Which side are you on?
By Roger Bybee at Jan 21, 2010
Tuesday’s Message to Dems: Which Side Are You On?
Martha Coakley greets reporters and th public outside of the Boston Public Library on January 19. The election was close through the day, but ultimate Coakley took an upset loss to Republican Scott Brown for Massachusetts' senate seat. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
By Roger Bybee
The Democrats' stupefying Senate defeat Tuesday in Massachusetts undoubtedly will lead most pundits and conservative Democrats like Evan Bayh and Ben Nelson to give us another does of Conventional Wisdom: The Democrats lost because government programs for healthcare reform and the economic stimulus were too expansive and insufficiently "bi-partisan," we will be told incessantly.
But thoughtful observers, backed up by polling data about Obama supporters who either voted for Brown or stayed home, argue persuasively that Coakley's defeat reflects the fundamental unwillingness of the national Dems to clearly distinguish themselves from the corporate lobbyists swarming around them.
While some elements of the Democratic health plans may be modified because of the loss of the filibuster-proof majority of 60 in the Senate, the downward drag caused by the healthcare proposals shows that Democrats have to answer the old labor refrain, "Which side are you on?"
DEMS NOT DISTINCT FROM LOBBYISTS
National political directors Matt McKinnon of the International Association of Machinists and Chris Townsend of the United Electrical union argue that it was actually the failure of Obama and the Democrats to more clearly stand with the people against corporate interests that sunk the candidacy of Coakley against Scott Brown, who ran a pseudo-populist campaign.
The Democrats' House and Senate healthcare plans were perceived as potentially burdening ordinary working families, while boosting the profits of insurer and drug companies. "Healthcare was the straw that broke the camel's back," said McKinnon. "It's fair enough to draw some conclusion that the healthcare discussion has been so soured that the public just wanted the healthcare debate to be over."
Moreover, the campaign took place in a context of deep economic insecurity. "People are losing pensions, 401(k)s are getting whacked, people are losing jobs, and then we see only a mundane fix on credit cards instead of real reform."
The trajectory of the Democrats' healthcare plans deteriorated from "Everyone knows you don't get everything you want," to taxing workers' benefits," noted McKinnon. The Senate bill's "excise tax" on "Cadillac plans"—backed by Obama—showed the kind of deceptive labeling normally associated with the Republicans.
"Excise taxes are for 'sin' items like cigarettes or liquor, luxury items like yachts, or for environmental costs like disposing of used tires," he said. "What this tax amounts to is an additional income tax on people in the middle of a recession, and it doesn't make sense to do that."
OBAMA PLEDGE CONTRASTED WITH McCAIN
Further, says McKinnon, "Barack Obama ran against John McCain saying that he firmly opposed McCain's plan for taxing healthcare benefits."
The Machinists have refused to go along with a plan negotiated between the White House and AFL-CIO leaders including President Rich Trumka that would delay the onset of the "excise tax" until 2018 for union members and soften some other features of the tax. "We shouldn't be out there cutting a deal that's a betrayal of our interests in standing up for all the working people in this country," he said,a position that counters the interpretation of some House progressives.
"We're not going to go along with a plan that makes workers pay while there are no mechanisms to make the Wal-Marts pay for healthcare," McKinnon thundered.
The UE's Townsend echoed McKinnon's critique of the Senate proposal taxing workers instead of imposing a modest surtax on millionaires, as the House plan calls for. He pointed out that the deal between the AFL-CIO leadership and the White House has not yielded any formal agreement on paper which unions can evaluate.
"There is no deal down on paper, and it's the Congress, not the White House, which will settle the final language," said Townsend.
The argument that the healthcare proposals hurt Coakley are underscored by Research 2000 polling results summarized by Ryan Grim and Sam Stein at the Huffington Post. Bizarrely, a substantial part of the vote for the right-wing Brown was driven by the belief that Obama and the Democrats were not tough enough on Wall Street, the insurers, and other special interests. The same feelings also apparently caused many Obama supporters to refrain from voting:
A majority of Obama voters who switched to Brown said that "Democratic policies were doing more to help Wall Street than Main Street." A full 95 percent said the economy was important or very important when it came to deciding their vote.
In a somewhat paradoxical finding, a plurality of voters who switched to the Republican -- 37 percent -- said that Democrats were not being "hard enough" in challenging Republican policies. It would be hard to find a clearer indication, it seems, that Tuesday's vote was cast in protest.
The poll also upends the conventional understanding of health care's role in the election. A plurality of people who switched -- 48 -- or didn't vote -- 43 -- said that they opposed the Senate health care bill. But the poll dug deeper and asked people why they opposed it.
Among those Brown voters, 23 percent thought it went "too far" -- but 36 percent thought it didn't go far enough and 41 percent said they weren't sure why they opposed it. Among voters who stayed home and opposed health care, a full 53 percent said they opposed the Senate bill because it didn't go far enough; 39 percent weren't sure and only eight percent thought it went too far.
Economist Robert Kuttner, a Massachusetts resident, said that the Obama message and the Senate and House plans fed the perception that the Democrats were taking the side of the powerful while failing to protect working families. This allowed a corporate lapdog like Scott Brown to pose as the populist watchdog fighting against entrenched power. Kuttner writes:
Cutting a deal with the insurers and drug companies, who are not exactly candidates to win popularity contests, associated Obama with profoundly resented interest groups.
This was exactly the wrong framing. This battle should have been the president and the people versus the interests. Instead more and more voters concluded that it was the president and the interests versus the people.
By embracing a deal that required the government to come up with a trillion dollars of subsidy for the insurance industry, Obama was forced to pursue policies that were justifiably unpopular -- such as taxing premiums of people with decent insurance; or compelling people to buy policies that they often couldn't afford, or diverting money from Medicare.
He managed to scare silly the single most satisfied clientele of our one island of efficient single-payer health insurance -- senior citizens -- and to alienate one of his most loyal constituencies, trade unionists.
The bill helped about two-thirds of America's uninsured, but did almost nothing for the 85 percent of Americans with insurance that is becoming more costly and unreliable by the day -- except frighten them into believing that what little they have is at increased risk of being taken away.
One of the ironies of Tuesday's vote that it occurred almost exactly one year after the massive outpouring of joy and energy that followed the end of the Bush-Cheney era and the election of a liberal who happened to be America's first African-American president.
WHO'S REMINDING PUBLIC OF GOP DAMAGE?
Yet despite the multiple catastrophes that were the Bush-Cheney legacy, Obama has largely failed to draw legitimacy and momentum for his agenda by reminding the public of precisely who caused the mess he inherited, as commentators like Paul Krugman , Bill Moyers and Thomas Frank have suggested.
Drew Westen also articulated this point powerfully:
It is a truly remarkable feat, in just one year's time, to turn the fear and anger voters felt in 2006 and 2008 at a Republican Party that had destroyed the economy, redistributed massive amounts of wealth from the middle class to the richest of the rich and the biggest of big businesses, and waged a trillion-dollar war in the wrong country, into populist rage at whatever Democrat voters can cast their ballot against.
What happens if you fail to "brand" what has happened as the Bush Depression or the Republican Depression or the natural result of the ideology of unregulated greed, the way FDR branded the Great Depression as Hoover's Depression and created a Democratic majority for 50 years and a new vision of what effective government can do?
What happens when you fail to offer and continually reinforce a narrative about what has happened, who caused it, and how you're going to fix it that Americans understand, that makes them angry, that makes them hopeful, and that makes them committed to you and your policies during the tough times that will inevitably lie ahead?
The most recent exhibit of Obama's tendency to undermine the vital "branding" process: naming George W. Bush to co-chair America's resue mission in Haiti, despite his despicable role in letting New Orleans drown during Hurricane Katrina.
An exasperated Chris Townsend of the UE exploded, "Why in the hell would he possibly pull George W. Bush from the dung heap of history, wash off the memories of Katrina and everything else, and send him off to Haiti with Bill Clinton?"