Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Way Forward for the Dems (and why Massachusetts was a good thing)

As a new resident of the Bay State (seriously, don't they know the SF Bay is much more important than the one they have here? :), I was able to get a bit of a closer look at the special election that vaulted Scott Brown to the Senate.

In terms of responses, panic seems to be the norm. I'm not saying that's not justified, but I just don't see it the same way. I'm hugely uneducated when it comes to politics, but I felt like putting my voice out there, so take this post for what it's worth:

Let's start with a bit of history. I'm going to begin with a bold argument - the "60 seat majority" was a bad thing for the Democrats. I think the entire concept is a little misleading. For starters, that 60 is really 58 Dems and 2 Independents (most frustratingly, Joe Lieberman). More importantly, Democrat Senators aren't all alike - the ones from Arkansas and Nebraska hold a somewhat separate set of beliefs from the ones in California, and must respond to vastly different constituencies.

So when it came time to fix health care, the first bill introduced didn't jive with every Senator's vision, and the inter-party negotiating/bickering began. Had some of those more conservative Democratic Senators actually been Republican, the dynamic would have been much different - the Republicans would have had to decide whether they actually wanted to filibuster a popular health care bill (back then, it was polling very well).

Think about how different that would have been - instead of a summer of prolonged debate, an opportunity for Republicans to spread misinformation about the bill far and wide, they would have had to respond, immediately - are we going to filibuster this popular bill, or not?

Side note: The whole "60 seat majority" thing has caused us to forget that filibustering has major public opinion downsides - it's seen as obstructionist and partisan. I think we're going to remember this soon.

We all know what actually happened - the prolonged debate did take place, the forces that be, well organized as they are, managed to convince a relatively uneducated public that the bill was toxic, and nothing got passed until December.

(I'm really not trying to be partisan here - my own thoughts on the health care bill are very mixed. It appeals to my liberal ideals but betrays my libertarian persuasions. That's a conversation for another day. I mean to deal in facts - the Tea Party-ers and insurance companies managed to steer the conversation to inane and fear-inducing things like death panels. Through mostly these tactics - framing of issues rather than the issues themselves - the bill become unpopular. And, let's face it - the public is absolutely uneducated when it comes to the state of health care. No one knows whats going, even people who should. Which is part of the problem, actually.)

In the process, the Democrats, the President, and pretty much anyone in favor of reform took a beating at the polls (and not to mention, the bill got very watered down). A giant, good-for-nothing mess.

But I digress. This post is about the future, not the past. What to do now? Here is the playing field: Health care hasn't yet passed and is still fairly unpopular. The public has lost the forest for the trees - the focus is no longer on the problem, the fact that the status quo will make us more bankrupt than the bill (I think that's true - correct me if I'm wrong), but on rage and anger at government spending and size. The people who the bill will help, the costs it will save, the necessity of the thing - all have been forgotten (even/especially by the beneficiaries of the bill).

But we must not forget the flip side of the coin: there are still issues to be solved, and now the Republicans have to actually exercise the threat of filibuster if and when they please.

So what is the way forward?

Step one is reminding the public what they have forgotten, and then getting health care off their minds. Now, if only there were a publicized stage where a charismatic speaker would have an unfiltered voice to remind the public of the bill's merits. Oh, wait, there is - the State of the Union.

This is the perfect forum for the President to remind us why he's the Man: by sticking to his guns. He needs to go up and acknowledge the criticism and hit back, tactfully. Facts, figures, emotional persuasion. Tell us stories of who it's going to help. Tell us stories of some of the tens of thousands of people who lost their grandmothers, spouses, or kids because of our broken health care system. (Do I have that stat right?) Remind us of the problem, and tell us how the bill will fix it. Shine light on the misinformation spread about the bill and channel anti-corporation rage - not too much, but just enough.

Then pivot to the future - cracking down on the corporations: big insurance, big oil, big whatever else, and...

Step two: Wall Street. I've heard rumors of a special tax on banks that received bailouts. That's a little two baldly popular for my taste, but it's a start. Even better, there has been talk of a sort of reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act (separation of commercial and investment banking, essentially).

This is brilliant. It left my favorite conservative financial/economic blogger dumbfounded and ecstatic. (Seriously, he's great, and he makes a lot of sense. He's also a riot to read and absolutely crazy. I would love to meet the guy.)

It's so brilliant because it does two things simultaneous - tap deeply into populist anger and accomplish something real and necessary. The support for Glass-Steagall-type reinstatement comes from all fronts - liberal and conservative economists, bloggers, and pundits - and it will do much to blunt the growing conservative/Tea Party movement.

With huge majorities, the Democrats will dictate the agenda. At this point, the Republicans will have two alternatives - go along with financial reform (and cede serious momentum) or oppose/filibuster it, allowing the Dems to wear the crown of the populist party.

There are roadblocks - health care and a second stimulus come to mind. But these can be handled. The former needs to be passed, and quickly, to get it off the public's mind. This is essential - get the Senate bill through the House, get it signed, and let the public forget about it. Tack stuff onto it after the 2010 elections.

The latter may be a little trickier. The Tea Party-ers will be out in full force, decrying the era of big government and spending. The President needs to use the State of the Union and the bully pulpit throughout the year to link the recession and debt to Bush while simultaneously reminding the public that he tried to get us out of the recession with as little spending as possible, but that didn't fix unemployment.

It's going to be a tough sell, but that's why Obama is Obama.

From there, it's focusing on popular bills - I'm not up with politics enough to know exactly what they are, but I'm pretty sure they're there, and tempting the filibuster whenever possible.

So, in short, this is how I truly believe the Dems can seriously minimize losses come November (or maybe even break even):
  1. Use the SOTU to set the record straight on health care and turn the focus to Wall Street and the economy/unemployment.
  2. Pass health care asap, likely through the House (get it together, idiots), and push modifications till later. Get it off the public's mind.
  3. Push serious finance reform, focusing on Glass-Steagall.
  4. Minimize damage if a second stimulus is necessary by the spectre of Bush and honest attempt to fix the problem with as little money as possible that was the first stimulus.
  5. Focus on popular issues and force the Republicans to use the filibuster (often at their own peril).
There you have it - a complete amateur's take on how to navigate 2010. I'm sure I'm wrong for 3120329 reasons, but writing this has been a fun thought exercise. Also, I know "step one" and "step two" that I wrote about above don't line up with the 5 step process laid out a few sentences ago, but whatever. I have to get back to work.

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