I try to avoid saying too much about politics. This is partly because most of the time others have already said what I would have said, and said it better than I could have. In truth though, I steer clear of political posts because I really have nothing nice to say, and who wants to be Cassandra anyway?
Still, given that the 2012 ‘election-cycle’ is almost upon us, and given the absurd spectacle we are now greeted with, now seems as good a time as any to say what I think, and what I think (writ large) is:
The Democrats deserve to lose this election.
Let us return briefly to the jubilant scene just three years ago when Barack Obama, surrounded by millions of cheering Americans, was inaugurated as the next president of the United States.
It was a moment to remember. Beyond the symbolism of an African-American, the son of a single mother winning the most powerful elected office in the land, there was the political facts. For the first time since 1994, the Democrats would control both houses of Congress and the White House. For the first time since 1976, a Democratic presidential candidate had won more than half the popular vote.
Meanwhile, the opposition Republican party was weakened and directionless. A Republican president had just presided over beginning of the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression. They suffered damaging losses in Congress, including their entire New England house contingent. So-called independents broke decisively against Republicans, as did young people, women, Latinos and African Americans. The party appeared in danger of becoming the party of aging white men. The finger-pointing and recriminations among the leadership were non-stop.
Even the traditional anti-Democratic sources were uncharacteristically silent. The economic collapse had weakened Wall Street, leaving it temporarily silent. Most big businesses were worried about their own problems, unable or unwilling to rock the boat.
In short, we not only had an eloquent new president with a compelling life-story on our hands, we had a once-in-a-generation political opportunity as a hugely popular president backed by large Congressional majorities faced a frightened and fragmented opposition. Not since the days of Lyndon Johnson had liberals had such strong reasons to hope for the legislative enactment of a progressive social agenda.
Alas, it was not to be. Congressional leaders fell to squabbling. The president refused to get his hands dirty in the legislating process, allowing important bills to languish in Congressional committees. Meanwhile, the economic distress continued, and the president’s conservative economic policies had little visible positive impact. The lack of progress and change left many voters confused and disheartened, as did the reemergence of a Republican opposition determined to block the president at every turn. In the 2010 midterm elections, Democrats were swamped, and all hope for major progress legislation died with the end of the 111th Congress.
While there are many reasons for this failure, the primary one was a failure in leadership. The president did not lead. He did not seize the political moment. He did not effectively use his majorities and popularity when he had them and now they are gone.
Fundamentally, the Obama presidency’s lack of leadership is underlaid by a profound political naiveté. Unable or unwilling to see the opposition for what it was, he wasted precious time and political capital soliciting their input, meeting their leaders, and negotiating with them when he did not have to. It takes a special lack of savvy to fall victim to the same trick again and again, but that is precisely what Obama has done. Unwilling to call a spade a spade, he has negotiated repeatedly with people whose primary goal is to see him fail. He has played directly into their hands, and now he is suffering the consequences.
Politics is war. You gain no credit for being a gentleman. There’s no ‘A’ for effort. Results are the only metric by which one is judged. The president should have taken his political capital and spent it ramming through legislation rather than dallying in meetings with people whose votes he would never get. Rather than compromise, he should have fought for the most liberal legislation that had any decent chance of passage.
Moreover, he should have used whatever advantages he had to weaken the opposition. Why not ‘go nuclear’ and end the filibuster once and for all? Why not fill all vacant judgeships with the most liberal judges available through recess appointments? Why not pass a truly massive stimulus, investing directly in transportation and energy, and funded by a revamped tax-code that raises marginal tax rates on the well off back the 1960 levels? Why not push through immigration reform, including fast-tracking citizenship for immigrants in good standing (most will Democratic)? Why not reduce disproportionate federal aid and pork to Republican-friendly districts? Why not purge the SEC of corrupt former Wall-streeters and target the wizards behind the financial instruments that led to the meltdown? Why not break up the institutions deemed ‘too big to fail’? Why not allow regular Americans to opt into the same healthcare plan that Congress has?
I’m no savvy career politician, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that Obama, for all his inspiration, was the wrong man for the job. The lack of leadership, the lack of combativeness and the unwillingness to pull out all the stops have all proven fatal. All in all, the president and the Democrats simply don’t seem to be willing to do what’s necessary to make real change happen. Perhaps that’s a feature, or perhaps that’s a bug, but the truth of the matter is that makes them failures on two fronts: they are neither competent enough to destroy the opposition, nor are they courageous enough to get done what needs to be done.