Politics is so amazing. Who would have thought that Teddy Kennedy would be succeeded in the U.S. Senate by a Republican? The GOP now has the necessary 41 votes to block anything that the Democratic Senate majority wants to do, from passing legislation to confirming judges. The White House has been very slow to fill judicial and U.S. attorney slots and have squandered that opportunity. The Democrats have achieved NOTHING, and now they can't do anything without Republican votes. George W. Bush became a lame duck with two years to go when the Republicans lost control of Congress in the 2006 midterms. Obama may have become a lame duck for the remainder of his term.
The Democratic party is in shambles. In Congress, the left is angry that nothing has been accomplished. The center is scared to death that if they vote for something Obama wants, they will be wiped out in November.
What is Obama thinking? He passively allowed Reid and Pelosi, two of the most unpopular politicians in America, to take charge of his legislative agenda, and they could not craft legislation that could pass two houses of Congress with big Democratic majorities, much less win the confidence of the American people. The health care bill was the worst-managed piece of legislation that I can remember. Well, Bush's social security "reform" was no prize. The buying of votes, such as the Nebraska Medicare giveaway, was as bad under the Democrats as it was under Tom DeLay. Don't these folks ever step back and ask themselves, What are we doing? How is this going to look to the public? The Republicans deserved to get wiped out in 2006, and they did. The Democrats deserve to get wiped out in 2010, and they will.
The fundamental mistake is that the Democrats governed from the left in a country that is center-right. This is from a Pew Research Center poll, November 2008:
The Democratic Party's advantage in party identification has widened over the past two decades, but the share of Americans who describe their political views as liberal, conservative or moderate has remained stable during the same period. Only about one-in-five Americans currently call themselves liberal (21%), while 38% say they are conservative and 36% describe themselves as moderate. This is virtually unchanged from recent years; when George W. Bush was first elected president, 18% of Americans said they were liberal, 36% were conservative and 38% considered themselves moderate.
It is political suicide to govern from an ideological position occupied by one-fifth of the electorate. The Democrats' defenders will no doubt argue that the health care bill enjoyed considerable public support during the first months of Obama's presidency. And it did. But Democrats began to squabble: over the public option, over whom to tax, over the cost of the bill, and if the proponents of legislation cannot get their house in order, the public is going to lose confidence pretty quickly. Obama's inexperience contributed to the party's woes. He spent much of his time in the Senate running for president, and he just didn't have the feel for how things get done (or fall apart). The Chicago bunch came from a political culture in which the machine always won, and they didn't know what to do when the machine stopped working.
What we have now is 2007-08 all over again: a weakened (but, unlike the Bush years, still personally popular) president, a reinvigorated opposition, and an upcoming election that has the lawmakers in the president's party terrified. And with good reason.
Here are Obama's latest numbers, from an ABC News-Washington Post poll (Jan 12-15, 2010):
Do you approve or disapprove of how Obama is handling health care?
Do you approve or disapprove of how Obama is handling the economy?
Do you approve or disapprove of how Obama is handling the federal budget deficit?
These are bad numbers. However, there is one question on which Obama still does well. From a Quinnipiac University poll:
"Do you think Barack Obama has been a better president than George W. Bush, worse, or about the same as President Bush?"
About the same 23%
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Up to this point, I have focused on the Democrats' problems. But the Republicans have problems too. Before they had 41 votes and the ability to block anything that the Democrats attempted, they could attack everything the Democrats proposed without suffering any adverse consequences. They were free to say No No No to every Democratic initiative, because they didn't have the votes to stop it anyway. Now that they have the votes, how are they going to exercise that power? Are they going to oppose everything? That course is not without risk. Eventually they will come to be seen as irresponsibly negative and oppositional. For all the anger and frustration that is directed at the federal government, the country wants the political system to work. They want problems to be addressed. They don't want gridlock. Health care is buried, but it isn't dead. The problems that led to the attempt to pass legislation aren't going away: the high cost of medical care, the rising number of uninsured Americans, the fiscal instability of Medicare and Medicaid. We all know what the problems are. Are the Republicans going to use their 41 votes as leverage, or are they just going to say No No No? That may work for a while, but it won't work forever.
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