Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Will the Democrats fight or surrender?

The Cheney-Bush administration was installed by the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore in 2000 even though they lost the Presidential election. Even before the 9/11 attacks "changed everything", in its first months in office pushed through an enormous tax cut for the upper brackets. They unsigned the International Criminal Court treaty to minimize any obstacles to their committing war crimes. They disregarded the global warning treaty and huddled in secret with energy lobbyists to design an energy policy. After holding up Clinton's judicial appointments for years so that there were a huge number of vacancies on the federal bench, they started ramming through their judicial appointments. We did hear the standard assertion in those days that nothing could pass the Senate without 60 votes.

After the 9/11 attacks, the Democrats were falling all over themselves to show their commitment to "bipartisanship", by which they meant in practice lining up behind whatever the administration wanted. The Republicans, on the other hand, saw the chance to use the situation to maximize their partisan advantage. So they got Congress to pass a wishlist of repressive measures in the PATRIOT Act, they immediate beginning maneuvering to use the atmosphere to start a completely unnecessary war with Iraq, and shamelessly used the wartime atmosphere to slam the Democrats as weak and unpatriotic.

Fast-forward to this week.

With large majorities in both Houses of Congress and a President coming in with a strong mandate, the Demoscrats spent the previous year: passing a necessary but unpopular bailout of big banks, while cutting out the measures most likely to minimize job losses in the recession; desperately sought "bipartisanship" from a Republican Party that manifestly was operating in wrecker mode and was about as explicit as they could be in their intention to destroy the Obama administration; in apparently pursuit of an impossible bipartisanship, they neglected to create a strong narrative to blame the Republicans for the consequences of their economic policies; implemented a major escalation in an unpopular war in Afghanistan (and Pakistan and Yemen); and, capitulated to the insurance companies in a way that turned the very popular issue of health care reform into an unpopular and deeply flawed measure (the Obama-Lieberman bill). All the while, they turned away from their serious legal obligation to prosecute the perpetrators of torture crimes, corruption and prosecutorial misconduct in the Cheney-Bush administration.

Aside from the very serious legal obligation, such prosecutions would have dramatically discredited the Republicans for their very real criminal acts.

Now the Democrats have lost Ted Kennedy's former Senate seat to a rightwing Republican who, if we're lucky, will turn out to the lightweight he seems to be. The punditocracy was already in high dudgeon pronouncing Beltway Village wisdom that Obama had "governed from the left" and "tried to do too much" in his first year and now needed to oppose the Democratic base and its priorities even more. They'll be pronouncing the collapse of the Obama administration now.

The Democrats, unfortunately, have a remarkable inclination to throw in the towel. This was illustrated by one of the House's most liberal and articulate Democratic leaders: Barney Frank Concedes Health Care Approach 'No Longer Appropriate' After Brown Beats Coakley Huffington Post 01/19/10. This is Frank's statement after Scoot Brown's Senate victory on Tuesday, as quoted in that article:

I have two reactions to the election in Massachusetts. One, I am disappointed. Two, I feel strongly that the Democratic majority in Congress must respect the process and make no effort to bypass the electoral results.
If Martha Coakley had won, I believe we could have worked out a reasonable compromise between the House and Senate healthcare bills. But since Scott Brown has won and the Republicans now have 41 votes in the Senate, that approach is no longer appropriate.

I am hopeful that some Republican senators will be willing to discuss a revised version of healthcare reform because I do not think that the country would be well-served by the healthcare status quo. But our respect for democratic procedures must rule out any effort to pass a healthcare bill as if the Massachusetts election had not happened.

Going forward, I hope there will be a serious effort to change the Senate rule which means that 59 votes are not enough to pass major legislation, but those are the rules by which the healthcare bill was considered, and it would be wrong to change them in the middle of this process. [my emphasis]
The Democrats will keep losing with this kind of thinking. More importantly, the public's needs that the Democrats committed to addressing in the 2008 election will not be dealt with in anything like an adequate way.

This just looks like plain defeatist thinking to me. The Republicans effectively abolished the filibuster with the "Gang of 14" deal in 2005. There's nothing sacrosanct about the filibuster, except in the minds of Democrats now who hide behind it as an excuse not to do what they committed to do in their election campaigns. It's a terribly undemocratic rule, imposed on a Senate whose Constitutional structure already by design gives less-populated states a disproportionate representation. The Republicans in the same position would change the rules in a heartbeat. In the case of the Senate filibuster, they already did back in 2005.

If health care reform will not have a robust public option, I wouldn't be adverse to seeing some of the parts disaggregated and passed separately, like tightening the rules on insurance companies' denial of coverage (though the rules in the Obama-Lieberman version are very weak) or the expansion of community health facilities.

But it's nuts to be talking about hoping that "some Republican senators will be willing to discuss a revised version of health care reform." Yeah, at this point they would be willing to flush every constructive measure remaining in the Obama-Lieberman bill and instead agree to "tort reform" to abolish legal liability for doctors, hospitals and insurance companies for medical malpractice. And they would be happy to "allow insurance companies to compete across state lines", they current scheme to gut state-level regulations on insurance companies. (The Republican proposal would allow insurance companies to sell in other states subject only to the rules in the company's state of incorporation, which would create an immediate rush to the bottom for states to reduce their own regulatory rules to match the lowest common denominator.)

Barney Frank's silly statement is a measure of how poor the existing Democratic leadership really is. If they were willing to fight for something besides bailing out Wall Street bankers and an ill-conceived policy of war escalation, they might be surprised at how much they could get accomplished. And at how much they might benefit them at the polls.

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