Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Republicans are Overplaying their Hand

Both political parties, it seems, can't resist giving in to their worst tendencies, no matter how high the price, and no matter how often the price has to be paid. For the last year or so, Dems have been acting as if Barack Obama's election and strong Dem majorities in Congress signaled a fundamental desire by the country to move in an ideologically leftward direction. Armed with this presupposition, they wrongly replaced the nation's priorities with their own, and have conducted business as usual, much like Republicans did in the prior decade. The result (so far) has been defeat after defeat in off-year and special elections, abysmally low approval ratings for Congress, and a precipitous decline in support even for Obama, whom the press in particular still treats with something approaching the slain-in-the-spirit euphoria they developed during the campaign. But with the healthcare bill now signed by Obama, Republicans are in danger of overplaying their hand, just as the Dems overplayed theirs.

1) Republicans made a tactical mistake in demonizing a bill that while seriously flawed, isn't exactly demonic. From allegations of socialism, to death panels, to bureaucrats inserting themselves into people's medical decisions, Republicans have successfully whipped up a frenzy of opposition to the bill. To hear some of the speeches and comments given by Republicans in the last month, one might be tempted to think the world would come to an end if the bill was passed. Well, now that it has passed, the sun still rose in the east, armageddon doesn't appear to have arrived, and the collapse of modern civilization doesn't seem imminent. Independent voters who have been very sympathetic to Republican concerns over cost and deficits (and rightfully so, no matter what CBO says) may withdraw their current enthusiasm for Republicans if Republicans continue to say the sky is falling, when it's not. Republican opposition to the bill, in order to be politically viable, has to be credible. Republicans are in danger of losing their credibility by embracing hysterical doomsdayism. The political damage on this front may already be done.

2) Related to item 1, Republicans are in danger of allying themselves too closely with the Tea Party movement (TPM). TPM has no doubt tapped into intense frustration with and distrust of government. Given the completely demoralized spirit of the Republican establishment in the wake of the 2008 election, it was very tempting to get in on any energy or momentum that any right-of-center group was giving off. But either on the left or the right, there is always a danger in getting too cozy with mouth foamers. TPM, like comparable outfits on the left, has just enough discipline to be dangerous, but not enough to kick out the kooks that can often gain substantial power in decentralized movements that practically invite interlopers to hijack the movement. While TPM has attracted some high profile Republican backers, its ability to sway elections and votes on the Hill has been unimpressive thus far. And if recent reports of racially and sexually tinged epithets directed at lawmakers and others are even half true, it is clear that an element exists within TPM that no responsible Republican should be allied with. The TPM has developed a credibility and public relations problem that they need to soberly address if they intend to remain viable long term. Republicans should politely distance themselves from them and let TPM sort out its own mess.

3) Now that the bill has passed, Republicans, I fear, are in great danger of repeating the Dem mistake of the last year by overobsessing about healthcare. For the last year, Dems have embraced healthcare as their almost exclusive priority. As a result, they are now in serious political trouble with midterm elections coming up. The focus all along should've been on jobs, the economy, and deficit reduction. If Republicans, either in Congress or at the state level, continue to pummel the healthcare bill by clogging up the Senate for weeks or months with procedural stall tactics, or clog the courts with legal challenges to the bill, it will be they, not the Dems, who will be accused of not pivoting to jobs. It won't matter that Dems clogged up the nation's business for a year trying to get a highly contentious bill passed. Now that it has passed, Dems will strongly pivot to jobs. If Republicans don't follow suit, it will be the Dems, in hypocritical irony, who will accuse Republicans of being distracted and not focusing on the nation's business. To the extent that Republicans spend an inordinate amount of time either trying to relegislate or relitigate the bill is the extent to which their current political advantage will erode.

I was opposed to the bill that passed. I was offended by the corrupt deals and the corrupt procedure that got it passed. I think it's a complete pipedream that any president or congress of either party will ever cut Medicare by a half trillion dollars in order to help pay for this new entitlement. The CBO scoring as it relates to the bill's impact on the deficit is only as good as the political will to follow through on what the bill requires in terms of spending cuts and revenue sources. If the will isn't there, and it isn't, the CBO score is meaningless and is actually a bit deceptive since it implies that something is paid for that isn't. In the end, this bill will be paid for by more and even broader tax increases and/or piling it onto the already unpaid deficit. But in the end, my side lost. The bill is now law. We need to move on. If Republicans don't do this, they'll squander an opportunity to truly become competitive again on a national level.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Jimmy Carter Deja Vu?

Barack Obama is going through a rough stretch as POTUS. Nearly every high profile election that has occurred in the last year has been played in Obama territory, but has been won by the opposition party, sometimes in rout fashion. Then there is the manner in which the Obama agenda has been stalled. Yes, it's certainly true that Republicans on Capitol Hill have marched in lockstep opposition to most of Obama's agenda. And yes, as a Republican myself, I am less than fully supportive of what Republicans are doing. While I think most of their opposition to Obama's agenda is on the merits, there is little doubt in my mind that a political calculation has also been made that puts short-term political gain ahead of the need to constructively address critically important issues.

But with all that said, in the end, it is the Democrats themselves who have become the 'monkey in the wrench' of Obama's plans. Consider:

1) Healthcare - the disunity of the Dems over the last year on healthcare is well documented, and continues to this day. With a 70+ majority in the House, and an 18 seat majority in the Senate, the Dems have had enormous difficulty getting their own members (not to mention the public at large) on board with their plans. The bill they had to pass in the Senate in order to get 60 Dem votes is a bill that by all accounts can't get 216 Dem votes in the House, despite the Dems having over 250 votes in the House. This is not a case of Republicans thwarting healthcare. It's a case of Dems not being able to agree amongst themselves about the way forward on healthcare.

2) 'Jobs Bill' - the latest on this is that the House, with their 250+ Dem members, isn't able to pass a very modest 'jobs bill' that emerged out of the Senate. As with healthcare, a sizeable number of Dems are balking at the Senate's bill and want changes that the Senate Dems might not be able to stomach. The ping-pong of inaction continues.

3) Environmental regulation - when Obama decided to do an end-around Congress and give EPA regulatory authority over clean air guidelines last year, there was some brief dustup that appeared to have subsided. But now, a core group of Dems in both the Senate and House are joining Republicans in cosponsoring legislation that would defang the EPA on this issue. Again, it is Dems who are voicing opposition to the Obama agenda, and are prepared to vote that way.

Often lost in the various post-mortems done on Jimmy Carter's presidency was the almost constant dysfunction that existed between the WH and the Dem controlled Congress. Among other things, the Carter presidency became known as a period in which Dems controlled everything, but couldn't agree on anything. Four years is a long time for a condition like this to exist. It would be wise for Obama and the Dems in Congress to realize the degree to which this narrative is taking hold among the electorate.