This one goes out to Martha Coakley and the Democrats. You guys fought hard and gave it your best shot. Take a moment and recuperate to the soothing tones of this song. I’ll wait.
What, you actually expected me to pat you on the back for a job well done? STFU and get back to work, ya whiners!
Digby over at Hullabaloo said (before last night’s loss) that she’s pessimistic that the Coakley loss will serve to shove the Obama administration or the Democratic party proper in the direction of acting in a more progressive manner. In fact, says, Digby, all evidence points toward the powers that be in the Democratic party (including the administration) moving instinctively to the right as a result of the Coakley loss. Though Digby is clearly against this notion, she apparently sees it as a fait accompli, citing for evidence the undeniable facts that a) the media is already painting a rightward-shift as the proper – or even the only – sensible course of action, and b) already somewhat-conservative Dems will be understandably freaked out and worried about their own seats if Coakley loses.
I can’t argue with Digby’s facts, but I don’t share her pessimism. Why? Because I think that team Obama is smart enough to understand what’s at stake, even if some of the blue dogs (and, of course, the press, who always lag behind the reality, as Chris Matthews discovered with Bush’s approval ratings in 2006) continue their years-long habit of instinctively shifting rightward as a response to every defeat. The title of Digby’s post is “Fork In The Road,” and I think it’s apt: this really IS a fork in the road for Democrats. From here, depending upon Democrats’ response to the situation as it exists, they can either head towards another 1994-style debacle of epic proportions, losing many dozens of seats – and the chair – in the House as well as the majority in the Senate to a re-energized right-wing which will take at least one term (if not two or four) to burn through its electoral goodwill through mounting public awareness of the sheer bankruptcy of conservative ideas and harmful nature of their policies, or Dems can start to deliver on their promise. Not their promises, per se, as I don’t think there are too many voters in America who don’t already get that it’s not always possible for a candidate to produce everything they campaigned on, but their promise.
What is the Democratic promise? Without getting too airy-fairy or too far into the weeds, it’s the party that lifts people up, makes sure they don’t fall too hard or too far when they’re down, and gives people a sense of safety and comfort about their everyday lives even if they are not Limbaugh-wealthy. Most of us who aren’t that rich have been feeling a gnawing sense of dread and insecurity about some of the most basic things of civic life and our own situations for decades now, and far from having receded, if anything, it’s at a multi-decade high. People voted in such large Democratic majorities in 2006 and again (along with the first black President) in 2008, because if they knew anything after eight years of George W. Bush, culminating in the fiscal collapse of 2008, it was that the Republican party was never truly going to help alleviate that sense of dread and insecurity. In fact, if anything, many people understand at least partially, on some level, that the Republican party helps cause that sense of insecurity. And the only other game in town is the Democrats, who – it just so happens – do have a history of looking out for the little guy and keeping the financial behemoths from trampling people. So voters took the combined impetus of a terrible Republican administration, a very personally charismatic Presidential candidate and the history of the Democratic party, and they said: “OK, we’ve tried it the conservatives’ way, and it didn’t work. We want you to get in there and fix it.”
Lots can be said (and has been said, and wlll continue to be said) about whether in fact Obama and the newly minted Democrats of ’06 and ’08 actually have delivered upon the voters’ implicit charge to “fix it.” I’ve written extensively about it myself. But the question of who’s right about whether Obama and the Dems have done enough to “fix it” is no longer relevant – at least not in the sphere of punditry. There’s a pithy old political saying that has it that the only poll that matters is the one held on election day at the ballot box. And yesterday, in Massachusetts, voters delivered their verdict: a resounding “hell, NO!” I think Obama understands this. At least, I sure hope he does. If Obama and the Democratic leadership look at yesterday’s electoral debacle and think the prescription is to adopt some of the teabaggers’ ideas, then Digby will have been right.
However, one idea that neither Obama nor Democratic leaders can escape – two things, actually, which are intertwined – is that the mythical sixty vote supermajority is now well out of reach, and there’s no way to get it back. They can’t un-ring the Coakley/Brown bell. Olympia Snowe, Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson have shown their true colors, and Republicans show little – if any – signs of deciding that their filibusterpalooza should be scaled back. Obama now has literally NO chance of passing his legislative priorities like banking reform and health care by appealing to Republicans or moderate Democrats. Or, if he can do it this way, the disfiguring he would have to do to real reform in order to secure the votes of the “centrists” would make it sufficiently un-like the reforms that he promised that it will virtually guarantee more Massachusetts-style losses in the fall.
Obama – I believe – understands that the gauntlet has now been thrown down by voters. He’s got to either go big or go home. He’s got to either decide that he’s at heart a centrist, Lieberman-esque sort of Democrat, at home ideologically with the Evan Bayhs and the Joe Liebermans of the world — and show that face to the world, or he’s got to start getting tough. He can no longer deceive himself or anyone else that he can get to sixty votes on any legislation (be it health care or anything else) that’s even vaguely progressive. Hell, Joe Lieberman even flatly said that he changed his mind on the expansion of Medicare provision of the health care bill because liberals liked it. In the face of that kind of obstinacy, I think Obama has to realize that he has a choice to make. There isn’t any middle ground to be had any more. There just isn’t — at least not if the goal is to enact truly Democratic-party legislation. Obama either needs to make this the Joe Lieberman Presidency, or he needs to firmly grasp the rudder and start cracking heads and pushing his own agenda, LBJ-style.
The good news in this is that, with the loss of the sixty-vote pony, there won’t be any confusion about this. And while the Democrats lost a psychologically and strategically important Senate seat yesterday, in many ways, the outlook has actually been clarified. Sixty is no longer possible for progressive legislation of any kind, but that serves to force Democrats to decide if they really want to pass such legislation or not…and if they do, it forces them to realize that they’re going to be on their own. However, hot on the heels of that realization should come the still-quite-comforting realization that although they don’t have sixty any more, they do still have fifty-nine. And that is a lot more than forty-one. It’s even more than fifty. Yesterday’s loss, if it means anything for future Democratic strategy, means that neither Obama nor Reid nor anyone else need give a shit what Joe Lieberman or Ben Nelson think about anything. They may have to use reconciliation or play other forms of hardball (including revisiting the idea of the “nuclear option”), but the only realistic goal they can hope for now is fifty-plus-one. And really, only fifty, since Joe Biden would be the tie-breaking vote, if necessary. Right there, that takes the most conservative of the blue dogs, and decreases their relevance many-fold. If fifty Senators is the goal, Obama and Reid could do without Nelson, Lieberman, Landrieu, Bayh, Lincoln and STILL have fifty-four votes. That means any other Democratic Senators who think they can hold reforms over a barrel for their own egotistical purposes, or to wring special “carve outs” for their home state will have to realize that there are still four other places in that “don’t give a crap” line made possible by the Scott Brown win and now occupied by Lieberman, et. al.
I certainly could be wrong about all this. I hope I’m not, because I truly believe that the trust of the voters has been so badly broken in terms of their willingness to believe that the Democratic party will ever come through on the promise of their traditional party values that one more capitulation to the “centrist” (read: rightist masquerading as Democrat) demands will doom the Democratic party to a generation’s worth of political irrelevancy. The voting public, as one entity, tends to have a short memory, yes. But that’s where the media – who have a very long and vividly-documented memory – come into play. They’re already saying that Obama and the Democrats can – indeed must – shift rightward in order to make this work. Obama and the Democrats still, despite all the missteps of the last year, have a rare window of opportunity to tell the media and the naysayers to take a hike, and to do it their own way instead. If they don’t, if instead they follow the media’s already increasing drumbeat towards the right, they can expect the same media outlets banging those drums today to create and push a narrative in the future that says Democrats can’t deliver. They’ll leave out the fact that they themselves – the media – played an instrumental role in convincing Democrats to move to the center and thus preemptively not deliver upon their promise….but it won’t matter. The narrative will have taken hold. And it will be great news for Republicans (again)! If I’m right, though, and Obama understands that what’s at stake here is not just the future of his crown jewel of legislation – health care – but in fact the much larger political viability of the Democratic party for years to come, I think he will grit his teeth and roll up his sleeves and start to deliver the sort of politics that are as muscular and combative as his policies are supportive and forgiving. Let us hope, anyway.