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Affordable Care Act

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A Wasted Opportunity. | So Now What?

“The task facing the makers of the Obama museum, however, will be pretty much exactly the opposite: how to document a time when America should have changed but didn’t. Its project will be to explain an age when every aspect of societal breakdown was out in the open and the old platitudes could no longer paper it over — when the meritocracy was clearly corrupt, when the financial system had devolved into organized thievery, when everyone knew that the politicians were bought and the worst criminals went unprosecuted and the middle class was in a state of collapse….It was a time when every thinking person could see that the reigning ideology had failed, that an epoch had ended, that the shitty consensus ideas of the 1980s had finally caved in — and when an unlikely champion arose from the mean streets of Chicago to keep the whole thing propped up nevertheless.”

In Salon, Thomas Frank laments the wasted opportunity of the Obama years. “Why, the visitors to his library will wonder, did the president do so little about rising inequality, the subject on which he gave so many rousing speeches? Why did he do nothing, or next to nothing, about the crazy high price of a college education, the Great Good Thing that he has said, time and again, determines our personal as well as national success? Why didn’t he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got? Why not a proper stimulus package? Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?”

Frank’s piece is definitely a bit overwritten, with its “mausoleum of hope” and all. That being said, I’m on board with his central thesis, as I’ve said several times before. (In fact, I was glad to see when fixing the old archives lately, that however hopey-changey I felt in 2008, I was more measured in my writing than I remembered, bringing up the ominous example of Herbert Hoover in my post-election post and wondering what the heck was going on within two weeks of Obama’s inauguration.)

Also, to get a sense of what a bad place our party is at these days, just look at Kevin Drum’s ridiculous response to this Tom Frank piece. Drum, mind you, is the official blogger of Mother Jones, named after the famous labor leader. And he writes: “It’s easy to recognize this as delusional…Because — duh — the hated neoliberal system worked. We didn’t have a second Great Depression. The Fed intervened, the banking system was saved, and a stimulus bill was passed…As for Obama, could he have done more? I suppose he probably could have, but it’s a close call.”

A close call? C’mon. As I responded on Twitter: “And all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. This neoliberal horseshit would’ve made Mother Jones blanch. This piece sidesteps O’s GWOT record. 2. It ignores O’s penchant for starting negotiations where they should finish. 3. It presumes filibuster reform impossible. 4. It ignores that financial crisis response grew inequality. And so on.”

And, remember: This fatalistic “Americans are all centrists anyway, Obama did all he could” shrug is coming from the house blogger of one of our foremost progressive journals. It’s pathetic. This is yet another example of we progressive Democrats no longer having the courage of our convictions.

See also this very worthwhile Salon piece on Zephyr Teachout’s challenge to notorious douchebag Andrew Cuomo, by my friend and colleague Matt Stoller, which talks about this exact same phenomenon.

“The basic theory of the ‘New Democrat’ model of governance is that Wall Street and multinational corporate elites produce wealth through the creation of innovative financial practices and technology, and that Democrats should then help middle class and poor citizens by taxing this wealth, and then using some of it to support progressive social programs…This method of running the economy has become so accepted among Democratic leaders that writers like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and Vox writer Matthew Yglesias now argue that there simply is no alternative…

“There is a hunger in the Democratic Party for making the party serve the interest of regular voters, not the rich. In 2008, liberal Democrats decisively broke from the Clinton legacy and voted for Barack Obama, with his mantra of hope and change. Obama, however, stocked his administration with Clinton administration officials like Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and Janet Yellen. A joke going around Democratic circles after the election was that ‘Those supporting Obama got a president, those supporting Clinton got a job.’ Obama broke with the Clinton name, but brought the Clinton intellectual legacy, and Clinton’s Wall Street-backed machine, into governance…”

“The potentially transformative message of the Teachout-Wu campaign is that the problem is not solely one of personalities or tactical political approaches. Rather it is that the New Democrat model itself, and the Democratic party establishment, is fundamentally at odds with the party’s traditional liberalism…Teachout and Wu are trying to place the citizen at the center of policy. They do that through their proposals for public financing, for antitrust, for social insurance, infrastructure and labor.”

Without vision, the people perish. If we ever want to see the real and positive change that Americans were promised back in 2008, we progressives have to stop acting like we have no other option than to fall into line behind the leftiest of the centrists and clap harder for every occasional, diluted-to-all-hell scrap they throw our way. There’s more to life than Rockefeller Republicanism, and it’s not like we don’t have excellent historical templates to borrow from. We need to dream bigger, stop thinking the status quo is all there is, and push back.

Are Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu going to knock out Andrew Cuomo, a guy who’s quite obviously the poster child for everything that’s wrong with our party? Alas, probably not. But one does not always fight because there is hope of winning. And New York in 2014 is as a good a place as any to start the long uphill slog of taking back our party.

Update: Right on cue, the NYT delves into Andrew Cuomo’s hobbling of the state ethics commission. “[A] three-month examination by The New York Times found that the governor’s office deeply compromised the panel’s work, objecting whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Mr. Cuomo or on issues that might reflect poorly on him.”More here.

Meanwhile, Blake Zeff thinks Cuomo may have met his match in US Attorney Preet Bharara. “[Bharara] has not only taken possession of the files from the corruption-fighting Moreland Commission that Cuomo recently closed down as part of a budget deal, but has also publicly floated the possibility of investigating the governor’s alleged meddling in its investigations.”

The Wisdom of the Elders.

“Does this rollout failure discredit the core goals of a liberal project, including that of a mixed economy, a regulatory state, and social insurance? Conservatives in particular think this website has broad implications for liberalism as a philosophical and political project. I think it does, but for the exact opposite reasons: it highlights the problems inherent in the move to a neoliberal form of a governance and social insurance, while demonstrating the superiorities in the older, New Deal form of liberalism.”

Assessing the failure of the healthcare.gov rollout, Mike Konczal makes the case for returning to the old ways. “[T]he Category B grouping, which we associate with the New Deal and the Great Society…creates a universal floor so that individuals don’t experience basic welfare goods as commodities to buy and sell themselves…My man Franklin Delano Roosevelt may not have known about JavaScript and agile programming, but he knew a few things about the public provisioning of social insurance, and he realized the second category, while conceptually more work for the government, can eliminate a lot of unnecessary administrative problems.”

Of course, Social Security had rollout problems too. And progressives at the time definitely lamented the concessions that were made as Social Security evolved from bill to law, including the exclusion of agricultural and domestic laborers [re: African-Americans] from the law. (Frances Perkins: “The whole thing has been chiseled down to a conservative pattern.”)

That being said, I think it’s important to keep this in mind every time the right starts complaining about byzantine complexities in the Affordable Care Act: We could’ve avoided many of these issues if this change-bringing administration hadn’t immediately ruled out the obvious progressive solution to the health care problem — a single-payer system of Medicare-for-all, like most other advanced industrialized nations enjoy, perhaps phased in with an immediate voluntary buy-in and a gradual lowering of the coverage age.

Instead, we adopted the Republicans’ proposal, the marketplace/exchanges plan originally conceived by the Heritage Foundation and enacted by Mitt Romney, without even including a public option to keep the insurers honest. And what’d we get for this ginormous unforced concession to the right? Nothing. Republicans still didn’t support the health care law in 2010, and they’ve screamed holy hell that it’s tyrannical government socialism for the past three-odd years — even though it was their plan to begin with.

Now, they’re deliberately sabotaging implementation of the ACA and trying to pin every misstep, including this rather sad website #fail, as a failure of the liberal project. As Konczal aptly points out, what’s failing here is the NEO-liberal project — the desire to embrace public-private, technocratic conservative ideas of a generation ago (see also: cap & trade), in the hopes that today’s conservatives will somehow be intellectually honest enough to support them too. That is a sucker’s bet every time.

One other important takeaway from this article: “[I]f all the problems are driven by means-testing, state-level decisions and privatization of social insurance, the fact that the core conservative plan for social insurance is focused like a laser beam on means-testing, block-granting and privatization is a rather large problem. As Ezra Klein notes, ‘Paul Ryan’s health-care plan — and his Medicare plan — would also require the government to run online insurance marketplaces.'”

In other words, here again conservatives are decrying exactly what they ostensibly espouse. Perhaps a better way forward on fundamental pieces of legislation, instead of playing Lucy and the football with the Republicans, is to try to enact our own ideas from now on.

Update: In Foreign Affairs, Kimberly Morgan makes much the same argument: “The real source of Obamacare’s current problems lies in the law’s complexity. A straightforward way to assure coverage would have been to extend an existing, well-worn program to more people…In the United States, [due to] political antipathy to government programs…policymakers regularly rig up complex public-private, and often federal-state, arrangements that are opaque to the public, difficult to administer, and inefficient in their operation.”

Nihilists, Dude.

“‘It’s imperative to act now, Cruz warns, before the full benefits of Obamacare kick in and Americans get “hooked on the sugar, hooked on the subsidies.’ His plan: Yoke the defunding of Obamacare to the must-pass budget bill the House will take up in September. The endgame? To force a government shutdown so painful and protracted that Barack Obama would have no choice but to surrender the crown jewel of his presidency. ‘As scary as a shutdown fight is,’ Cruz insists, ‘if we don’t stand and defund Obamacare now, we never will.'”

Another dispatch from the madhouse: In a fine piece of reporting, Rolling Stone‘s Tim Dickinson delves inside the Republican suicide machine. “Having backed the GOP into a shutdown fight that congressional leaders never wanted, the insurgents are winning, and establishment leaders are running scared. America is now careening toward a catastrophic voluntary default on our debt because no one in the Republican Party with the authority to put on the brakes has the guts to apply them, for fear of being toppled from power.”

An important point Dickinson makes here that cannot be emphasized enough: We didn’t just stumble into this crisis: Taking the government and the debt ceiling hostage was the strategy all long, and the right-wing insurgents have been planning for this for months. “They’d drawn a dangerous lesson from the previous battle: Brinksmanship works…In February, the House temporarily suspended the debt ceiling — intending to give the president’s poll numbers three months to come back to earth.”

Hey, speaking of polling numbers coming back to Earth

In any case, see also the NYT on this: “To many Americans, the shutdown came out of nowhere. But interviews with a wide array of conservatives show that the confrontation that precipitated the crisis was the outgrowth of a long-running effort to undo the law, the Affordable Care Act, since its passage in 2010 — waged by a galaxy of conservative groups with more money, organized tactics and interconnections than is commonly known.”

So we’re not in this hostage crisis by accident. The GOP even changed the House rules so they could maximize this confrontation. Republicans saw Obama fold in December 2010 on the Bush tax cuts and in August 2011 on the last debt ceiling hike. They think they can make him fold again here, and on every subsequent debt ceiling hike, and sadly, history is on their side on this. As Ted Cruz put it a few months ago: “If you have an impasse, you know — one side or the other has to blink. How do we win this fight? Don’t blink.”

Another small digression: If, like Ralph Nader this morning, you’re wondering why the right-wing of the GOP always seems to pull these sorts of stunts off while the left-wing of the Dems are usually completely marginalized, two quick answers: 1) The lefties don’t have billionaires backing their plays, and 2) we’re the People’s Front of Judea. They’re the right, they’re inherently better at the goose-stepping.

That being said, this whole episode also illustrates why it’s useless for Democrats to try to meet these fools halfway on policy: Republicans have now spent almost three years voting constantly to end the Affordable Care Act. To break a health care law originally penned by the Heritage Foundation and enacted by Mitt Romney, they have shut down the government and sent us to the brink of an economic default. So, how, exactly, would things be different if we had just passed Medicare for all, and/or a public option? They were going to lose their shit regardless, just like they did on Social Security, on Medicare, and any other progressive issue you can think of. There’s no point in trying to placate people who aren’t bargaining in good faith.

Anyway, as it happens, and as Andrew Sullivan recently pointed out, we’ve seen a minority party in America rejected at the polls try to take the entire nation hostage before. Here’s Abe Lincoln in 1861:

“What is our present condition? We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are either attempting to play upon us, or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum. A year will not pass, till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union.”

So too here: This time the scalp the GOP wants is the Affordable Care Act, or the Ryan budget, or social insurance cuts, or Malia Obama. “‘The girl. Bring us the girl,’ said Congressman Steve King (R-IA)..’The bill may pass, but the firstborn shall be ours.'” It’ll be something else the next time and the time after that.

That’s why John Judis is calling this “one of the worst crises in American history“, and why Jon Chait wrote that “Allowing Republicans to default on the debt now is better than trading something that allows them to threaten it later.” Because if Obama buckles this time — and, let’s remember, we already gave the GOP their sequester-funding-levels — the Republicans will just keep taking the American government and economy hostage to get whatever they want. And quicker than you can say he-said, she-said, the rest of the lazy Beltway media will come to treat this sort of hostage-taking as politics as usual. It has to end here, or it never will.

Dispatches from the Madhouse.

“There have been lazier Congresses, more vicious Congresses, and Congresses less capable of seeing forests for trees. But there has never been in a single Congress — or, more precisely, in a single House of the Congress — a more lethal combination of political ambition, political stupidity, and political vainglory than exists in this one…We have elected an ungovernable collection of snake-handlers, Bible-bangers, ignorami, bagmen and outright frauds, a collection so ungovernable that it insists the nation be ungovernable, too. We have elected people to govern us who do not believe in government.”

In other words, the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Or put another way: “It’s a Madhouse…a Madhouse!” So, yeah, this is my day job, and, sad to say, it’s mostly been like this since 2010: Two-to-three days out of the week, the House votes to repeal, defund, delay, or otherwise hamstring the Affordable Care Act. On the off day, it usually pays homage to some other deeply stupid and destructive Republican shibboleth, like, say, scrapping literacy programs, gutting the EPA, or kicking four million poor people off of Food Stamps.

That’s business as usual ’round these parts, and this idiotic, self-inflicted shutdown is just the apotheosis of the creeping crazy that has afflicted the House over the past three years. On the off-chance that people just might get better access to affordable health insurance — from a free-market-based plan originally conceived and enacted by Republicans, mind you — the GOP have now completely shut down the federal government. And since it’s looking like America just isn’t backing their play on this, the GOP already have their eye set on a bigger hostage: the nation’s credit rating. Here’s Clownshoes Ryan on this: “I think it will fold into the debt-ceiling fight. I think that’s inevitable, and preferable in my opinion…I like combining all of our leverage, which is sequester and the debt limit.”

That Ryan quote brings up an important and often-overlooked point about this current madness: There is a method to it, and for the GOP — however bad the headlines — this is mostly going according to plan. For, absent all the Sturm und Drang surrounding the Affordable Care Act, when it comes to the actual budget situation: The Democrats have (once again) already caved, and the Republicans will almost assuredly be getting the Austerity Economy they so desire. To wit:

Dave Dayen: “The new fiscal year, which begins October 1, is the natural moment to assess the harm sequestration has wrought, and fix it to prevent more damage. But the extreme nature of the House Republican demands has made a ‘clean’ budget resolution with spending cuts intact the compromise position in the debate.”

Digby: “The Democrats already folded. Sequestration is now the ongoing law of the land and Paul Ryan’s budget wet dream is considered the ‘clean’ continuing resolution…the Democrats have been losing on policy every step of the way since these budget battles began, even as they seem to be winning the politics. What could be more telling than the fact that the numbers in Paul Ryan’s budget are now considered the starting point in any new negotiations to end the shutdown?”

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA): “It’s baffling to me that the Republicans aren’t claiming victory. I’ve talked to a lot of them, privately, and a lot of them say, ‘Yeah, this is what we want. We should call it a day.'”

The point being, and with the caveat that a crisis situation has its own dangerously combustive logic — who knows what happens once ambitious, patently amoral dudebros like Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan call the shots? — the ACA fight is mostly a big shiny object to keep the fringiest of the right-wing loons happy and everyone else distracted. However much further down the rabbit hole the Republicans intend to take us — and it seems like they now want this to bleed right into the debt ceiling fight for maximum destructiveness — they’ve already got what they wanted in many of the ways that matter. They’re happier than a pig in slop whenever government seems broken. They rejoice every time lazy Beltway media pundits shrug and publish he-said, she-said stories about DC dysfunction. And they for all intent and purposes won their Austerity budget the moment Senate Democrats sent back and began pushing a “clean”-CR — meaning a government funded at sequester levels — as the compromise solution.

So, yeah, it’s a demoralizing time in Washington and no mistake — especially since, if anything, we’ll be lucky if the White House doesn’t try to step into the breach with another social-insurance-slashing Grand Bargain at some point. Hope and Change! But ah well, at least they keep making movies.

Welcome to the Machine.

“We end up with a question of just how long the slow decay of existing systems (many of them admittedly dysfunctional) will go on without anyone, technocrat or otherwise, having to deal with the fact that the needs that created those systems remain as acute as ever while the ability of our society to satisfy those needs is more and more deficient…Defund the schools in Philadelphia and the children of Philadelphia who can’t flee to private institutions or move with families to the suburbs are still there. Incentives can only push so much dust under the rug before the rug itself is mounded high to the ceiling of the room.”

In a less-than-positive review of the administration’s recently-proposed higher education reforms — in short, Race to the Bottom for colleges — Tim Burke attempts to explain the madness behind Obama’s technocratic method. “Technocrats live in the wonderland of the question marks in the Underpants Gnomes business model, endlessly fussing over the exact terms of Point #1 and certain that the Profit! of #3 will follow.”

Also, I said this in the Virtually Speaking chat the other day, but we’ve tried this sort of business-minded technocratic leadership before in America — It didn’t pan out. (Burke post by way of Tropics of Meta.)

Adjuncting Gets Even Worse.

“Allison G. Armentrout, an adjunct instructor at Stark State College, doesn’t get paid by the hour. She earns $4,600 to teach two English composition courses…On a recent week, she spent three hours preparing for her lectures, close to six hours in the classroom, and 16 more grading assignments for a grand total of about 25 hours. So she can breathe a sigh of relief because she won’t lose her job: She came in under the college’s new 29-hour-a-week wire designed to keep her ineligible for health-care coverage under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.”

Leave this academic factory, you’ll find me in the matinee: Compounding life in the Nine Circles of Adjunct Hell, more and more college and universities are trying to game the system so they don’t have to pay for adjuncts’ health care coverage. Because if you’re going to exploit your desperate, over-educated workforce like it’s a Gilded Age factory floor, why not go all the way?

“What is happening — and I’m finding this even with just two classes—because of the grading load, I’ve been put in a position twice this semester where I’ve just had to lie about the number of hours I actually worked. I don’t want to have to make a choice between having a job or not.”

Anatomy of a Tantrum.


This is the public option debate all over again. So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats had been fighting for, for a hundred years – but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get…somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise.

“Now, if that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position, and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves, and sanctimonious about how pure our intensions are and how tough we are…That can’t be the measure of how we think about our public service. That can’t be the measure of what it means to be a Democrat.

As I’m sure most of y’all know by now, the president decided to indulge in some cathartic lefty-bashing at his tax cut deal press conference earlier in the week. [Transcript.] At this point, the fact that Obama feels this way about progressives is not at all a surprise, and I feel like I’ve already responded to his appalling penchant for this sorta thing at length. So, here’re just a few numbered points about this latest sad window into Obama’s “pragmatic” mindset:

1) Alex Pareene at Salon cut right to the heart of the fallacy on display here: “[Obama] continues to imagine that his liberal critics are upset with the idea that compromises need to be made in order to accomplish progressive policy goals. Some of them are that stupid. But lots of them are actually critics of the White House’s legislative strategy, and their apparent willingness to preemptively compromise before the negotiations have already begun.Yep.

2) See also Paul Krugman: “Leave aside the merits for a moment: what possible purpose does this kind of lashing out serve? Will activists be shamed into recovering their previous enthusiasm? Will Republicans stop their vicious attacks because Obama is lashing out to his left? It was pure self-indulgence; even if he feels aggrieved, he has to judge his words by their usefulness, not by his desire to vent…[W]hat we really don’t need right now is a president who blames everyone but himself, and seems more concerned with self-justification than with sustaining the alliances he needs.

3) As I noted on Twitter, the president’s argument here is inherently contradictory. He began his presser by saying he had to make a bad deal because the Right, however wrongheaded, held stubbornly to their convictions. Then he verbally abuses the Left for…holding stubbornly to their convictions. Uh, it seemed to work pretty well for the GOP.

4) Speaking of Twitter, the Twitterverse response to the presidential presser is well worth perusing for gallows humor and hard truths. Take for example, “Obama: This is like the public option fight all over again where I caved and opposed the thing that reduced the deficit.

5) As many have pointed out now, the president is also wrong on his New Deal history. In the presser, he claimed Social Security was only for widows and orphans. Wrong. He’s thinking of the civil war pension system, circa 1862. I know that law degrees are considered the be-all, end-all of our civilization these days, but an ostensibly progressive president not understanding the origins of Social Security is sort of a big effing deal. (And he didn’t just misspeak — He’s said it before.)

6) As historian Thomas Ferguson noted several weeks ago, this is not the first time the president has badly screwed up the history of the New Deal in a way that was ultimately self-serving. (As an aside: Given they they chose to structure a major policy speech around a fake Lincoln quote, his communications staff isn’t much better.)

7) As Dan Froomkin pointed out, Obama’s argument about the public option is also contradictory. He argues that Social Security and Medicare started out small, than belittles the public option because it “would have affected maybe a couple of million people,” i.e. it would’ve started out small.

8) Obama also no longer seems to understand how the public option was supposed to work. Here’s Froomkin: “What the president conspicuously disregarded was that the central point of the public option was that its existence would exert enormous competitive pressure on the private insurance system. The goal was not to serve a particularly large number of people directly — that would only happen if the private offerings were terribly inadequate. The goal was to keep the private sector honest. So no matter how many people it enrolled, ‘the provision,’ as Obama put it “would have affected” tens of millions.” In other words, the public option was designed to be a yardstick. So, even in terms of recent history, there are some serious revisions going on.

9) Politico’s catty analysis of the president’s relationship with Chuck Schumer offered more insights on Obama’s thinking today: “Obama himself warned Schumer that the millionaire strategy could sink the stock market. When a vote on the millionaire plan came up short last Saturday, the administration gloated.” The vagaries of the stock market? Is that really what we’re basing our tax policies on these days? (Also, I don’t think Chuck Schumer, of all people, needs to be informed of when and how Wall Street will balk. I think he has his finger pretty solidly on that pulse.)

10) A day after the president’s remarks, Larry Summers solemnly informed us that not passing the millionaire tax cut would lead to a double-dip recession. This is basically the economic equivalent of the terror, terror, terror, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11 argument. And, as David Dayen and Jon Walker both pointed out: If the economy is resting on that sort of knife’s edge, why’s the White House just reduce purchasing power by announcing a federal worker’s pay freeze? Something does not compute.

11) Obama at the presser again: “Look at what I promised during the campaign. There’s not a single thing that I’ve said that I would do that I have not either done or tried to do. And if I haven’t gotten it done yet, I’m still trying to do it.” Um…do we really want to go there? Because I’m sure this would be news to Maher Arar. In any case, as a friend pointed out, this isn’t kindergarten — You don’t get a gold star just for “trying.”

Anyways, so, yeah, Obama doesn’t like “the professional left” very much. And, at this point, it’s safe to say the feeling is mutual. As for myself…well, these days I just feel like a sucker.

Minority Report.


Imagine for a moment you are president of the United States.

You were just elected in the midst of a worsening economic crisis, one that demands bold action and decisive leadership to confront. Fortunately, you enter office with an historic wind at your back: You enjoy unprecedented enthusiasm and goodwill from millions of new voters, a clear mandate for change, and, most importantly, sizable majorities in both the House and Senate.

You also know that the political opposition — who hold a long and storied record of being ruthless, craven and despicable to get what they want — will try to prevent your agenda by any means necessary.

And, being a student of history, you know that, particularly in the face of a poor economy, this political opposition is very likely to pick up congressional seats in the next election (with a few notable exceptions, one of which I’ll get to in a moment.) In other words, a pendulum swing against you is highly probable, and so the majorities you have are probably as big as they are ever going to get.

Basically, you have two years, and likely two years only, to do pretty much anything you want in order to grapple with this economic crisis. Do you [a] take a page from FDR’s 100 Days, go big, and push hard for the progressive agenda you laid down in your election campaign, which has the added benefit of enthusing the “rising American electorate” that got you elected? Or do you [b] try to ingratiate yourself with people who will always hate you, water down your signature legislative initiatives from the outset, and seemingly go out of your way to depress the lefty base that got you elected?

I think you see where I’m going with this.

First things first, let’s be clear about why the Republicans took back the House so decisively two days ago.

1) It’s the Economy, Stupid. Though it may be mostly Dubya’s fault, the economy is obviously still in terrible shape. The official unemployment rate hovers just under the double-digits, and real unemployment and underemployment levels are much higher. Household incomes are down, consumer debt is up, millions of homeowners are stuck with underwater mortgages, and millions more feel in danger of slipping under. As everyone knows, when economic times are bad, the party in power suffers.

Compounding the situation, families are feeling under the gun at exactly the same time that those same wealthy few who precipitated the Great Recession are now rolling in dough. Having evaded pretty much any and all serious consequences for the meltdown they created, the Big Brains on Wall Street are instead giving themselves record bonuses, and trying to profit from even more rampant corruption on the foreclosure front. To no one does this ugly sight look like change we can believe in.

2) Republicans voted, Democrats didn’t. Again, not rocket science: Democrats lost because Republicans came out and Democrats stayed home. Look at the breakdown of exit polls: As per the norm in midterms, the 2010 electorate was older than the population at large. (23% of the vote versus 13% of the population.) And 57% of those seniors, worried that the threat of Creeping Socialism might somehow interfere with their federal retirement security and universal health care, pulled the lever for Republicans.

Conversely, 29 million Obama voters did not show up to vote. “Hispanics, African Americans, union members and young people were among the many core Democratic groups that turned out in large numbers in the 2008 elections…In 2010, turnout among these groups dropped off substantially, even below their previous midterm levels.” Take voters under 30, for example, who vote Democratic at about the same rate seniors vote Republican. They went from 18% of the electorate in 2008 to 11% this year. Obviously, that’s a problem.

So, working back from these factors — economic performance and voter turnout — it follows that the two best things the administration could have done to improve Democrats’ standing this year would have been to get the economy moving again and to get the Democratic base fired up and ready to go. So what happened? Let’s look at the tape.

The Economy: As Paul Krugman has already pointed out, much of the story of this election was written way back in February 2009, when the Obama administration chose to settle on a stimulus package that was watered-down to appease Republicans who would never, ever vote for it. In fact, thanks to Larry Summers, the stimulus was low-balled from the start — Summers made sure Christina Romer’s higher-end projections for the amount needed never even made it to the president’s desk.

So the crystal was in the steel at the point of fracture, and mainly because Obama, doing the President Goldilocks routine that would become a trademark, watered down the Recovery Act early-on to appease an opposition that was unappeasable.

By late 2009, the warning signs that ARRA was probably too small were all over the place — not the least in the growing state budget crises seen all across the country. But even as Republicans throttled congressional attempts to remedy the situation, the Obama administration remained mostly passive…or, in the case of food stamps, worse. Many in the White House took up the standard of the deficit witchhunt. (Yes, there was some rhetorical urging of the tsk-tsk variety eventually, but that, as on so many other fights, was after the chips were already down.)

Going along with this frustrating passivity was the increasing sense over time that this administration, elected to be change we could believe in, was more than a little cozy with the Wall Street yokels who caused the economic disaster in the first place. Yes, TARP was originally Dubya’s baby — not that very many voters seemed to remember that fact. (And it’s hard to blame them when folks like Geithner keep touting its merits.) Still, acceding to the $700 billion bailout for Wall Street — with little to no strings attached — was an extraordinarily inopportune way to kick off an administration theoretically premised on fundamental change.

I have to confess that, at the time, I thought TARP was unfortunate but probably necessary. Two years later, I’m thinking I probably just just got railroaded, and didn’t know what I was talking about. (Hey, it wasn’t the only thing I was wrong about in 2008.) But, even back then, I argued that TARP had to come with game-changing restrictions on Wall Street’s behavior. Those, clearly, were not forthcoming.

Yes, Congress did pass financial reform — But let’s remember, Team Obama worked openly to weaken the bill, and even now certain admin folks are clearly trying to derail Elizabeth Warren, the best chance the financial reforms, however tepid, have at working as intended for consumers. (Or, to quickly take another example, there’s the matter of the HAMP foreclosure program, which, as David Dayen has documented, seems more concerned with recouping money for lenders than helping families in trouble.)

As on the finreg bill, so too on other fronts — and this is where we get to the suppressing turnout issue.

On health reform, which thank god eventually passed, we now know that the administration cut deals early on to kill drug reimportation on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry (even after Sen. Dorgan reintroduced the idea) and, more egregiously, to kill the public option on behalf of AHIP and the hospitals. Looking back, the president signaled the public option’s expendability in his September 2009 health care address, another classic example of the wait-too-long-then-try-to-swoop-in-and-save-the-day legislative strategy usually preferred by the White House. And by the eve of the midterms, he was openly mocking public option supporters at fundraisers.

But, even those fundamental breaks with real reform aside, the entire health care process got badly screwed up when the administration, in a misguided attempt to curry bipartisan favor for reform, let Max Baucus dink around for weeks on the Senate Finance Committee. While Republican Senators Snowe and Grassley played Lucy to Baucus’ Charlie Brown and kept moving the football, the Tea Party August of 2009 took shape, and almost a year in legislative time was lost. And, by the time Baucus finally released the durned thing, the bill had once again been watered down to gain imaginary Republican votes that were never, ever going to be forthcoming.

The litany of Obama’s other sins by now are well known. As noted before, this administration has been absolutely egregious on civil liberties, all the while telling us to “look forward, not backward” on Dubya’s torture regime. (But different rules for everyone else, it seems.) Meanwhile, Gitmo is still open, and DADT is still enforced. Immigration reform did not happen. Nor did energy reform, despite House Democrats going out on a limb to pass a bill way back in June of 2009. (Yesterday, Obama the “shellacked” buried this bill for good.) And so on.

If all these compromises and capitulation — which were never political necessities so much as unforced errors — weren’t enough to depress the base, the administration’s press arm continued a steady diet of hippie-punching. “Left of the left“, pajama-wearing bloggers, the “professional left” — time and again, “senior advisors” and press flaks went out of their way to scorn the people who sweat blood and tears to get them elected. I already mentioned Obama ridiculing public option supporters — Well, where did folks ever get the notion that a wonky, badly-named fix like the public option was the ground to fight on anyway? Because the president told us it was important.

To be clear: I am not arguing that Obama hasn’t accomplished anything (although, in almost all cases — including health care reform, much more credit should really go to the very unfairly maligned Speaker Pelosi — she’s the one who made it all happen.) But, at every point down the line, for every piece of legislation that did pass, you have to factor in the opportunity costs that were lost. And consistently, this administration has pursued the politics of the lowest common denominator. To quote the prescient Drew Westen once again:

I don’t honestly know what this president believes. But I believe if he doesn’t figure it out soon, start enunciating it, and start fighting for it, he’s not only going to give American families hungry for security a series of half-loaves where they could have had full ones, but he’s going to set back the Democratic Party and the progressive movement by decades, because the average American is coming to believe that what they’re seeing right now is ‘liberalism,’ and they don’t like what they see. I don’t, either. What’s they’re seeing is weakness, waffling, and wandering through the wilderness without an ideological compass. That’s a recipe for going nowhere fast — but getting there by November.

And, hey, look what happened.

Remember how I mentioned a midterm outlier way up at the beginning of this post? That was 1934 — when, in an economy even worse than the one America faces now, Roosevelt managed to pick up seats in both the House and Senate. FDR gave us the 100 Days, a flurry of political activity we haven’t seen before or since. Now, granted, the Roosevelt team did not have to contend with either unfettered money corrupting the system or a pathetic Fourth Estate in a death spiral — both severe problems with our current political culture that must be addressed. Still, when elected in the midst of a similar economic crisis, with similar expectations, this administration did not bring about a 100 Days. It gave us Three Months of Max Baucus dicking around to appease intractable Republicans.

So why did the 2010 shellacking happen? Because of the economy, yes. And because of low turnout, yes. And also because of troubling trends like corrupting money everywhere and a national press in severe decline — The fact that the media followed Christine O’Donnell more than any other 2010 candidate tells you all you need to know about that broken-down disaster we call the Village these days.

But, nonetheless, all of these determining factors were exacerbated in the wrong direction by the administration’s fatal addiction to the Fetal Position fallacy. As I said of this year’s State of the Union address, “people were not looking to President Obama for this sort of deficit tsk-tsking and small-bore, fiddling around the margins. You’d think we Dems would have learned this by now. But curling up into a fetal position and mouthing moderate GOP-lite bromides will not stop the Republicans from kicking us, ever.

Some argue politics is the art of the possible. That’s true, but I believe much, much more was possible if this administration had actually deigned to fight for it.

Some say the president can only do as much as Congress lets him — he needs 60 votes, yadda yadda yadda. I’d say that he had 60 votes, and even then did not push to make things happen as much as he could. I would also argue that the presidency of the United States is actually a remarkably powerful position these days, that Obama has showed no inclination to act progressive on crucial matters like civil liberties that are totally in his bailiwick, and that, even now with a Republican House, the administration could move forward with a progressive agenda, if it so desired.

Some — such as pathetic, DLC-brand fortunate sons like Evan Bayh and Harold Ford — say progressivism was tried and found wanting. I would argue progressivism was not even tried.

Some say it is time to go for the Dems to embrace a more “centrist”, GOP-lite Third Way from now on. I think we’ve been experimenting with that sad sack of failure for decades now — it’s our First Way — and it’s been proven over and over again not to work. (Just ask the Blue Dogs, who got eviscerated on Tuesday. Why vote for Republican-lite when you can have the real thing?)

Basically, it comes to this. Without vision, the people perish…and vote GOP. And because this administration did not go big, because it did not produce the change people so desperately desired, and because it forsook the possibility of real progressivism early and often to indulge their fantastical belief in the magical unicorns of High Broderism, the Democrats have now lost the House — ironically the one branch of government that, under Speaker Pelosi, actually tried to get done what had been promised.

Now, matters are worse.

Clap louder, hippies.

They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.’ Of those who complain that Obama caved to centrists on issues such as healthcare reform, Gibbs said: ‘They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.’” In the virulently stupid department, insulting the base and further depressing midterm turnout = change we can believe in? Um, no, not really. Thankfully, I was away from civilization when press secretary Robert Gibbs threw his whiny temper tantrum about “the professional left,” so I missed out on the initial bout of aggravation about it.

Suffice to say, Robert Borosage, among others, was on the case: “The left is pushing the president from the left? The horror. The shame…The president is in trouble because his historic reforms were too timid, not too bold…We can argue about whether the president fought hard enough, or compromised too soon — but the reality is that the reforms, as bold as they were, are not sufficient to deal with the mess we are in.” And that doesn’t even get into the torture and civil liberties clusterfrak, where reform has been non-existent. Dennis Kucinich? I’d be happy with the Barack Obama I ostensibly voted for, thanks much.

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