Self-Loathing Centrists

Matt Yglesias makes a smart point about the bleating of centrist Democrats who argue that voters abandoned the party because of liberal overreach, even though liberal ideas always take a back seat to accommodate centrist demands.

You can easily imagine an alternate universe in which the Senate Democratic Caucus took an oath of party loyalty, that all 60 Democrats would vote for cloture on all leadership-supported bills, allowing measures to pass with just 51 votes. Had that happened, we would have gotten a bigger, more liberal-friendly stimulus. And the Senate would have finished up with a more liberal version of health reform some time ago. And the Senate probably would have passed some other liberal stuff in the meantime. Had that happened, and had the voters been displeased with it, then it might make perfect sense for Landrieu to complain about some non-Landrieu “wing” of the Democratic Party.

But in the world that exists, the only “wing” that matters is the Mary Landrieu wing. They decide how much stimulus we get. They decide their can’t be a public option. They decide their needs to be a months-long quest to get Chuck Grassley to offer “Republican cover” for a health care vote. Either the strategy is working better than the alternatives, or else it’s the Landrieu wing that needs to change things up. But defeats can’t be the fault of the people who haven’t been in the driver’s seat since the seventies.

Right, and to build on this a little, it’s a bit surprising these centrists don’t realize how tied their electoral fortunes are to that of the party as a whole. If there’s a mass voter rebellion against Democrats, you can safely bet that “centrist” Senators in more conservative states are going to catch the worst of it. So when Evan Bayh and Mary Landrieu and Ben Nelson go off criticizing their party or trashing the health reform bill for months, they’re actually making the political situation for themselves much worse than it needs to be.

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Reconciliation and “the Political Climate”

I’ve been so upset about the Democratic response to the Massachusetts special election, I don’t really know where to begin. Plus, it seems most other people have already written what I would argue anyway, so I’ll just start fresh by reacting to Chuck Schumer’s comments on using reconciliation to clear negotiations with the House.

Reconciliation is one of a few options under discussion, Schumer said. But he said that “concerns about the political climate” make that plan less than appealing to some Democrats. “It’s one of the considerations,” he said when asked if Democrats worry voters will react badly to a health care bill passed with through reconciliation.

It actually seems to me this method has the benefit of being both politically necessary and the most attractive. Using reconciliation — which only requires a majority vote in the Senate — House and Senate Democrats can work out their differences without forcing vulnerable members to vote for health care reform again. That is, when you only need 50 votes (plus Joe Biden), all the wishy-washy moderates get to take their principled stand, and the Democrats who need votes from liberals won’t alienate their base. Everybody wins.*

More to the point, I’m not sure what the attractive alternative is. Conservative groups are already encouraging challenges to vulnerable Democrats, explicitly targeting them for their votes in favor of health care reform. Since both chambers of Congress have already passed bills, their members are already prone to this attack. Failing to pass final legislation won’t change their vulnerability on this score. What it will do is alienate the Democratic base, turning what could be merely a bad 2010 cycle into total electoral anathema.

Finally, what on earth makes Democrats think fumbling here will improve “the political climate”? Barack Obama is regularly compared to Hitler already. Republicans already obstruct everything they possibly can. It’s almost impossible to make this situation worse.

The House passing the Senate bill and fixing differences through reconciliation is simply the only way to pass the bill. Failing to pass the bill will lead to many more elections like Massachusetts where liberals don’t come out to vote. It’s the only available political option, and it’s the only available procedural option. It’s time to pass the damn bill.

*By the way, I don’t think this is a winning strategy for centrists, who are bound to be attacked from the right for supporting the bill in the first place and then being flip-floppers. They’re socialist flip-flopping weak-kneed liberals! They’re going to get creamed! The only chance they have is to support the bill and sell it.

Election Fallout

Unquestionably, conservatives will attempt to spin gubernatorial wins in Virginia and New Jersey as somehow signaling a shift in national mood, but as Kevin Drum points out, when balanced with Democratic pick ups in the House in CA-10 and NY-23, it’s a bit more of a story of ousting the incumbents. What’s more, as Matt Yglesias notes, national polling is actually a better way of gauging the national mood, and that unequivocally favors Barack Obama and the Democrats.

Finally, you can make the argument that Democratic wins in the House are far more important for advancing the national liberal agenda. Brian Beutler at TPM explains:

That creates some simple arithmetic. Yesterday, Democrats had 256 voting members in the House. By week’s end, they’ll have 258. Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could afford to lose no more than 38 Democratic votes on a landmark health care reform bill. Next week, after Owens and Garamendi are sworn in, she can lose up to 40. For legislation this historic and far-reaching, she’ll need every vote she can get–and both seem likely to support reform.

These wins then are a bit more important in strategic terms than the GOP gubernatorial sweep. Ultimately, Democrats will be judged by the success or failure of their policies — much as the GOP was in 2008 — and the greater the likelihood of passing good legislation, the greater the likelihood it will pay electoral dividends down the line.

While it’s important to win elections, a lot of political observers get too caught up these contests as ends in and of themselves, but that’s incredibly short-sighted. Just ask Karl Rove how easy it was to maintain that “permanent Republican majority” in the midst of a decaying health care system, plummeting economy, and unpopular and expensive wars.

Taking Reality’s Temperature

When one is a regular consumer of cable news and mainstream media, it’s easy to be misled by deferential policies towards “even handedness” that cast political controversies into dead even heats. Almost any cable news program will offer two talking heads from opposing ideological stripes to duke it out and virtually all newspapers and wire services tend to follow the “on the one hand, on the other hand,” style of reporting. The result is a hyper competitive news cycle that revolves around unadjudicated bombast and unresolved “debate.” That’s why it’s sometimes useful to just tune it out and check out some polling (via Washington Post/ABC).

Overall, 57 percent approve of the way Obama is handling his job as president and 40 percent disapprove…. Despite those mixed reviews on domestic priorities, Obama continues to hold a big political advantage over Republicans.

Poll respondents are evenly divided when asked whether they have confidence in Obama to make the right decisions for the country’s future, but just 19 percent express confidence in the Republicans in Congress to do so. Even among Republicans, only 40 percent express confidence in the GOP congressional leadership to make good choices.

Only 20 percent of adults identify themselves as Republicans, little changed in recent months, but still the lowest single number in Post-ABC polls since 1983.

Of course, watching cable news or reading mainstream press, you’d really have no idea this was the case. For example, in the same Kaplan Test Prep owned Washington Post, we learn that despite “clear majorities back[ing],” the public option and the individual mandate, these policies are somehow “controversial,”  because a highly unpopular group of legislators that the press must nevertheless indulge dislikes the idea.

While of course it’s disappointing that the press plays such an instrumental role in misleading the public, it’s also frustrating how this type of coverage provides political cover for politicians who want to avoid making difficult decisions. Whether Max Baucus doesn’t support the public option because he’s in the back pocket of the entire health care industry or because he has some airy commitment to “bipartisanship,” we’ll never know for sure.

Between A Rock and Hard Place

Matt Taibbi has a characteristically scathing post on the Obama administration’s deal with PhRMA, which basically entailed buying the lobbying group’s tepid support by refusing to let Medicare bargain drug prices in bulk and by banning re-importation of drugs. This is all mostly true, although I think it misses the important point that Republican lock-step obstructionism and general intransigence among conservative Democratic Senators has left the administration between a rock and a hard place. If Republicans are almost entirely unwilling to negotiate and key Democratic legislators basically in hock to health care interests, it’s hard to see how see how health remains politically feasible without the support of affected industry groups. If you think the timbre of August was bad, imagine what it would have looked like with drug makers, hospitals, and device manufacturers dumping rocket fuel on the fire. Even if you assume an almost unprecedented — and perhaps ultimately misguided — dose of legislative courage from the left, I still don’t think you can get to 60 without providing cover for the conservative wing of the Democratic party.

Self-Compromise and the Torture Investigation

As I am wont to do, I think Stephen Walt makes a compelling argument that those who decry the release of Abdel Basset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi because it represents an abrogation of the rule of law should by the same token be supportive of Eric Holder’s investigation of Bush era torture policy. Laws are laws, irrespective of politics, and the legitimacy of laws stems from the evenness of their enforcement. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I’d like to make a completely unrelated point based on something Walt says.

I have no doubt that the president would prefer to “look forward,” because an investigation and/or prosecution will drive both the CIA and the right-wing media types crazy and because he’s got enough alligators to wrestle with already.

I think by now we can mostly agree there’s simply no appeasing Republicans. When they see an opening to exploit something for political gain, they’re going to do it. John McCain, after all, came up with a health care plan. Now it’s not the right time for health care reform. Not long ago, Republicans supported death panels. Now they don’t. Legislators in the Finance committee even dropped the provision, and there’s still no sign of compromise on health care. Shall I go on? Republicans were apoplectic over the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, who by any reasonable standard was a relatively moderate selection for a Democratic nominee. But the point is that she wasn’t John Roberts or Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas. The lessons is that Republicans are going to oppose any measure that is Democratic so it just doesn’t make any sense to base policy on what is going to be the most palatable for Republicans; they’ll find things that can be exploited and then they exploit them. You can’t win, so don’t even bother.

Sure — Republican hypocrisy is absolutely galling — but that’s the name of the game. They’ve been doing it for years, and nobody seems to care. What led to defeat for the Republicans in 2008 were the results of a bad policy in power and a little bit of bad luck. It wasn’t because Republicans claim to steadfastly oppose wasteful spending but still voted for a bloated Medicare drug benefit.

Anyway, as it relates to an investigation of torture, it’s the right thing to do because the law should not be subject to the caprice of political expediency. But even on a crassly political basis, there’s almost nothing you can do that’s remotely liberal that won’t ignite febrile rage among Republicans. If you try to appease them, the only thing you’ll do is wind up compromising with yourself until you realise you’re getting your pants pulled down. The thing for Democrats to do when they possess legislative majorities is to pass the best policy they can muster and hope the results speak for themselves.

Specter, Coleman, and Franken

One more thing to add: at the very least, this should ensure that the Republican leadership pushes Norm Coleman to take his fight as far as he possibly can to delay a 60 vote Democratic bloc.