City of Brass

City of Brass


Massachusetts Senate Race post-mortem: a progressive failure

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Congratulations to Senator-elect Brown – in the end, he was a better candidate and ran a better campaign against the hapless Martha Coakley, who thought she could coast on Kennedy-Obama coat-tails into office. A single statistic explains all – @marcambinder notes that “Coakley had 19 events after the primary through Sunday; Scott Brown had 66.” And more than anything else, the election outcome last night was not because of governing philosophes or political ideologies, but simply the economy, stupid.

The political blogsphere is of course consumed with the significance of MA-SEN as pertains to Obama’s anniversary in office, and the conventional wisdom is gelling across the usual lines. The GOP in full concern-troll mode says that Obama has governed as a leftist and thus must seek bipartisanship; of course it’s precisely because of Republican ideological obstructionism, filibustering every bill in the Senate and negotiating over health care in bad faith, that the Democrats have needed 60 votes to pass any bill instead of a simple majority. Then again, when your 60 vote “super majority” includes Democrats who also negotiate in bad faith, like Joe Lieberman, then you never really had 60 votes to begin with.

The simple truth is that Obama has sought a middle ground on health care insurance reform and pursued a bipartisan approach from the beginning, taking single payer off the table right off the bat, making a (in retrospect, also bad faith) deal with the industry on drug reimportation/price negotiation, and favoring but not drawing the line on a public option. As David Leonhardt points out at the NYT, the health-care reform bills before Congress are substantially more conservative than Bill Clinton’s 1993 bill or even Richard Nixon’s 1971 bill!

Meanwhile, the progressive left, immune to the irony inherent in their own ideological posturing, interpret last night as vindication of their argument that Obama hasn’t been progressive enough. In one sense, they are right – Obama has certainly not been governing as a leftist (in a sane world, this critique by the left wing would serve as sufficent rebuttal to the GOP’s claim that Obama has been too partisan, but…). But they also seem to think that Barack Obama is Howard Dean, when Obama explicitly campaigned as a moderate in all respects. Obama spoke of change, and the progressive Left translated this as “do everything the opposite of Bush” because from their perspective, that Bush was wrong on every decision and policy is an absolute political axiom. (I’m happy to list Bush policies that I agree with in a future post, but not right now).

Last night’s loss by Coakley was Coakley’s fault alone and as I have argued was in no way a referendum on Obama‘s first year in office; it should be noted that Scott Brown even won Ted Kennedy’s home district of Hyannis, which suggests that the MA electorate (which is predominantly Purple, not blue or red) was looking for a Senator who respected them, not one who saw the seat as a birthright. As Mike Allen also noted on MSNBC, Coakley was leading Brown by 15 points only one week ago, which would not have been the case if this were a referendum on Obama or the Democrats.

And yet the race does indeed materially change the political environment under which Obama must labor for his second year. In some ways this is a preview of November, where the Democrats are guaranteed to lose more seats, so at some point Obama was going to have to figure out a way to govern without a supermajority in the Senate anyway. The question is what strategy to use.

The choice facing Obama and the Democratic leadership is to either a. pursue transformative, partisan, progressive-leftist change or b. pursue incrementalist, bipartisan, moderate-liberal change. The progressive netroots are as immune to reason on this as they were about the public option; they think that it’s worth abandoning health care, fighting Quixotic battles over ideological policies and achieving nothing, and maybe even primarying Obama in 2012. In this, they are allied to the Republicans, though they don’t realize it. The only progressive who does understand reality is Chris Bowers.

Obviously I favor choice b. because long ago I realized, by actually paying attention to Obama’s speeches and rhetoric, that this is what he believes in, and the post-MA-SEN political environment essentially makes this the only pragmatic route to getting anything of substance done at all. You can have meaningful health care reform without a public option, you can have meaningful climate change policy without cap and trade, you can have meaningful financial reform without increasing corporate taxes.

In a perfect world, Obama would have been able to pursue bipartisan, transformative change, but that would have required an opposition party with more dedication to the national interest rather than their own political interest. But even 60 seats was an illusion – it was really 59 + Lieberman (who backstabbed Reid), and of the 59 remaining a large bloc are Blue Dog Senators who are fiscal hawks (which most of America, even liberal blue state America, doesn’t see as a bad thing, something progressives don’t seem to really understand).

The political environment for the GOP Senators is also different as well. The threat of a Democratic Supermajority is gone, so the incentive for minority party unity is gone. With the election in November ahead, and Obama’s brilliant decision to make financial sector reform and deficit reduction the next priority, many Republican Senators are going to want to lay claim to partial ownership on these issues to show the voters that they are doing their jobs. The crew at Open Left, Swing State Project, and Congress Matters will break down the 2010 Senate races in obsessive detail over the next few months and it will be clear that there are going to be at least a few Senators (R) who will be very receptive to Obama’s imminent charm offensive.

And doing their jobs is the way that all Congress critters, R or D alike, keep their jobs. Chris Bowers posits a simple hypothetical to everyone out there who thinks otherwise:

If you think the political situation for Democrats would have been better if they had different messaging or passed different legislation, consider a simple hypothetical:

  • Over the past year, instead of saying and doing what they did, Democrats in D.C. and President Obama passed exactly the legislation, and engaged in exactly the sort of messaging, you suggest..
  • Despite doing this, current economic conditions are exactly the same as they are today.

In this hypothetical, if you think the political situation would be any different for Democrats than it is currently, then you are deluding yourself.

Or even more succinctly, “If you are not facing scandals, and times are good, then you will be popular no matter what you pass into law. This is about being in power when times are bad.” The key then is to pass legislation that may not be “perfect” but at least is “good” in that it makes a material differenmce to people’s lives. And that’s not going to happen without bipartisanship. Even if the GOP still refuses en masse to cooperate, then at least the Democrats have a message for November: look, we tried, but the GOP obstructed everything, even deficit reduction and financial sector reform! It’s not like we have a super majority in the Senate to force it through!”

So, what is the bottom line? MA-SEN was no referendum on Obama, but it was a sea change. In many ways it is better that this happened now instead of (inevitably) in November, because we won’t waste the next 12 months seeking mythical 60 vote super majorities and appeasing Lieberman and engaging in pointless negotiations with Snowe. Instead, the illusion is gone, and the Republicans no longer have the cover they did for their nihilistic obstructionism. Obama is freer to seek common ground and find practical, if limited, solutions. To that end it’s worth recalling Obama’s own comments from MLK day this past monday:

…our predecessors were never so consumed with theoretical debates that they couldn’t see progress when it came. Sometimes I get a little frustrated when folks just don’t want to see that even if we don’t get everything, we’re getting something. (Applause.) {Rev. Martin Luther] King understood that the desegregation of the Armed Forces didn’t end the civil rights movement, because black and white soldiers still couldn’t sit together at the same lunch counter when they came home. But he still insisted on the rightness of desegregating the Armed Forces. That was a good first step — even as he called for more. He didn’t suggest that somehow by the signing of the Civil Rights that somehow all discrimination would end. But he also didn’t think that we shouldn’t sign the Civil Rights Act because it hasn’t solved every problem. Let’s take a victory, he said, and then keep on marching. Forward steps, large and small, were recognized for what they were — which was progress.

It’s a bitter irony indeed that progressives, of all people, are the ones who are most opposed to progress today.



  • Your Name

    You state that health care reform would indicate “progress”? Why is it so difficult for you to observe the abject failure of Obama’s other policies, such as the home-loan bank incentive, which is only 3% utilized because of the boggle of government red-tape required to complete a loan, to predict the nightmare which Obamacare would unleash on this nation?
    It is amusing that all Democrats conveniently ignore the fact that Obamacare makes no provision for tort reform, because the Democratic party is totally in the pockets of the legal profession.
    Furthermore, Obamacare would cost this country a million more lost jobs. In my industry, medical sales, we lost 30,000 medical device sales jobs in 2009 alone.

  • Katie Angel

    It seems to me that if you are afraid to give your name, Your Name, then you really are a know-nothing coward. No one KNOWS what would have happened with the new health care reform – that is why we have to try something and, if it doesn’t work, try something else. I happen to be one of the lucky ones with excellent GOVERNMENT health care (my husband is a state employee) but that doesn’t make me hurt any less for those who do not have good care. Besides, my premiums and health care costs curerntlyhave to cover the uninsured so I would like everyone to be required to have some kind of coverage. Why not set up a standard plan that anyone can afford – then, if you want more coverage (read better) you can “upgrade”

  • Henrietta22

    You make a good point about Brown working for what he wanted, and Coakley just floating along. The primary events they did seem to show that, 19 against 66 in favor of Brown. It’s almost like she gave it away. The thing that annoys me is that Mass. has almost full health coverage for all its’ citizens, given by Romney, and are complaining about how we are going to get health coverage for the rest of the U.S. citizens. It seems greedy and selfish.

  • PonderousMan

    My first reaction, to the title, was one of anger… but after reading this, I’d say the title was not very accurate. Nothing you list is a progressive failure except failure to understand what Obama is really about, which is true on both extremes, and even closer to the middle on both ends. (I know some moderate Republicans who have said some very ridiculous things about Obama, thanks to the FNC/RNC messaging machine…)
    I understand there is a lot to be desired in the current bill, but at least some of the focus-group takeaway from MA-SEN seems to be that the Dems are spending too much on health care, when the issue is the economy.
    But I don’t think the current political/media class is capable of handling more than one issue at a time, so which does Obama take? (He’s tried to do more than one thing at a time, but Congress clearly can’t handle it…) And if he switches to jobs, when will health insurance reform actually happen?
    Also, given GOP obstructionism, while you might get a few GOP votes for some of Obama’s initiatives, they can still claim he’s not being bipartisan, and that message will resonate.
    So I’m not so sure that *in this political climate* Obama can govern from the middle and make even incremental progress. Even if hard-core progressives make the adjustment you suggest, the GOP and Teabaggers are hardly going to respond in turn… which means more gridlock and divided government, and increasing frustration on all sides with the lack of “progress” (change in the desired direction) out of Washington.
    Oh, and I’d love to see that list of conservative ideas you agree with…

  • jacksmith

    A LINE IN THE SAND – From jacksmith – WorkingClass
    My Fellow Americans and People Of The World
    A strong Government-run MEDICARE like Public Option is STILL! CRITICAL!
    We have had a long hard struggle to find out what would be the BEST! that this congress and the Whitehouse could do to fix our highly dangerous, poor quality, most costly, and MOST! disgraceful healthcare delivery system in the world. It is clear that congress can do much more for the American people than what is proposed so far.
    It is clear that congress can pass a strong GOVERNMENT-run public option CHOICE. Available to everyone on day one. Expand Medicare and not levy any new taxes on workers healthcare benefits and plans. LET THIS BE YOUR LINE IN THE SAND!
    Lastly, there can be NO! INDIVIDUAL MANDATES without a strong Government-run MEDICARE like Public Option CHOICE. Or the American people WILL! and SHOULD! revolt with an all out CIVIL WAR against congress and this Government.
    House and Senate progressives and the tri-caucuses should aggressively push for the inclusion of a strong Public Option, Medicare expansion, and no new taxes on workers healthcare benefits and plans. If the obstructionist kill meaningful healthcare reform, then you should kill this bill. Because it will be far worse than the healthcare disaster we have now. It’s failure will be on the obstructionist heads. And they will be punished and replaced.
    WITHOUT A PUBLIC OPTION CHOICE, THIS BILL WILL KILL FAR MORE AMERICANS THAN IT WILL SAVE.
    What is proposed in the Senate bill is the worst case scenario for health-care reform. It would shift trillions of taxpayer, public and private dollars into the hands of the private insurance industry (The single most costly, deadly and dangerous product sold in America). And it would compel by law millions of Americans to financially support this oxymoronic criminal enterprise. You cant have a individual MANDATE WITHOUT A STRONG PUBLIC OPTION CHOICE!
    You will have NO! realistic way of controlling cost and quality. Cost will continue soaring through the roof bleeding the American people dry, and KILLing our economy. And our quality of healthcare will continue to decline below our current ranking of “WORST! quality of healthcare delivery in the developed World”.
    From the very start, the American people have been crystal clear about what they wanted. They wanted a humane single payer system like the rest of the developed world has (HR676). Or at least a humane strong GOVERNMENT-run public option CHOICE!! This is what the American people gave the democrats control of the house, control of the senate, and control of the Whitehouse to do.
    Those of you that can, should prepare now to remove every member of congress that fails to support YOUR healthcare reform with a strong Public Option, Medicare expansion, and no new taxes on workers healthcare benefits and plans. Run against them in teams if you have to. But take them out. And replace them with a strong single payer or PRO PUBLIC OPTION CHOICE candidate.
    Now! is the time to bring maximum pressure on your members of congress. Contact your representatives and spread the word.
    The Public Option http://tinyurl.com/yfftf76
    H1N1 IS A WEAPON OF MASS DESTRUCTION!
    I have to tell you now that the H1N1 virus is a man-made WEAPON OF MASS DESTRUCTION! and TERROR! It is a WEAPONIZED version of a flu virus. It has swept the planet infecting millions. And causing a global pandemic that has killed tens of thousands, and injured millions.
    The H1N1 virus is the product of the DISGRACEFUL, GREED DRIVEN PRIVATE FOR PROFIT MEDICAL INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX! It was released in the U.S. in Texas in early January of this year, but not recognized until around April in California. The reason I know this is because when it came to America, it came to see me FIRST! How sweet…
    This was around the time the MEDICAL INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX! assaulted the Whitehouse with all their devils deals to cripple and weaken YOUR! healthcare reform. Especially your right to have a single payer system like HR676 (Medicare For All) which most of you wanted.
    They don’t even want you to have your HUGE!!! compromise position of a strong government-run MEDICARE like Public Option CHOICE. To compete with their DISGRACEFUL, GREED DRIVEN, MURDEROUS, PRIVATE FOR PROFIT PRODUCT (The single most costly, deadly and dangerous product sold in America).
    They also wanted to take away your rights to have your government meet it’s responsibility to use it’s full power to regulate, negotiate, and control drug cost, healthcare cost and quality. Something every other civilized country in the developed World has done for it’s people. Their Greed! moral degeneracy and lack of patriotism knows no bounds.
    Many of you will remember that before we knew about H1N1. I posted a open message to the President and Congress warning them to be vigilant about their health, and cautious about any medical advice they received. As I said then “they will not hesitate to try and hurt you”.
    The U.S. and the World have been under a BIOLOGICAL TERROR ATTACK! for over a year now. It is CRITICAL that We The People Of The United States take away control of our healthcare system from the GREED DRIVEN MEDICAL INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX!
    For our own National security, and the security of the world.
    A Strong, government-run, MEDICARE like Public Option CHOICE. Available to everyone on day one, with the full unfettered power of the federal government to regulate, negotiate, and control cost and quality. Would be the most workable way to deal with this global crisis at this time. Including patent suspensions as needed for national security or the greater good.
    As an American I invite the peoples of the World to help us fix our healthcare crisis. And bring pressure on our government to meet it’s responsibility to protect global security by controlling, and removing the corrupting influence of GREED and the PRIVATE FOR PROFIT motivations from healthcare in the U.S. and around the World.
    I call on the governments of the World and the global intelligence community to track down these MASS MURDERERS, and bring them to justice. CONNECT THE DOTS! And be vigilant that they don’t slip in another viral strain on you under the cloak of H1N1 sequestration.
    Further, the proposed patent protection on biologic’s must be stripped from the US bill. And greatly shorten/restricted, or abolished completely. This is a grave danger to humanity and global security.
    I think President Obama is doing the best he can at playing the disastrous deck of cards he inherited from the previous administration. And I think he is doing an excellent job. But the wolves and devils of the medical industrial complex! are trying to exploit, and take advantage of his good heart, and desperate desire to help suffering Americans. But we must be strong and insist that healthcare reform be done right for the American people. Or everyone loose’s.
    This is all I can say in a message post. I’ll try to find a way to tell you more later.
    God Bless You My Fellow Human Beings
    jacksmith – Working Class
    p.s. The so-called nominal H1N1 virus is designed in such a way as to make it more lethal to children and young adults. The medical community must be more vigilant of secondary bacterial infections in the young caused by H1N1. And remember, a viral infection is also a transfer of genetic code to you. Think about it, and be vigilant. :-(

  • Alicia

    Good post by Aziz. This is one political moderate who remains totally disgusted by the “Party of No” strategy of the Republicans. I’m changing my voter registration to “Independent” in the next election. The Republican Party as a whole is totally unserious about governing, or about doing anything at all except throw a tantrum. I’ve lost all patience with these guys.

  • vanderleun

    “Obviously I favor choice b. because long ago I realized, by actually paying attention to Obama’s speeches and rhetoric, that this is what he believes in,”
    Not at all. He believes in gaming people such as yourself. And in this he is successful. Count yourself and your acolytes in the “some of the people fooled all of the time” by this apostate.

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