Friday, November 06, 2009
UPDATE: Welcome, friends and foes directed here from the Drudge Report!
Democrats worried about this week's off-year elections on Tuesday might have reason to go into full-fledged panic after Thursday.
The "spin" over the exact reasons why Republicans won governors' races in New Jersey and Virginia can go on for quite some time. Democrats can claim that these were about local concerns. Republicans can say that it was the beginning of voters rejecting President Obama and the Democrats "big-government" agenda -- especially the push to reform health care.
There's some rhetorical points to be made on both sides.
Yesterday, however, stark reality of a very different sort intruded: News broke out of the shooting at the Fort Hood Army post in Texas. Soon enough, the full impact of the horror became evident: 13 dead, another 30 injured. The full details and investigation of the shooting -- evidently by a base Army officer -- will become clear in the days ahead.
It's President Obama's reaction to it that is disturbing. Networks reported that the White House had been notified of the early afternoon shooting. By late afternoon, word went out that the president would speak about the incident prior to a previously scheduled appearance. At about 5 PM, cable stations went to the president. But, instead of what might have been expected -- a somber chief executive offering reassuring words and expressions of sympathy and compassion -- viewers saw a wildly disconnected and, inappropriately "light" president making introductory remarks. At a Tribal Nations Conference hosted by the Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian affairs, the president thanked various staffers and offered a "shout-out" to "Dr. Joe Medicine Crow -- that Congressional Medal of Honor winner." The president eventually spoke about the shooting -- in measured and appropriate terms, but how could anyone have advised him to begin in this manner?
Anyone at home aware of the major news story of the previous hours -- and that meant everyone watching given that this appearance by the president would not normally have been covered by the networks -- had to have been stunned. An incident like this requires a scrapping of the early "light" rhetoric. The president should just come out and apologize for the tone of his remarks, but then explain what has happened, express sympathy for those slain -- and appeal for calm and patience until all the facts are in. That's the least that should occur.
Indeed, an argument could be made that Obama should have canceled the Indian event, out of respect for people having been murdered at an Army post a few hours before. That would have prevented any sort of jarring emotional switch at the event.
Did the president's scheduling/communications/political team not realize what sort of image they were presenting to the country at this moment? The disconnect between what Americans at home knew had been going on -- and the initial words coming out of their president's mouth was jolting, if not emotionally disturbing.
It must have been horrifying for many politically aware Democrats, still reeling from the election two days before. The New Jersey gubernatorial vote had already demonstrated that the president and his political team couldn't produce a winning outcome in a state very friendly to Democrats (and where the president won by 15 points one year ago). And now this? Congressional Democrats must wonder if a White House that has burdened them with a too-heavy policy agenda over the last year has a strong enough political operation to help push that agenda through.
If the president's communications apparatus can't inform -- and protect -- their boss during tense moments when the country needs to see a focused commander-in-chief and a compassionate head of state, it has disastrous consequences for that president's party and supporters.
All the president's men (and women) fell down on the job Thursday. And Democrats across the country have real reason to panic.
Wednesday, November 04, 2009
Changing Winds Of Change
Consider the two portentous signs Barack Obama received Tuesday. Taken together, they represent perhaps the biggest obstacle yet to passing the sweeping health care reform that consumed most of the energy of his first year in office.
Sign No. 1 was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, chastened by reaction from his colleagues his pushing a public option, basically saying that a vote on health care might not occur until the beginning of next year. That's a major disappointment for a White House that originally demanded a vote on health care before the August recess.
But the direr sign came from the American people: Voters across the country, when given the chance, used off-year elections to toss out incumbents -- especially Democrats. But even a technically popular non-Democrat incumbent like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg needed every bit of his $100 million campaign war chest to win a narrow re-election over a decent, yet-over-matched City Comptroller Bill Thompson. Even that race is a headache-in-hindsight for the president. Democrats are saying that had Obama done a little bit more campaigning for Thompson, he could have elected the Democrat mayor of New York City. (The NYC race is deserving of a separate blog post a bit later.)
Then again, Democrats have very little to hang their hats on this morning. Republicans swept both gubernatorial races with Bob McDonnell trouncing Creigh Deeds in Virginia (after eight years of Democratic rule in the Old Dominion) and challenger Chris Christie ousting incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey. Corzine's loss had to render a particular sting. Though President Obama was not on the ballot, he campaigned extensively for Corzine -- including this past weekend. The White House reportedly dispatched former Obama campaign personnel to try pushing Corzine over the finish line. Regardless, the president was much more invested in Jersey than he was in Virginia. Given the natural advantages that a Democrat should have in a deep-blue state, putting so much of the president's mojo on the line makes the result look like a repudiation of Obama.
Most sobering is that the independents who fueled the Democratic takeover of the House and Senate in 2006 and 2008 surged toward McDonnell and Christie by a factor of 2-1. Independents giveth -- and independents have the power to taketh away.
Ironically, the one spot that gives Democrats something to smile about is the much-ballyhooed NY 23rd congressional district in New York. The civil war between the conservative and liberal parts of the Republican Party ended in a not-so-surprising result: Democrat Bill Owens eked out a win over Conservative Party insurgent/Sarah Palin-endorsed Doug Hoffman. Republican Dede Scozzafava who dropped out -- and then endorsed Owens -- ended up with about about 5 percent. The district that hasn't elected a Democrat since the Civil War did so now. The result helps Democrats in the short-run as it adds one more vote to their majority (though figure Owens will be one more Blue Dog Democrat to bedevil liberals looking for a public option in health care). It also helps Democratic strategists and pundits in the long run by helping them mine the "moderates are no longer welcome in the Republican Party" storyline.
Put the largest share of the blame for that fiasco on the brain-dead Republican Party of New York. Rather than allow a primary to take place -- which could have produced a candidate that wouldn't have sparked a rebellion by conservatives -- instead appointed Scozzafava in a back-room deal. Conservatives, meanwhile, might learn the lesson that -- if you do want to run a third-party candidate, you might do a little better if your chosen candidate actually lived in the district and at least pretended to care about some local issues (Hoffman did neither).
But, the lesson to be drawn Tuesday is a tough one for the White House to absorb going into 2010's midterms. Exit polls in both New Jersey and Virginia -- and cursory evidence in some contests in suburban New York -- show that fiscal concerns of economy/jobs/taxes are far and away the uppermost concern in the minds of voters. Nothing else comes close.
And that especially includes the president's aforementioned pet project -- health care.
The election results will embolden Democrats already wary about certain aspects of the health care plans working through Congress. Senate Democrats facing the voters next year -- like Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and Arkansas' Blanche Lambert Lincoln (a state John McCain won by 20 points) -- will be even more opposed to a public option. As will many Blue Dog Democrats.
After Tuesday, elected Democrats not wishing to share the same fate as that of other members of their party may be united in one significant respect -- the message they have for the White House: Perhaps curing the nation's economic ills should come before pushing forward a complicated, out-sized health care proposal.
Tuesday, November 03, 2009
A Promise Unfulfilled
One year after the exuberant optimism that accompanied Barack Obama's historic election, the nation's mood is considerably different.
Conservatives and Republicans are both furious and disappointed that the admittedly liberal senator elected last year has hardly proven to be an individual with whom they can find much ballyhooed "common ground." But it isn't a big surprise that the opposition will just dismiss the efforts of the party in power. It's the broad middle of the spectrum, however, that has the greatest reason to be disappointed in Obama's first year. The broad middle is willing to be patient on the big issues -- the economy, war, Guantanamo, terrorism, etc. Obama might get an "incomplete" in those areas, but that's fine. Solving all these big issues isn't going to be done overnight. However, it is in Obama's biggest promise that he has, sadly, proven to be a failure -- that of bringing a change of tone to Washington.
Sure, bipartisanship is a two-way street. The White House can make a reasonable claim that congressional Republicans haven't been eager to work with Obama on big issues. Only three GOP senators signed onto the economic stimulus package earlier this year. One of those -- Arlen Specter -- has since become a Democrat. It's beginning to look like the health care legislation -- if it ever gets out of the Senate -- will not have a single Republican on board. So, Obama can say that he tried to extend a hand, but was rebuffed. And he certainly didn't ask for the Tea Party movement to turn him into the living embodiment of socialism.
However, responsiblity for much of the increased tension and rancor that still exists in Washington, DC, has to be laid at the feet of the administration -- and the president himself. Some of the tension was created by accident: Obama's calling Henry Louis Gates' arrest by Cambridge Police Officer James Crowley "stupid" did short-term damage to Obama's "post-racial" brand. But that was, if anything, a slip of the tongue at the end of a lengthy press conference.
But it's Obama's overt partisanship that has been most distressing. The White House early on decided to start picking fights with those opposing its plans. Rush Limbaugh went after the administration with full guns blazing so taking him on might have been expected -- even though declaring him the Republican Party's "leader" might have been laying it on thick. But then, Fox News? The Chamber of Commerce? The insurance industry as a whole? And with all the big issues on its plate, how is it that the White House still manages to plunge itself into obscure congressional special elections in upstate New York? Or pulls out all the stops to get one governor re-elected?
During the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt relished identifying and castigating political foes. Wealthy himself, he didn't might mixing it up with what he saw as the members of a wealthy privileged class trying to prevent him from establishing a New Deal. But Roosevelt wasn't elected on a rhetorical platform of overcoming political and ideological differences. Obama was.
Instead, in a city where one doesn't have to work too hard to produce enemies, Obama and Co. seem almost eager to find more. One year ago, the nation elected a seeming agent of reconciliation -- not just across racial lines, but ideological and political ones as well Perhaps the nation was a bit naive to believe that all partisanship would suddenly come to an end.
But the president could and should have done more to work to that goal and help fulfill the public's belief in him. With three years to go before his re-election, Obama still has much time bring about the policy changes that he promised.
Alas, it's already too late to fulfill the change in atmosphere.
Monday, November 02, 2009
Dede Does Dems
A whirlwind 24-hour period in New York's 23rd congressional district shows the peril and possibilities for the shaky relationship between the conservative movement and the Republican Party.
Saturday morning, a Siena Research poll had Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman leading Democrat Bill Owens 36-35 percent. The official Republican choice, Dede Scozzafava had fallen to third at 20 percent. By early afternoon, Scozzafava announced that she was suspending her campaign, citing lack of money. Notably, she told her supporters they were free to make their own choice -- but didn't endorse either remaining candidate.
There was euphoria among conservatives: Liberal Republican Scozzafava had been driven to the side. Without the right-of-center vote being split, Republican voters could unify behind the Conservative Party candidate.
Not so fast!
Barely a day later, Scozzafava releases a statement that she will endorse, after all -- Bill Owens, the Democrat. According to Politico, within moments of her dropping out Saturday, Democrats went on an all out blitz to get her endorsement. Everyone from the White House on down -- including the most powerful Democrat in the New York state legislature, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and the most popular Democrat in the state, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo -- worked on Scozzafava:
Two senior Democrats with ties to the White House praised Cuomo’s role in the operation, saying they were confident Scozzafava was on board after learning that she told Cuomo: "You're going to be the next governor of New York."
Also critical was Silver’s assurance, in a phone conversation with Scozzafava, that the state Assembly Democratic caucus would embrace her if she chose to switch parties, now viewed as a real possibility after her endorsement Sunday of Owens.
What were Republicans doing while all this was going on? Well, the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee quickly consolidated behind Hoffman. That certainly makes a lot of sense (especially considering how tough the NRCC had been in attacking Hoffman when Scozzafava was still in the race). However, one would think that the official party organizations might have worked to cajole Scozzafava into endorsing Hoffman. When she dropped out, she still had 20 percent of the vote.
But, the GOP may have made the "right" decision: A Public Policy Poll released Sunday showed Hoffman surging to a 17-point lead over Owens. Still, the impact of Scozzafava's endorsement wasn't immediately felt. Not until Election Day will anyone know if these last-minute machinations will have any effect on the final vote.
One thing is known one day before voters in the 23rd cast their ballots: The conservative base of the Republican Party has flexed its muscles and sent a loud message. It's already collected Scozzafava's scalp and -- if Hoffman wins on Tuesday -- will have a powerful living symbol of its electoral strength.
If Hoffman loses, the base will still be able to crow and force other state parties into being very careful over how they go about nominating candidates. Beyond Scozzafava's liberal view on many issues, conservatives were even more furious over GOP county chairmen appointing her rather than allowing a primary process to take place.
True, the special circumstances that existed in NY-23 don't exist across the country: New York is a state with several ideological and strategic political parties that have the power to cross-endorse the main parties -- and can draw in frustrated candidates to run on their lines. Furthermore, this was a special election which could attract national attention from both the establishment GOP and various conservative organization. During a regular election cycle, it's unlikely that the entire conservative movement could focus on multiple conservative third-party challengers and attract enough media and financial resources to knock off an endorsed GOP nominee.
But nothing succeeds like success. With one notch in its belt, the conservative base will most likely consider more dynamic ways to show that its issues and concerns won't be ignored. If the price is moderate and liberal Republicans like Scozzafava endorsing (and defecting to?) Democrats, well, that's worth it.