The election of Scott Brown to the United States Senate has been the sexy political story of the week, but it’s also a reminder to the Democratic party — and President Obama — that “change” doesn’t come without a fight. For the past year, Obama and the Democratic leadership have been far too conciliatory in their efforts to govern. Reagan Revolutionaries — fueled up on a heady mix of Randian certainty, (Leo)Straussian political theory, von Hayek economics, evangelical Christian social conservatism, and a right wing media coalition of AM talkers and Fox News Channel — have, for decades now, been at the storm front of their efforts to remake America in their own image. The presidency of George W. Bush demonstrated the limits of that ideology, and with the election of Barack Obama, the vast majority of the electorate connected with his message of change and projected their hopes (and votes) on him to bring about something other than Bushworld.
The issue of health care was a key concern among Americans during the 2008 campaign (still is, despite all the hoopla about “41” being the magic bullet killing “Obamacare”). Back in the post-glow of the presidential election, the thought that we here in the colonies would finally get health care that was affordable and universal meant many things to people. Mostly, I think people where excited by the thought that 1/6 of their paychecks weren’t going to 1/6 of an economic sector that, in some states, had a near monopoly over health insurance. Yes, there are 40 million people without insurance, but for many of those who have health insurance, it’s a world where each year you’re almost guaranteed to see your rates go up, your co-pays go up, and a level of care hampered by a private bureaucracy. People complain about taxes, and vote for candidates who promise not to raise theirs. But rarely do we see people voting to stop the rate of inflation on our health insurance.
In a way, it wouldn’t matter if Obama tried to create a health care plan like the Clintons did back in the ‘90s, or, like he chose to do, sketch some broad goals, and let Congress create a bill that took in the variety of goals and voices represented in both houses. Both methods of trying to reform the system meant that the opposition to such change would not go quietly into the night. And that’s exactly what happened. Republicans, and their conservative allies with deep pockets, threw tons of money at opposing Obama at every chance they could get. What did they have to lose? They were already a minority party who could say the most crazy-ass things on TV, radio, the Internet, or print, with very few people calling them on their shit. Indeed, the more crazy they were, the more media time they got. Sure you could watch Jon Stewart featuring a parade of wingnuts, see him shake his head and make a snarky remark, but then surf over to CNN, Fox News, or even the Big Three and see them taking up the topic of “death panels” like they were covering intricacies of the moon launch.
So Scott Brown wins and the big message is that it’s a political game changer. Well, it’s certainly going to make Obama’s job tougher in Congress, but how did that “filibuster-proof” majority in the Senate work out for Obama? It didn’t seem to stop Republicans from all the delaying tactics that kept the Senate in session almost to Christmas, nor did having clear majorities in both houses keep the bill from being watered down to the point where it hardly seemed like reform at all (Hello? Remember the deals with insurance companies, Nebraska, Louisiana, and unions?) Personally, I think Obama and the Democrats in Congress need this kick in the crotch. They need to be passionate about their politics the way Republicans are passionate about theirs. They need to energize the people who voted for them and remind them that if they don’t make demands like the people who oppose the reforms Obama are trying to make, the president is going to cave and chart a middle path between center-right and hard right. In short, the Democrats (both elected officials and voters) need to be clear on what the Democratic party stands for. With Republicans, they have their message down (even though for the last 8 years, their party has not walked the walk), but the Democrats? What do they believe in? Part of the problem is that the party is made up of a loose affiliation of groups that are not united around an ideology. Another part of the problem is that the president cannot (and does not) articulate a consistent set of goals he’s committed to (or in political parlance, issues he’s willing to die for). Maybe it’s because Obama was happy to be all things to all people on the campaign trail and have them project their hopes on him. His speeches were certainly rousing, his campaign was masterful, and the public loved the fact that he was a fresh face whose national political experience was minimal. However, for those who were really listening to his speeches, it was clear that he was very much a centrist much like Bill Clinton. And like Bill Clinton, he had a lot of corporate friends helping him fund his campaign. Money does indeed talk, but if we’re to believe Michael Lind writing in Salon, then the deep pockets that supplied Obama with cash did so because corporatists were placing their bets that Obama would correct the “neo-Confederate right[ward]” shift George W. Bush took the country. Corporatism seems to demand a coalition of Blue Dog Democrats and Olympia Snowe Republicans. There are certainly a good number of Blue Dogs in D.C. but where are the moderate Republicans? I guess the neo-Confederates that Lind is talking about either aren’t supporting Republican candidates, or if they are, their guys on the right ain’t delivering what they want.
Whatever the case, what really matters from here on out is whether Obama addresses the economic desperation that the corportists help to create for those struggling to hang on to whatever crumbs are blown their way. The unemployment rate is but one indicator in the Great Recession, and while it’s understandable that Obama had to address the big fires that would have certainly made matters worse if left unattended, losing focus on jobs, jobs, jobs (or to bring back a golden oldie from the Clinton era, “It’s the economy, stupid”), it left the field wide open for Republicans like Brown to tap into and foment resentment toward a president and his policies that were less than a year old.
So, where do we go from here? And by “We” I mean those who understand that in crisis like this, playing it politically cautious is the wrong thing to do. Since Obama is not going to change his cautious ways unless he’s forced to, and unless he just likes smiling for the camera, kowtowing to the Right, and acting like it’s all okay that he’s not getting what he was elected to do, he won’t get passionate about a liberal progressive agenda unless the people who voted for him hold his feet to the fire (Like LBJ told MLK to do back in the ’60s) and demand he act on the democratic wishes that propelled him into office.