January 27, 2010

Ceding the Argument

During the Bush years, there was a saying that went something like this: Republicans can't govern, and Democrats can't get elected. We may have to revise that second part, as it seems like Democrats can't govern either.

The Democrats' freakout over the Scott Brown win in Massachusetts last week was awful enough, and the possibility that they might yet give up on health care reform now, after having come this close making it a reality, is still a live one. Even worse than that, though, is President Obama's bizarre spending freeze proposal for non-security discretionary spending -- Paul Krugman notes that "the best thing you can say in its favor is that it’s a transparently cynical PR stunt." Now, I've tried to temper my enthusiasm for Obama with the knowledge that he's always had a strong centrist, gradualist streak to him, and that liberals hoping he would be their champion were bound to be disappointed. I've occasionally written what in retrospect were fanboy-ish posts about him, to be sure, but I don't think I've ever let it get the better of me.

So why does Obama's recent pivot to the budget deficit seem like, frankly, a betrayal of what he campaigned on -- not to trade in the type of gimmicks that he rightly lambasted John McCain for offering? In part, my frustration is less with Obama than with Congress: Before 2009, I don't think I fully understood the pathological nature of the US Senate, which seems to view assuaging the egos of its members as more important than addressing the problems of our country. But rather than accepting the setback of losing the supermajority while still holding fast to its agenda, the Obama administration has, essentially, given up -- and not just given up, but apparently bought wholesale into Republican arguments about the deficit and the economy. It's as if we're back in the bad old days of the Bush administration, when Democrats kept playing a game of "Me too!" with the GOP, a game they could only lose.

That's why this past week has turned into such a crisis for the Democrats: It's not merely the lack of progress on their agenda or continued high level of unemployment, it's the ceding of the argument to the Republicans -- which, given the one-dimensional nature of their policy agenda, is really disturbing. I've been disappointed over the size of the stimulus, the treatment of the banks, the declining prospects for clean energy legislation, &c., but recognized that Obama and the Democrats were working within tight constraints -- including members of their own party. Now I'm not even sure what the rationale for the Obama administration is anymore. Perhaps he'll turn things around tonight at the State of the Union, but I'm not optimistic.

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