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Tuesday, August 11, 2009
The Summer of Dems' Discontent

On May 18, Time magazine ran a cover story declaring the Republican party an "endangered species." Less than three months have passed and, as the reaction to the health care town halls demonstrates, congressional Democrats are in disarray.

How did this happen?

My diagnosis:

1) Taxes - Taxes are the bread and butter of Republican politics. In recent years, the salience of this issue for the electorate has waned due to the passage of the Bush tax cuts (which reduced individual tax rates) and the strength of the economy through late 2008, which reduced individuals' relative tax burden by increasing incomes faster than taxes (which had gone down). Even without tax increases, Americans are feeling the pinch of taxes today far more than they were a year or two ago because their incomes are no longer growing as quickly (or they have lost their jobs or are making less money). Add to that the fact that taxpayers realize that they will have to pay for the trillions in new spending that the new administration has pushed through, and it should be no surprise that the GOP has additional traction on the tax issue.

2) Rhetoric is no replacement for Reality - The Democrats are a liberal party that has painted itself as moderate. It is very, very hard to pretend to be something you are not and get away with it for a long period of time.

For the last several years (at least) the Democrats have been able to have it both ways on spending -- criticizing Bush for not spending enough on X, Y and Z and criticizing him for spending too much in general. The Democrats have been able to use rhetoric to mask their party's true position - balancing out their high-spending image with words and political attacks that paint them as fiscally conservative. Now that they control all the levers of government, the fiscal conservative mask has fallen off and the national debt is spiraling out of control to the point where total financial ruin, or runaway inflation, or both, are well within the realm of possibility. Likewise, the same gamesmanship in the foreign policy area has allowed Democrats to be both to the left and the right of Republicans. Policy wise, the Democrats have been far to the left. Rhetorically, however, the Democrats have been able to use words to seem more hawkish than they actually are -- the threat to invade Pakistan, for instance, or the suggestion that it was just super easy to find Bin Laden if only Bush had his priorities straight. The same desire for short term political gain - as opposed to good policy or national interest - led Obama and Democrats to attack Bush for wireless surveillance, GITMO, interrogation techniques (under Obama, for instance, torture is forbidden unless we really really need to do it) and a host of other issues. Now that they have responsibility for America's security, the Democrats have had to deal with the reality of hard choices and least-worse options. All of this has hurt Democrats because they (a) have diminished their credibility and (b) they are no longer being judged on their rhetoric but on their actual policies.

3) Beating something with nothing -- The Democrats' beat the Republicans by being the Anti-Bush party. The result is that the party has a far more limited mandate. Americans were voting retrospectively (no on Bush) rather than prospectively (yes on Democratic policies). The Democrats helped this along by deliberately obscuring their agenda (note Obama's pledge of no new taxes on 95% of Americans, his claim that his policies would have no net impact on federal spending, etc...). While Americans were sick of the Republicans - and for good reason - they do not support new energy taxes, a government takeover of health care, the takeover of the auto industry, trillion dollar government bailouts or the adoption of a law enforcement approach to terrorism.

4) No easy enemy. With Bush gone, Democrats have flailed around looking for a new enemy to rally the troops. Rush Limbaugh, Talk Radio, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, Insurance Companies, the tea party people, "the Mob" of old people yelling at their congressmen, etc.... Who is it going to be tomorrow? It's not that demonization doesn't work, it's just that it is far, far easier to use this tactic to block change than to affect it. Also, Obama faces a huge dilemma -- if the administration leads the charge demonizing his enemies (as he did with Rush), he diminishes a lot of the moral authority that comes from being "everyone's president" who is standing above the fray. By outsourcing it to members of Congress, he allows Pelosi, Reid, Frank and Hoyer to be the public face of the Democratic party. That's working out really well for Republicans.

5) Arrogance and ignorance. Obama seems to have very little appreciation for the fact that members of his party have their own constituencies and very little sense that the American political process is much more amenable to incremental change than sweeping change. Through a series of small steps, the left has created a huge national government welfare state in the US. Rather than building on that -- substantially, given the number of seats they control - Obama feels the need to make his mark and do something big and historical. Thus, rather than learning from the hard lessons of Clinton's first term, he's repeating the mistakes -- making House members take a senseless vote on energy taxes, for instance. Pushing single payer health care as opposed to an incremental expansion of coverage for the uninsured. My sense is that Obama thinks his oratorical powers are magical and we can't resist his eloquent arguments and charm. It is a recipe for disaster in 2010 that will hobble the remainder of his presidency.

Moreover, Obama will find it much harder to move to the center than did Bill Clinton because (a) his party is much more ideologically liberal (b) he has to worry about Hillary running a primary against him (c) Clinton was a bona-fide conservative dem from a southern state and Obama is a very liberal, black senator from Chicago.

Obama used rhetoric to define himself as moderate and fiscally conservative. His positions on a host of issues -- from guns, to abortion, to taxes and spending, health care, and energy (primarily coal) will make it next to impossible for Obama to portray himself that way again. Once the mask of conservatism is gone for Obama, it won't be easy to replace.

you are even more delirious than the birthers and deathers.
Well, you can't argue with iron-clad logic like that.

The birthers are a wacko fringe. Remind me again what percentage of the left believes that the towers were imploded by a CIA demolition team? Fire does not melt steel? Good one.

On the "deathers," I assume that you are talking about the suggestion that the government would create panels to decide who gets care and who doesn't receive care.

There is no question that the government would have to create these panels. When you have the government giving away a "free" commodity, the only way to control costs is to ration the commodity -- something that is ordinarily done automatically by the free market through the rise and fall of prices.

Under a single payer system, there will be one group of people in Washington deciding who qualifies for care and what type of care is appropriate. Obama said it himself: "It may not make sense to give your mother surgery, maybe it is better to just give her the pain killer."

Of course, many of the costs of gov't run health care will be hidden. Take drug prices for example. Just today, the president said that he would find a way to get generics onto the market sooner. The window for drug companies to make money on their drug developments is 7 years. So Obama will cut the cost of the new drugs by letting other companies manufacture them without bearing any of the costs of developing those drugs.

On the surface, Americans will see lower drug prices. The reality, however, is that the president's plan will make it harder for drug companies to make a profit. The result -- they will take fewer risks when it comes to developing new drugs and will avoid like the plague drugs that will only be used by a small number of people.

Some of those people will die.

Does that make the President a murderer? Of course not. Just an idiot, who doesn't understand that you can't repeal the laws of economics with empty rhetoric.

I'm just glad that the president is sticking by his pledge that there will be no net spending increases and that he will hold the line on taxes for all of us in the bottom 95%. Now some people (economists, mathematicians, fourth graders) might say that those two promises are impossible to keep when you pass huge stimulus bills and create giant new entitlements.

No need to worry about 2010. This is just a fringe movement of birthers, deathers, and, of course the elderly, veterans, farmers, suburban voters, the middle class, upper middle class, conservatives, libertarians, moderates, Republicans and independents.

But hey, you got the organized labor bosses. If you can't depend on the folks who destroyed the American auto industry, who can you depend on?
Hey, I'm cleaning the house to get ready for your visit. I have to have some diversions!

No dice so far on a carseat, by the way. They sold it at a garage sale two weeks ago (which is, of course, not recommended by most child safety experts). I have one more place to try.
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