A Time For Fire? (November 15, 2010)

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It is fair to say that when Barack Obama accepted the mantle to become America’s first African-American President on an unseasonably warm evening in November of 2008, the proverbial world was his oyster. Unlike the shaky “mandate” that George W. Bush declared on behalf of himself and the GOP in 2004, a claim that ran up against unprecedented electoral polarization, it was hard to imagine two years ago that the inspirational “Yes, We Can!” message, which resulted in the new President’s receipt of 365 Electoral College votes to McCain’s 173, could be harpooned.

An energized and gleeful Democratic party, which had succeeded in a full sweep of the White House as well as both Chambers of Congress, got to work right away with a transition team and the development of a first term policy agenda (because really, how could there fail to be a second?). In the meantime, the presumed dead GOP retreated to the political wilderness to lick its wounds and try to develop a comeback plan.

Although hindsight is always 20/20, I doubt that either side of the aisle could have envisioned that the key to Republican resurgence would present itself in the summer of 2009 ,with the young President’s plan to tackle an issue that had stymied every Commander-in-Chief and one tough First Lady throughout the 20th Century – an overhaul of our nation’s wasteful, overpriced and under-performing health care system. On paper, the plan to render it impossible for insurance companies to deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, to allow dependent offspring to remain on their parent’s plan until the age of 26, to bring down the costs of a system that consumes almost 20% of the nation’s GDP, seemed like a no-brainer. The overhaul would attempt to address a myriad of bi-partisan issues at once: a reduction in the long-term deficit, coverage for middle and lower-class families that did not have access before, and a blow to the usurious, corporate greed that has underwritten the health insurance industry for far too long.

Then along came the Tea Party…

The GOP, which quietly feared the backlash of the insurance lobbyists, but didn’t have the votes to blow a hole in the President’s plan, was relegated to passerby status. Suddenly a double-edged sword presented itself in the radicalized, and very loud, populist voice that began with a single rally held in upstate New York in early 2009.

Famed pollster Scott Rasmussen wrote of the generation of the Tea Party movement, “They think federal spending, deficits and taxes are too high, and they think no one in Washington is listening to them, and that latter point is really, really important.” The Tea Party’s biggest problem with Obama’s health care plan was the price tag – almost a trillion dollars. Hot on the heels of the TARP “bailout” for banks and auto makers, and the equally pricey stimulus, deficit hawks and small government activists had enough. They were mad as as hell and ready to take to the streets.

And so they did – quite effectively. At first, GOP leadership was as wary of this new breed of political activists as anyone else. After all, the group’s poster woman was failed Vice-Presidential candidate, Alaskan Governor and media plaything Sarah Palin. After a series of gaffes throughout the 2008 campaign and the clear impression of the McCain staff that the Governor was a loose canon, Palin was relegated to a state of Washington untouchability in the early months of 2009.

However, as Republicans began to hone their strategy of becoming the antithetical “Party of No,” to Obama’s full steam ahead “Change,” platform, it became clear that the goals of the Tea Party and the GOP were one and the same – to stop the expensive and big business adversarial momentum that comes with implementing systemic restructuring. Thus the strange bedfellows found it increasingly comfortable to work together as the measured debate over health care degenerated into hateful rumor mongering involving “death panels.” Whatever works, right?

And according to this columnist, this is where the Democrats really erred. Believing incorrectly that the average American voter would be impervious to the Tea Party hysteria that played out on cable news each evening, the White House team refused to get into the trenches. Insisting, with an air of martyred sacrifice that would have made Jesus proud, that it is better to be benignly right than to go to war, that noble causes will always win in the end, the party very nearly lost its advantage. It took the political will and bravery of the now former Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, to take the bill off life support.

Though the landmark legislation was narrowly passed, the damage was done. The GOP, with the suddenly clout-heavy Tea Party, did a magnificent job of branding the Dems as socialists. Obama became the heir apparent to Hitler, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi were marketed as the Devil and his handmaiden. Suddenly the team that had been elected to clean up the eight year mess of the Bush administration became the problem itself. It should have been easy for the Democratic PR machine to roar back, reminding voters that although change can be scary, it is wholly necessary in order to correct systemic failures that imperil the American Dream.

That is where President Obama’s team and the Democratic establishment erred for the second time. “Yes We Can,” morphed quickly into “Yes, We Can…after we read the poll numbers.” As the Left increasingly found itself on the defensive – compromise, rather than bold strategy – became the order of the day. Diverging wholly from Machiavelli’s belief that as a leader, it is always more productive to be feared than loved, the Dems began courting public opinion with increasingly diminished returns.

After health care, Democrats became scared of their own shadows. Obama, wanting to show his friendliness to the business community, was viewed by many as being too soft, too unfocused throughout the Gulf Oil spill crisis this past Spring. Where strong, decisive leadership was wanted, the American public was instead treated to helpless soundbites from the White House about locating “ass to kick.” Suddenly the President, elected as the presumed crusader for Everyman, is this close to extending the unpaid for, deficit-inflating Bush tax cuts, alienating the left and center bases that figured so prominently in his election. Thus in the span of 24 months, we have witnessed a stunning reversal in the Democratic method. Fearless policy formation has devolved into placating, and when this fails to please anybody – over and over again – Obama and the liberal leadership appear to be at a paralyzing loss.

The Democrats don’t do angry well and seem almost afraid to touch it. The intellectual, measured approach has failed to resonate with an American public staring down the barrel of a 10% unemployment rate, home foreclosures and “underwater” mortgages, a time when affording college for one’s children seems like an ever elusive pipe dream and retirement a near impossibility. The bipartisan masses are angry, sad and frustrated. The increasing sense is that the lack of passion displayed by the Left means they don’t get it. The vicious cycle of lowered poll numbers continues.

As opposed to the GOP, the liberal end of the political spectrum also does not have the disciplined mass media arm of Fox News to help spread its messages. In fact the traditionally blue media powerhouses, NPR and MSNBC, are far too preoccupied with the present Left attraction to self-censorship to help formulate an ideological response to Republican attacks. Witness the firing of commentator Juan Williams and the recent suspension of Keith Olbermann. How does a body put together a coordinated, organized response to the “un-American,” “socialist,” and “dangerous” epithets fired at them by the re-energized Right, when its spokespeople are busy imploding?

The fundamental reason for the Left’s refusal to radicalize, the cause for the Democrats’ inability to re-capture the hearts and minds of the voting public, stems from their misplaced appreciation for the middle road. The results of a recent Gallup poll, in which lawmakers of both parties were asked whether a leader was more admirable in compromise or rigidity to his or her own beliefs, access the heart of the Left’s political listlessness. 54% of the Dems chose compromise, to the Republican’s 33%. Likewise, the Right vowed to “stick to positions” a full 62% percent of the time, to the Democrats wishy-washy 39%.

Negotiation only succeeds when you have two sides at the bargaining table. Democratic refusal to adjust to the reality of the GOP’s comfort with inertia bodes for another “shellacking” in 2012.

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