Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Don't Let the Democrats' Failure Be the Right Wing's Opportunity

AN UPDATE ALREADY: This post by Michael in Norfolk also sums up the growing disillusion and why something needs to be done quickly by Democrats to stanch it.

The zeitgeist, at least for today, seems to be the growing disillusionment with Democrats in Congress and even with Barack Obama. First, in response to a comment by the very astute Gretchen Laskas on Lowell's Blue Virginia, I posted the following, which Lowell turned into its own diary (with my approval). The money quote:

It makes my blood boil that Democrats are always mopping up after the Republicans back us into a corner and bloody us. Every time we have a good policy or concept, they manage to successfully mount an offensive that so discredits it that we have to scramble to "rebrand" it. And ultimately abandon it for compromise.

The Republicans have just presided over two monumental failures, a failed foreign policy and an economic collapse that is the worst since the Great Depression, and one that was caused by the very same factors that caused that Depression. Yet, nobody has managed to back the GOP into a corner. They are not wringing their hands and talking about rebranding their free market ideas, which are the root cause of the economic disaster we are now in.

Democrats don't need to cower and rebrand constantly. They need to agree on what they stand for, get the messaging right the first time, and stand up unambiguously for what they believe.


Oh, and bipartisanship was always DOA. I have been around the block too many times to ever have thought otherwise. When Republicans lose elections, they engage in sustained temper tantrums and can never be counted on to do anything constructive for the common good. They don't even believe in a common good. In fact, they think "the common good" is a communist code word.

After reading their blogs; magazines; and books, and watching and listening them on TV and radio talk shows, what part of that don't Democrats get?
The emphasis, by the way, was Lowell's but I liked it so I decided to leave it.

Meanwhile, when I got home from work, I read this op-ed piece, by Robert Kuttner, in the Washington Post. Kuttner argues that the beneficiaries of the collapse of capitalism and the free market economy have actually been the far right wing and not the liberals.

Incredible as it seems, with everything they believe in - unregulated markets, globalism, and free trade - a proven failure in the real world, it is they who are managing to exploit the real and justifiable anger of the ordinary citizen who has lost his job, his home, and his health insurance.

Kuttner lays the blame on a left that has failed to make its arguments or its case to the public. We have no clear narrative that we all agree on and can present in an understandable way. Even worse, nobody sees a sense of outrage at the privileged classes that not only brought the economy down but are benefiting even now by its collapse.

Here's what Kuttner says.
Wall Street and the abuses of corporate America crashed the economy, leaving regular people anxious and financially insecure. Yet the far right, not the reformist left, is getting the political windfall.

Something is severely off when economically stressed Americans confront members of Congress about "death panels" in the Obama health plan. The rumors, fanned by talk radio with a little help from Republicans, are false and even delusional. Yet the anger, if misdirected, is genuine.

People should be plenty angry about their jobs and their mortgages and their health insurance. With health care, however, virtually all of the fears attributed to the Obama health reform efforts more accurately describe the existing private system.

It is private insurance companies that ration care by deciding what is covered and what is not. Private plans limit which doctor and hospital you can use, define "preexisting conditions" and make insurance unaffordable for tens of millions. For many, all this can cause suffering and sometimes even death. Our one oasis of socialized medicine, Medicare, has the most choice and the least exclusion.
Kuttner also rightly sees that the citizen anger, however misdirected, is a genuine backlash against a broader array of discontents, not the least of which is the way the Obama administration and Congress handled the AIG bailout, including the huge bonuses that went to the very Wall Street vultures who caused the financial meltdown to start with.
After receiving nearly a trillion dollars of taxpayer aid, Wall Street is returning to business as usual. Consider: Firms that received government help, after losing fortunes in 2008, still found money to pay out exorbitant bonuses at public expense.

Far too little of the government's aid to Wall Street is trickling down. Because of the administration's decision to target $75 billion in mortgage-relief aid to banks and mortgage companies rather than to beleaguered homeowners, foreclosures are still increasing far faster than loan modifications.

Despite the premature triumphalism about a trivial drop in the measured unemployment rate in July, more than 25 million Americans are either unemployed, out of the labor force, or working part time when they need a full-time job. No wonder there is widespread pocketbook anger.
Meanwhile, Kuttner lays the blame solidly where I think it belongs.
One is Obama himself. This president recoils from confrontation, even with those who are out to destroy him. He has had ample opportunities to put himself on the side of popular economic grievances and to connect America's economic troubles to the forces that Roosevelt called "economic royalists." But Obama, whose propensity for consensus is hard-wired, keeps passing up those opportunities.

Even now, he won't make clear that the private insurance industry is the problem. Recent administration statements on the "public" insurance option have been classics of mixed messaging. Obama's economic team is far too cozy with Wall Street, fanning populist suspicions.

Despite the president's history as a community organizer, his style as president is to tamp down popular protest, not rev it up. I know of several cases in which the White House requested allied progressive groups to cool it. When government-subsidized AIG disgracefully paid culpable executives "retention bonuses," Obama dispatched Larry Summers to the Sunday talk shows to helpfully explain that "We are a country of law. There are contracts." Tell that to laid-off and outsourced factory workers. It's hardly surprising that regular people resent the corporate-connected Washington of Barack Obama.
Kuttner also blames the "Wall Street dominated economy" for the weakening of the labor movement, which has suffered from the illegal union busting tactics of large corporations. As he points out, organized labor was one of the main forces that protected workers' rights and fought for wage increases and safe working conditions. Since the deliberate weakening of labor, workers' wages have stagnated while corporate executives' pay and perks have soared even when their performance created economic disaster for investors, homeowners, and consumers. People see the palpable unfairness. And they also see Democrats failing to stand up for them or even to fight to keep the promises they made on the campaign trail.

So, when tea baggers, birthers, and assorted crazies come along, yes, they capture and channel the frustration the public is feeling. As Kuttner wisely points out, the thing about economic upheaval and the anger and fear it creates is that it could be an opportunity for liberals to extend concepts of fairness and fight for prosperity for working people or it could be an opportunity for demagogues to tamp down those very things and channel the outrage into darker outcomes. As Kuttner points out.
When economically stressed and frightened people are anxious and sullen, you never know who will capture their fears and hopes. In the 1930s, economic anxiety produced leaders as different as Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. History shows that if the reformist left doesn't offer a plausible story and strategy of reform, the lunatic right will gain ground even with an implausible one. So where are the liberal protesters? The initiative has passed to the know-nothing right for two big reasons.
As Robert Kuttner concludes
One way or another, hard times produce popular anger at callous elites. Presidential leadership and progressive organizing energy to connect the mounting outrage to the real economic abuses are overdue. Otherwise, even a ticket of Sarah Palin and Mark Sanford could pick up the pieces.
Coming off of this thoughtful article, I saw Ben's post of Jane Hamsher on MSNBC with Andrea Mitchell. Ben is right, by the way, that Hamsher rocks, so I'll let her have the last word on the Democrats and health care reform.


spotter said...

Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

But don't underestimate the role of the media, which is dutifully picking up on a relative handful of people parading around with guns and posters of Adolf Obama, all the while failing to show us the cancer patients in head scarves, struggling to care for their children, stay in their homes, and live on for a few more months if possible.

Absolutely shameful. If this chance to reform health care goes by, they have not seen the beginning of rage.

Catzmaw said...

I have to agree with spotter. The laughably monikered "liberal" MSM is doing very little to bring balance to the discussion. Instead of challenging clearly fraudulent claims that anyone reading the legislation can debunk, our media talking heads are going around repeating everything that every crank and crackpot utters in the interest of "balanced" reporting. It's like watching some sort of shrinkspeak echo technique. "I see, you fear that this legislation which you haven't bothered to read for yourself is going to mandate the murder of your grandmother?" "Uh huh, and how do you FEEL about that?"

Seriously, I feel like kicking these people in the teeth.