Sunday, March 28, 2010

On the Republican Politics of Reaction

American presidents do not have the luxury of savoring victories, but this is also an asset because they have a multitude of areas to prove their worth to the American people. Following the House's historic vote on health-care last Sunday, President Barack Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, and made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Sunday. Next month, he will attend a summit on nuclear security with 40 heads of state. The President is attempting a pivot to show that he is the president on domestic policy and health-care, and he can also be a president abroad.

And this is why the Republican campaign strategy of repealing the Democrats' health-care bill for this November cannot be enough. Republicans have been playing catch-up all year, reacting to events rather than creating them. For a while, the Republican message-of-the-day was that the Democrats were tone-death on the jobless rate and misdirecting their energies on the health-care debate. But the jobless rate isn't the central concern of politicians or economists as it was last year. Now the Democrats have passed health-care reform, Republicans have shifted their focus to wanting to repeal it. Not only is this a mere politics of reaction, it is also the politics of delusion. Republicans running on repeal are running on something that can never happen - because President Obama will wield his veto against 67 Senators should it come to that - and when Republicans fail to do what they promised to do, their base would only become disenchanted.

At the heart of the Republican search for a positive and not merely a reactive agenda for campaign 2010 is the search for its soul. And even in this, Republicans have been reactive, for many were too slow to recognize the phenomenon called the Tea Party Movement. This movement has the potential of making or breaking Republican dreams this November. Conservative candidate Doug Hoffman didn't merely force Republican Dede Scozzafava out of the race in the special election in NY23, but he ended up splitting the vote on the political right and giving the election to Democrat Bill Owens. Similarly, Sarah Palin may be the brightest political star of the Tea Party Movement, but she polls poorly with moderate Republicans. To decipher what they are for, Republicans need to sit down and think about what to make of, and what to do with, the Tea Party Movement.

If Washington Democrats know what they are for, Republicans haven't settled yet on anything other than what they are against. "Hell no" will give a Republican primary candidate the Tea Party Movement's vote, but it doesn't gurantee anything come the general election, not least because major provisions of the health-care bill recently passed won't come into effect until 2014, and it would be difficult to make a conclusive case against Obamacare in 2010. Republicans need a comprehensive and positive governing agenda instead. They should be anticipating the future rather than reacting to the present, because politics is not only about the past or just about the present.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Monumental Achievement

House Democrats have passed the health-care reform bill. Assuming Senate Democrats pass the accompanying reconciliation bill, this is a punctuating moment in the history of the American state, and a game changer for the politics of Elections 2010.

Since the New Deal, Democrats have embarked on a state-building enterprise. Democrats have expanded the functions of the state because they believe that individuals left by themselves and markets do not give us optimal levels of economic rights, civil rights, or health-care rights. Some Republicans were on board for a while, but today most see the accumulation of governmental responsibilities as the road to serfdom.

I am not sure that health-care reform takes us one step closer to socialism, but the Republicans are correct in their public statements that health-care reform will effect a major reconfiguration of citizens' relationship with the state, and in their private sentiments that it is very difficult to roll back the state once it has been bloated. There was a time when bills calling for federal funding of roads between states were vetoed, when a federal income tax was unconstitutional, when investment banks were not regulated. None of these federal prerogatives are controversial today. Ted Kennedy and Barack Obama are correct that health-care reform is about the character of our country, though it might be fairer to say that it is about the evolving character of our country, because the developmental history of the expanding American state has paralleled America's steady transition from pluribus to unum.

There are now 32 million new constituents of the (health-care) state, even if many will end up purchasing insurance from private exchanges. They are going to be committed to the state as wards are committed to their patron, and as seniors have come to love Medicare. Americans may not like the state, but our appetite for government tends to increase once we have been touched by its largesse. Barring catastrophic implementation failure (because Medicare isn't exactly a perfect program and it remains popular), the Democratic Party has just earned itself a sizeable new constituency, not unlike what it did when FDR passsed pro-labor legislation, or when the Republican Party handed out pensions to civil war veterans. At least some of these 32 million will go to the polls in November, and Republicans who have been fighting very hard to kill health-care reform know this. But because health-care reform has passed, Democrats have at least a fighting chance of keeping their congressional majorities when this seemed all but impossible a few weeks ago. For the first time since Scott Brown's election to the Senate, the momentum is back in the Democrats' court.

Barack Obama's poll numbers are going to go up too. He lost many independents over the past year because he was seen to be too liberal, but he lost just as many because he was seen to be incompetent in delivering change. When members of congress were chanting "Yes, We Can" on the floor of he House on Sunday night, we know that some of the old magic is back. He has done something that the last popular Democratic president, Bill Clinton, did not. Because he and his party has finshed what even the Lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy left unfinished, Barack Obama has salvaged his chance for a transformative presidency.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Week of Politics

This week will be the most challenging week of Nancy Pelosi's Speakership to date. With the President postponing his overseas trip and scheduled to give a healthcare speech in Ohio on Monday, one could be mistaken to think that it is the bully pulpit that could/would save the day for health-care reform.

It is not. Public opinion is very fluid in this moment, and in any case the presidential office is ill-suited toward convincing individual congressional districts and individual House members. At a time like this, votes in Congress and not votes in town halls are what count. More specifically, Nancy Pelosi cannot afford to lose more than 37 Democratic members of the House of Representatives assuming that every member votes and every Republican votes against the Senate's $875 billion health-care bill passed on Christmas eve and coming up for consideration by the House next week. Right now, about 34 members (according to the Hill’s Whip Count) are either on the firm or leaning “no” column.

Obama's pulpit may at best change the national sentiment on healthcare reform, but he cannot change the majority opinion of individual districts with a public speech, much less an individual lawmaker's mind. To do that, the Speaker and her whips operate behind the scene, conducting the business of what Ronald Reagan called the second oldest profession of the world, hoping that the magic she worked to get the 220 Democratic votes for the House version of the health-care bill in November will work again.

Obama, for his part, is not hanging around the country just to give public speeches. He knows (or should know) that styrofoam corinthian pillars aren't going to be enough this time. His real challenge next week is to convince nearly every one of the 72 or so undecided or publicly unpledged Democratic representatives that the Senate will indeed live up to its promise to pass a reconciliation bill amending the provisions of the bill (such as the "Louisiana Purchase") that House members find objectionable. When push comes to shove, the Constitution is quite clear that the public doesn't matter, because only lawmakers have the vote to make law.

So who are these undecided or publicly unpledged members that Obama and Pelosi need to convince? The truth is the liberals who want a public option will ultimately come on board, and those who oppose the abortion language in the Senate bill have already been lost when the Speaker decided to go without most of them. (That the Speaker is no longer talking to Bart Stupak and his 11 colleagues suggests that Pelosi is either at the end of her tether with the abortion folks or confident that she can get her votes elsewhere.) So the biggest chunk of undecideds are the moderate Democrats who worry about the cost of the reform package. This is why all are awaiting the CBO scores on the cost of the health-care bill, which are expected on Monday afternoon. Expecting that more time will be needed to cajole the faint-hearted, the Speaker has provisioned three extra days from the original March 18 deadline set by the White House before the bill is shuffled through the Budget and then the Rules Committees, and finally placed before the full House for a vote.

A lot of predictions are in the air. Speaker Pelosi and David Axelrod are predicting passage of the bill. The Republicans on their part are predicting electoral catastrophe come November if Democrats push ahead. But when 37 men and women can make or break health-care reform, nothing is certain except that the Democratic leadership will have to pull out every stop they can to find 216 votes for reform.

So this week will not turn on the public speeches and the national commentary - though there will be plenty - but it will be a week of intrigue; the hidden, oft-derided, and yet constitutional routine of one-on-one haggling. This will be a week of good old-fashioned politics.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

An American Aristocracy

Decades ago, Louis Hartz wrote an opus on American exceptionalism - the idea that America is special because we were never marred by the disease of feudalism that had plagued Europe - and without a confining social order, individualism and the American dream was born.

Watching the Oscars on Sunday night, I wonder if we have established an aristocracy that is even more powerful than all the peers of the realms that Europe ever had. Our aristocracy is not only insanely wealthy unlike the declining nobility in Europe (or the old money in our east coast), they also set the standards of beauty, morality, and even politics. When I watched the movie industry celebrate its own achievements, I was reminded that for all the human warmth and joviality of the event, the glitz and the glamour are the same escape we seek in our modern aristocracy as we found in the old.

Celebrities are not normal human beings. They are stars. Bright, shining gems far far away even though each perfomance they make seem to bring them closer and deeper into our own hearts. There were a lot of emotions shared last night, but I'm not sure that universal tears aside, an average American understands what it is like to receive or not receive an accolade to which they are not even remotely eligible and probably will never be.

They say a civilization can be judged by how it treats its dispossessed. But in a country such as ours where everyone is apparently middle-class, we are better judged by the cultural elite we have created. Like the old aristocracy, our aristocracy have taken upon themselves the noblesse oblige to dedicate themselves to the people. They have a duty to entertain, and it is their privilege to be loved in return. So our stars burn bright for as long as they are beloved by the people. Our aristocracy is not hereditary but quite temporary.

This is why it is unclear whether Sarah Palin bestowed on Barack Obama an accolade when she called him a "celebrity" in 2008. Perhaps when now his star is no longer burning so bright, he will stop being an entertainer and become a President. Or perhaps, as the new electoral college, the media establishment will today insist, he must embrace his cultural milieu like the Gipper and Slick Willy, and give us a show worth applauding. The people would not have it any other way.

Hartz was wrong. While we did not inherit a European feudalism, we have made an American one.