Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Obama, Lame Duck

How easily the Democrats fold. And just how predictable it all was.

Martha Coakley's election defeat in Massachusetts deprives Democrats of their 60th seat in the Senate. The Republicans can now block Obama's major priority, health care reform. The stimulus was too small, so the economic recovery will soon peter out. There will be big Democratic losses in this fall's off-year elections, and Obama will be rendered a lame duck.

Obama will try to follow Bill Clinton's "triangulation" between liberal Democrats in Congress and right-wingers in Congress. The strategy won't work, because Obama does not have Clinton's moderate credentials. When 2012 rolls around, the front runner will be Mitt Romney, and he'll pick Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota, as his running mate. Obama won't have a chance.

That's the baseline scenario now, and many people will trace it back to yesterday's Massachusetts senatorial election. Even though that loss was much more a function of a lazy candidate and a complacent and divided Massachusetts Democratic Party, the consequences are much wider.

Coakley and the Massachusetts Democrats: Oil and Water

This scenario was in the cards well before Coakley came along, but it's probably worth pointing out a thing or two about her and her campaign. Or more to the point, her lack of one.

I lived in Massachusetts for 11 years, and recall Coakley as a cipher and a cold fish whose claim to support seemed rooted in her gender. Women staff the middle levels of the Democratic Party; without them, you wouldn't have any phone banks or campaign rallies. Women badly wanted one of their own in a visible position, and Coakley was their vehicle.

I can't blame the Democratic women of Massachusetts for wanting to break the hold of the old boys club, but good intentions aren't enough. Coakley was arrogant, reserved, entitled, and lazy, refusing even to shake hands with voters. Once the Senate race came along, she decided that she had already "earned" it by serving time as the state's attorney general. After handily winning her primary election and looking at polling that gave her a 30-point lead, she literally went on vacation -- a trip to the Cayman Islands. Until the final week of the race, there was no Coakley campaign apparatus at all. Between the primaries and the special election, she made 19 campaign appearances; her opponent made more than 60.

Then there is the Massachusetts Democratic Party, which itself tends toward arrogance, laziness, and factionalism. Coakley was from the western part of the state, and began her career as the district attorney for Middlesex County, which comprises the northwestern suburbs of Boston. The bulk of the party apparatus is controlled by the Irish of Suffolk County, i.e., Boston. They don't get along too well.

When Coakley crushed the Boston faction's candidate, Michael Capuano, in the primary, Boston washed its hands of the race. For example, Boston's mayor, Tom Menino, didn't even endorse Coakley. The Boston Globe noted that, along Blue Hill Avenue, a major arterial through the heart of Jamaica Plain, a heavily Democratic neighborhood, there were only two -- count 'em, two -- Coakley signs to be seen on Election Day. Coakley won the usual big percentages in Boston, but the Democratic organization there did not mobilize to produce a high turnout.

Barack Obama, Meet Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton

President Carter entered office with 62 Democratic senators to 38 Republicans, and 292 Democrats in the House to 143 Republicans. He should have had clear sailing, but the result was very different. Carter's first act was to clash with Democrats on the issue of water projects in the western United States. He was soon derided within the party for his aloofness and arrogance. Throw in a narrow personal base of popularity, a troubled economy, and a prolonged crisis following the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Iran, and Carter was toast.

So, too, was the Democratic Party's congressional and institutional apparatus, which had failed to adapt to the social, economic, and demographic changes of the 1960s and '70s, and changes in the global economy. Out of ideas and split between its liberal and conservative wings, it was ripe for a well-planned conservative invasion. Ronald Reagan was the vehicle, and thus ended a half-century of Democratic dominance in Washington

All of those conditions pretty much hold today; the Democrats have done little repair work. Democratic presidential victories in 1992, 1996, and 2008 have been narrowly-based flukes, based on popular unease about the economy and the personal appeal of presidential candidates. The Democrats have no unifying ideas to match extraordinary Republican unity behind a mixture of economic fascism and right-wing Christian social reaction.

Democratic presidential candidates are elected not for their ideas, but on their "buzz," their p.r. skills, and on public economic dissatisfaction of the moment. Once in office they sputter, and when they hit a setback they sound a retreat. It happened to Carter and Clinton, and now it's happening to Obama.

The 2012 Election Should Be Strictly Economic, Right? Maybe Not.

Ever since 1948, it's been possible to call presidential elections by observing the direction of the national unemployment rate in the second quarter of a presidential election year.

If unemployment rises between March and June, as it did in 1952, 1976, 1980, 1992, and 2008, the incumbent party will lose decisively. If it stays level, as it did in 1960, 1968, and 2000, the incumbent party will lose narrowly. If it falls, as it did in 1964, 1972, 1984, 1988, 1996, and 2004, the incumbent party will win. Only in 1956, when unemployment rose in the second quarter, did the incumbent win anyway. And that's only because, unlike in other years, the change was small and did not represent an overall direction.

Obama's only hope is that the economy begins a real recovery by early 2012. Even then, however, I wonder whether the rule will hold. In 2008, the 0.5% rise in unemployment was very large by historical standards, but Obama won by only 7 percentage points. I think his race shaved about 5 points from his margin, and will do the same again. It's going to take a major economic upswing in early 2012 to save Obama.

But Is Obama Worth Saving?

What change have we seen from this president? The U.S. is engaged in two wars, like it was before. Health care reform will collapse, and the next act in the play will be the radical scaling back -- if not outright destruction -- of Medicare. Various Democratic constituencies will lose on the so-called "values" issues, such as gay rights and abortion. The Supreme Court will move to the right, as the emerging de facto Republican control of the Senate forces Obama to appoint conservatives to fill vacancies.

It's not an encouraging picture. I'd like to imagine that the Democrats will rally, but what is there to rally to? What do Democrats believe? Half of the party clings to the New Deal and the social liberalism of the 1970s. The other half of the party appears to be essentially Republican. There is little underlying consensus about what defines Democrats, something that the Republicans have no trouble doing.

Some will trace Obama's fall to the Massachusetts election, but I trace it to the spring and summer of 2009, when both the White House and the congressional Democrats refused to respond to the Republican Party's scorched-earth opposition to the stimulus and to health care reform. It was plain to see, but Obama and the congressional Democrats did nothing. I think it's because they didn't really know what they believe. That's a fatal problem in today's American politics.

Bottom line: Democrats, what do you believe in? Anything? Is it time to think about replacing the Democratic Party, and if so, with what?

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