but this good idea wasn't followed by any consistent narrative. Obama could have used his own media to make this happen--sympathetic reporters, the blogosphere, and the same new media that helped elect him president. He failed to openly attack Republicans in the media, relying on ineffectual notions of bipartisanship that Republicans obviously did not share rather than tainting them with the failures of the previous eight years. When bipartisanship failed, Obama found himself unable to recapture momentum in the media, leaving him increasingly frustrated.

Finally, Obama's lack of leadership and inability to control the media narrative has undermined the public's confidence in him. Obama's was elected by a popular electoral movement not seen in this country since the 1930s. Millions of Americans were ready to die for him. But upon taking the Oval Office, Obama disbanded his organization in order to govern from the center. This mystifying decision will permanently haunt him. Had Obama asked for public health care rallies, thousands would have attended in cities throughout the nation. It would have been the first step in implementing a popularly approved progressive agenda. Or at least, it would have shown the media and the Republicans that health care had massive support. Instead, Obama allowed his public support to slip through his fingers. Instead, the tiny astroturf movement known as the Tea Parties became the most public popular expression of political beliefs in the country. Voters like leadership. Obama showed it during the campaign. But by the summer of 2009, only the tea parties and their allies in corporate media provided the leadership the public demands. And it caught Obama, his advisers, and Democratic leadership completely unawares. Republicans now control the political momentum, the media narrative, and the popular impression of standing for change, despite the fact that they plunged the country into this mess barely over a year ago.

Overall, Obama does not seem to understand the lessons of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. These great Democratic leaders knew that an effective presidency required strong leadership of the party from the Oval Office, forcefully pushing their agenda, and engaging the public and media in an aggressive manner to gain their support. Obama has some nice looking New Deal style posters promoting the stimulus package and that's about it. He must learn to take commanding control over his party and his agenda. Otherwise, he will endure a failed presidency and a blown rare opportunity in this nation for progressive causes.

What's especially galling is that Republicans have learned these lessons. They've learned them well. They engage in iron party discipline. They control the Senate for their purposes whether in the majority or minority. They have fantastic propaganda agencies, beginning with FOX News. They sell their agenda to the public. Their presidents dominate the agenda. It doesn't always work, but that's the nature of politics. Even when things don't go their way, Republicans recognize the soundness of the strategy and stick to the game plan. While I'm not suggesting the Democrats mimic the intellectual dishonesty and cynicism of the Republican Party, I am suggesting they apply the rules of effective governance their own ancestors created.

In the end, Scott Brown is not long for the Senate. I would be shocked if he ever wins election to a full term. He is far out of touch with Massachusetts voters, which they will quickly find out when he votes against everything they believe in. Once the economy turns around, people will think more positively about the Democrats. Despite early polls suggesting the public would give Obama time to fix the economy, there's no evidence in American history that voters ever have done this, except for Roosevelt and the New Deal. The Roosevelt exception happened because he implemented far reaching programs that immediately put people to work and tainted Republicans for a decade with economic greed and incompetence. Obama has failed to do this and now pays the price.

How Obama leads from this, the lowest point of his presidency, will determine his success in office. He could be Lyndon Johnson or he could be Jimmy Carter. To no small extent, the choice is his.