Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman ( bio ) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.
I am about to go way, way out on a limb and suggest that Barack Obama and congressional Democrats may not fare as badly as many commentators predict in the midterm elections on November 2. I may be alone on that limb, but wouldn’t it be nice if I were right?
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg fears a repeat of 1994 when his boss, Bill Clinton, lost the Congress to Newt Gingrich after his health care proposal was defeated. Nate Silver, the genius at Five Thirty Eight, figures Democrats will lose 20 to 50 House seats, but that’s down from his earlier prediction of 20 to 60 seats. And Greenberg sees a flickering of fresh Democratic enthusiasm.
I’m no genius, but I think they will be wrong and or they will further revise their predictions if, as I expect and hope, the economy continues to improve, and Obama, his White House and the Democrats ride the momentum of his unprecedented health care victory, with passage of a good jobs bill and financial regulatory reform, and aggressively take on Republican know-nothing obstructionism and vicious, racist Tea Party wingnuts.
Greenberg, Silver and nearly every commentator will cite the fact that since 1946, the president’s party has lost seats in the House and/or the Senate in every midterm election during his first term, save one. They cite one exception, 2002, when George W. Bush’s Republicans gained seats (eight in the House, two in the Senate) largely on the strength of support for the president following 9/11.
But there was one other important exception under circumstances similar to the tumult and controversy of Obama’s activist first term. That was in 1934, amid the Great Depression, two years into Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which ended years of conservative Republican presidencies.
Despite Republican warning of the coming of “socialism,” charges that Roosevelt was a “traitor,” promises to repeal the tough new banking regulations and virulent opposition to Social Security, Democrats won nine seats each in the House and Senate.
The voters rejected a return to the party that had led them into economic catastrophe and the Democrats became the majority party. Republicans believe that today’s voters want to return to the policies that gave us the Great Recession, but I don’t think so.
As Time magazine reported April 2, the outlook for Democrats may not be as dire as in 1994 because the biggest advantage for the Democrats so far is the Republican Party under the clownish, incompetent Michael Steele, who can’t organize himself let alone the party faithful who would raise money, man phones, do the kind of scut work to get their vote out.
Nor does the Republican Party have a discernible leader who can rally the troops. Indeed, I’m not sure what remains of the Grand Old Party.
Another thing the pundits are missing is the crazy extremism of what passes for the disloyal opposition. As our best political philosophers have told us – from V.O. Key to Richard Hofstadter – the genius of the American political system is its centrism, its rejection of extremes – left or right.
The last time a politician told us that “extremism in defense of liberty” is a virtue, he and his party suffered a terrible defeat. But compared to today’s Republicans and their leaders, Barry Goldwater was a moderate who would not recognize what’s become of fellow Arizonans JohnMcCain and Jon Kyl, who vow to obstruct whatever their president tries to do.
Despite Obama’s centrism and his efforts to accommodate Republicans, they have clearly set out to destroy his presidency, opposing him in lock-step. They have used the filibuster more than 100 times, which is unprecedented, to block his proposals and nominees often for no reason. They have voted against his least controversial proposals. They have ridiculed him for not wearing a jacket in the Oval Office. They have characterized his health reforms as socialist, Marxist, communist and fascist, similar to the Nazi “final solution,” lying about what was in it.
They encouraged racist caricatures of Obama. They called the health bill “Armageddon,” the climactic biblical and mythological battle that comes at the end of time. They have encouraged secessionist threats. And when they lost on the health care vote, these Republican men and women who are well paid to do the public’s business, refused to work after 2PM, citing an obscure rule, and they shut down several committees in what one senator called a childish tantrum.
Their advocates and allies are certainly not moderate or centrist. Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and their cohorts among the shock jocks can’t be called anything else but extremists as they encourage and publicize the so-called Tea Baggers and their latest darling, Sarah Palin, who made a lousy mayor and quit as Alaska’s governor to become a money-making charlatan with an empty head.
But what’s important to know is what they say they would do if they got a chance to govern. Even if they were unable to repeal the health care reforms, as they’ve promise, they would end Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. I do not exaggerate, that’s the stated plan of Republicans’ designated thinker, Representative Paul Ryan. And on Larry King, Tea Party leaders vowed “absolutely” to end Social Security.
The New York Times’ Timothy Egan writes,
“Do Republicans really want to campaign in favor of insurance companies’ right to drop people when they are sick?“
Maybe Republicans won’t, but the Tea Bag right would relish the opposition that would stir. In this political climate, Republicans may have to explain if one of their gun-toting, brick-throwing patriots hurts someone? I hope Obama and every Democrat makes this clear between now and November; this is no time for turning the other cheek.
Political organizer Robert Creamer, writing for Huffington Post, says Democrats must stay on the offensive, reminding voters of the Republican depression the country barely escaped. And the debate should be framed in the populist terms that the Tea Baggers seek to steal.
But while the unemployment rate has steadied, 15 to 25 million Americans are in need of full-time jobs – as engineers, construction workers and skilled laborers. It would help if Obama lifted another page from the New Deal and, as Bob Herbert suggested in The New York Times, propose or create job-creation measures like the Civilian Conservation Corps or the Works Progress Administration. Democrats have proposed such legislation, in which the federal government and the states would become the employers to rebuild the nation’s roads and bridges, schools and the neglected national parks.
It’s a long time between now and the elections and there are signs that the economy is improving. Unemployment seems to have steadied. The Dow-Jones average, a pretty good forecaster of what’s to come in six months, is nearing 11,000. A new Bloomberg poll reported that most Americans believe the worst of the recession and the financial meltdown are past.
If the most stubborn lagging indicator of recovery, job growth, were to show improvement, it’s doubtful voters would want to take a chance with a party led by Limbaugh, Palin, Beck and Tea Baggers.
They’ll have some explaining to do when it becomes clear that the passage of health reform was not, as Beck & Company predicted, “the end of the America as we know it,” or as House Republican Leader John Boehner had it, the end of time. It’s time for the Democrats to remind Republicans and their propagandists of their intemperate words and make them eat them.