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Friday Talking Points [105] -- One Bad Week

[ Posted Friday, December 18th, 2009 – 18:12 UTC ]

What a difference a week makes, eh?

But before we get to all that, a quick program note needs to be addressed here up front. Every so often in these columns, I start channeling Howard Beale (from Network) and get "mad as Hell and just can't take it any more," and -- rather than the usual Friday Talking Points we normally offer up on a weekly basis almost without fail (well, on average, about 46 weeks out of the year... what can I say?) -- at times we instead are moved by the muse known by her proper name of "Rant."

That's right, the same Greek (or was it Roman?) goddess who inspired Dennis Miller (back before he became a rabid pro-war right-winger and lost his funny mojo as a result) occasionally blesses us here with the inspiration for such a stream-of-consciousness chestal-unloading that it simply defies attempts to divide it into seven discrete and ordinal soundbites. Or any attempts to edit it for length, for that matter (ahem).

This is one of those weeks. You have been warned.

Also, since I'm boring you to tears with such a rambling preamble, I should point out that we will indeed be publishing this column for the next two Fridays hence, even though (through a calendar quirk) they will fall on Christmas Day and New Year's Day. So if you can't stomach talking to your relatives anymore during the holidays at Mom's, then sneak off into the den with a beer and use the ancient computer you find there to read our next two columns, because you won't want to miss our annual two-part series where we hand out our version of the "McLaughlin Awards" for the best and worst politicians of 2009. If we didn't publish them on the holidays, they'd be too late, so we're desperately hoping here that someone will actually read them, since they're usually quite popular....

But enough shameless promotion, let's get the awards out of the way with quickly, and move right on into the primal rage we've got teed up this week. Teed up? Nope... we can't even be distracted with Tiger Woods jokes this week, sorry. It's just been that kind of a week.


Most Impressive Democrat of the Week

Al Franken provided the sole moment of humor this week, when he smacked down Joe Lieberman, and for that he deserves an Honorable Mention. Franken, sitting in as the guy with the gavel running things in the Senate, was asked by Joe Lieberman for a few more moments (over his 10-minute limit) to speak, by "unanimous consent." Franken, who later said he was just doing what he was told and keeping a strict 10-minute limit, told Lieberman most emphatically "No," and that he -- in the role of senator -- objected, and Lieberman needed to, essentially (Franken was not this blatant), "sit down and shut up."

It was a minor, playground sort of thing, but as I said, because it was the only comic relief all week, we've got to at least mention it. Watch the video, if you haven't seen it yet.

But the real Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week goes to Howard Dean, for doing his own imitation of the fictional Howard Beale, and leading the Progressive blowback this week. Details below, if you've been hiding under some sort of igneous or (for that matter) sedimentary layer of rockitude, for the past week or so.

[Congratulate Doctor/Governor Howard Dean on his "Stand With Dr. Dean" web page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]


Most Disappointing Democrat of the Week

I could try to lay this at the feet of the various White House flunkies sent out to viciously deploy ad hominem attacks on Howard Dean this week, but instead, I must apply Truman-esque rules, and let this particular buck stop where it should. The Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week is President Barack Obama, for shamefully allowing his minions to give the buzz-saw treatment to Dean, while blissfully remaining in what can only, at this point, be called "The Obama Bubble" -- by not realizing how much damage this is doing to his own political capital, and the overall standing of the Democratic Party.

I've heard insiders say that only now is the Obama team realizing that the president has been cast by the public as "the defender of Wall Street at the expense (and total disregard) of both Main Street and the middle class in general." This was apparent to most politics-watchers in late spring, so it is downright astonishing to learn that only now is the White House becoming concerned about this widespread perception. And it does not bode well for those who are expecting Obama to address the recent turmoil among his base in any sort of timely fashion.

For that alone, Barack Obama wins the MDDOTW award. Further details can be found in the rant, below. As an interesting coincidence, this ties Obama for second place on the all-time MDDOTW dishonor roll with the very senator who is currently gumming up the healthcare reform works in the Senate -- Ben Nelson -- as they both now have seven apiece. And even more ironically, this gives Obama one more MDDOTW than even Joe Lieberman holds. Instant karma's gonna getcha, I guess....

[Contact President Barack Obama on his White House contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]


Friday Talking Points

Volume 105 (12/18/09)

What a week.

There's a verse from Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising" that keeps running through my head this week:

I hear hurricanes a-blowin'
I know the end is coming soon
I fear rivers overflowin'
I hear the voice of rage and ruin.

While I'm not totally convinced of "ruin" aspect (yet), the voice of rage is certainly out there, and it is growing louder by the day. Democrats, all the way up to Barack Obama, are ignoring it at their electoral peril. But I'll try to at least start off calm here, and build to that full-bodied sort of "voice of rage and ruin" later on, I promise.

Last week at this time, we were all discussing the compromise Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had put together on a healthcare reform plan he thought could get the requisite 60 votes on the Senate floor. It relegated the public plan to the trigger which Republican (and yet, possible 60th vote) Senator Olympia Snowe has been pushing all along; but in return for scaling the public option back, it added an old idea -- allowing people 55-64 to buy in to Medicare.

I myself not only stood up for this compromise, I devoted the whole Talking Points section of last week's column to explaining why it could be considered a victory. And, to top it off, I awarded Harry Reid the coveted Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week, explaining:

Now, the actual specifics of the compromise hammered out this week are still vague. There's a reason for the zipped lips on Capitol Hill, though. If the details are made public, then the Congressional Budget Office (C.B.O.) who is "scoring" the compromise right now (or putting budget numbers to each piece) can also release their findings publicly. If all the Democrats keep mum until the C.B.O. reports, then the numbers will be privately given to Reid, giving him flexibility in putting together the pieces into a final package.

. . .

But Reid really does deserve his accolade this week. Because he actually showed some leadership, for once. He got five progressive Democrats and five corporate-whore Democrats (oh, excuse me, I meant to say "moderate Democrats"... don't know what came over me there...) to the negotiating table, and came out with a plan that nobody immediately shot down. None other than Dr. Howard Dean -- a very trusted voice on the progressive side -- was instrumental in offering up ideas, and Dean immediately came out in favor of the plan, which gave pause to a lot of Democrats who might otherwise have immediately denounced it (due to the perceived "death of the public option"). And, on the conservative side of the Democrats, nobody yet has likewise laid down the marker of: "I can't vote for this."

Such an achievement was almost unthinkable mere days ago, it needs pointing out. The two sides were seemingly intractable in their (opposing) positions, and progress seemed to have halted. Now, when we do see Reid's final bill, I'm sure there will be lots to criticize in it. It is most definitely not going to be all things to all people. But the fact that it even has a chance of passing the Senate is a ray of hope that simply didn't exist a week ago.

But, as I started off saying, what a difference a week makes.

A quick rundown of what has happened since is in order. Over the weekend, the countdown clock for the C.B.O. numbers was ticking away (these C.B.O. numbers -- which were supposed to arrive early in the week, have, quite strangely, not been made public even as of this writing). Then Joe Lieberman, in essence, got up in front of the Democratic Caucus, metaphorically picked up one of those British-boarding-school-sized wooden paddles, then laid Harry Reid over his knee and started whacking away. With every loud THWACK! of the board, Harry responded with the traditional rote refrain of: "Thank you sir, may I have another!"

I'm sorry, but that's as polite as I can put it. Remember, I'm trying to remain calm here at the beginning.

Actually, fairly prophetically (if I do say so myself), I wrote about this very problem, when the first "I'm the 60th vote you need... nyah, nyah nyah!" tantrum happened, back in late October. The first entrant into this descent into raw prima-donna-ism was named none other than Joe Lieberman. What I wrote back then:

We've seen some of this play out already on the healthcare reform debate, but there's going to be more of it to come in the weeks ahead, so we should all get used to it for awhile.

. . .

Senator Joe Lieberman has jumped into the fray as an early contender for this center-ring attention. But it really could be any number of senators standing in this spotlight. "Senator Sixty" may, in the end, be named Landrieu (or Nelson, or Baucus) just as easily as Lieberman. So today's news that Lieberman might just vote with Republicans on a filibuster is not going to be the end of such stories, you can bet on that.

. . .

[I]f Lieberman does manage to stop healthcare reform single-handedly, the rage from the Democratic voter base is going to be a white-hot blast furnace in Lieberman's direction.

. . .

The Lieberman story will run its course, no matter what the outcome. But it is my guess that even if Lieberman is dragged back into the fold, that there are a few other senators who would also enjoy a little national media attention by appearing to be on the fence. Lieberman is currently out there dancing around whether he will be the Democrats' 60th senator or not. But he's not going to be the last one to occupy that particular spotlight before we're done. The only question in my mind is how many of the fence-sitters and mugwumps will take advantage of this opportunity to be a media darling for a few days. Or weeks.

Read the whole thing for my take on the Lieberman situation, in more detail (you've got to at least admire my appropriate use of "mugwumps" there, if naught else). Nothing I said back then has changed much, except that I've since learned from a very authoritative source that in "off years" the caucus doesn't formally schedule leadership-vote meetings. In other words, to force such a meeting, thirty-one Democratic senators (a majority of the caucus, in other words) might have to demand Harry Reid call such a meeting. Don't forget to phone your senator today, and encourage them to do so, kiddies! It would be the only way Lieberman would be stripped of his committee chairmanship (the biggest lever the Democrats hold over him at the moment), at least before next year's elections.

Where was I? Kind of got distracted there. Oh, right, Lieberman's mischief.

It appears, as of this writing, that Lieberman made a darn good effort to be both "the first" and "the last" prima donna to throw such a tantrum; but that Senator Ben Nelson actually outwaited Lieberman, and may actually be the final recalcitrant vote -- over the issue of denying American women the free choice of healthcare plans, which may (gasp!) include abortion coverage.

This entire debate is teetering, not "on the precipice of success" as President Obama put it, but rather on the precipice of outright farce.

I keep getting distracted by these outbursts of rage, for which I apologize, I will try to keep focused here. I am not alone in this affliction, I can tell you. But more on that later.

So anyway, returning to our main storyline here, Reid caved. The sequence of events (which was denied by the White House, for whatever that's worth) was that President Barack Obama's Chief of Staff went over to Harry Reid's office, and told him quite bluntly to "let Lieberman have whatever he wants -- because we need to pass a bill, or else all Democrats are going to resemble lightly browned pieces of bread next Election Day." This message was probably delivered, knowing Rahm, in fewer words than that, and nowhere near as politely. The next day, Reid caved in and stripped out every provision in the bill which Joe Lieberman objected to -- even the Medicare buy-in, which Lieberman himself was propounding just a few months ago. This was the absolute proof that ol' Joe wasn't standing on any sort of long-held principle, but was rather just being crotchety for his own egotistical pleasure.

All that happened early in the week. What has happened since can best be described as "open revolt" on the Left. Led by none other than that former Governor of Vermont himself, Doctor Howard Dean.

Now, a bit of full disclosure here. I was not initially a "Deaniac," when he ran for president. I respected the heck out his online fundraising, but when I tried digging for information about who, exactly, Howard Dean was; I didn't find much on his website that differentiated him from other candidates in the race, and so I must admit I was a bit perplexed at his "draw" among some very passionate Democrats, including quite a number of young ones. I didn't "get it," in other words, because he seemed to me at the time to be just a run-of-the-mill politician.

But then he took over the leadership of the Democratic National Committee, and proved by his work on his "50-state strategy" that he had some very clear and exciting ideas for the party to grow. He proved these ideas, much to the embarrassment of Rahm Emanuel, to be winning ideas. Emanuel, at the time, was the guy who was in charge of electing more Democrats to the House. He got a bunch of Blue Dogs elected, while Howard Dean got some better Democrats elected in places that were jaw-droppingly astonishing, because they were considered such longshots by party "insiders" following "conventional wisdom." Dean proved them all wrong. And they've never forgotten it. Or forgiven him for being right, for that matter. So, if truth be told, I'm a late-blossoming "Deaniac," if you will. I won't quibble with the nomenclature.

Fast-forward to this week. That "white-hot blast furnace in Lieberman's direction" started at the beginning of the week. As well it should have. Obama and Reid held meetings of all the Senate Democrats, in which Liberals were told, quite obviously, to suck it up. And suck it up they faithfully did, appearing on television afterwards with a rictus of a smile and tightly-clenched teeth, explaining how they hadn't really meant anything they had previously said about healthcare reform, the public option, or whether the sky is blue. Now these Progressives attempted to explain why the bill would be wonderful, even with all their core ideas stripped out of it. You've got to admire their loyalty, I guess, since none of them really managed to sound very convincing, but all of them did indeed dutifully repeat the official White House talking point.

Except for Howard Dean, who (not being a senator) wasn't in this group. Dean gave an interview, and then backed it up with an op-ed in the Washington Post the next day, which essentially said: "kill this bill." Dean then went on a national media blitz, just in case anyone had missed what he was saying.

The White House reacted with some white-hot fury of their own. First, the press secretary implied Dean was irrational for opposing the bill, and then David Axelrod went ahead and said any opposition from the Left (read: Dean) was "insane."

Leading many people to wonder -- why is it that this "Chicago-style politics" we were promised only comes from the White House when the target is the Left, and never when centrists or Republicans are involved?

The two most powerful union groups in the country then weighed in with their disappointment in the developments on the Senate bill, but stopped just short of calling to kill it altogether.

The White House hasn't yet called all union members "irrational" or "insane" directly, but it wouldn't surprise me a bit at this point., meanwhile, put out a call to raise money to defeat Lieberman next chance they get (which, unfortunately, won't be until 2014) -- and they raised one million dollars in two days online. As I predicted, a "white-hot blast furnace" of anti-Lieberman rage.

But Barack Obama's White House is misreading the depth of feelings from his base supporters right now, which bodes not at all well for the future of his own party. In response to an article I wrote Wednesday on the Huffington Post, castigating Obama and Reid for their lack of leadership, I got several comments which showed exactly how deeply these feelings currently are out there. This isn't the most intense comment or email I've received in the past few days (by a long shot), it is merely a representative sample: [Note: Our policy is not to identify authors of such without express permission, which we were unable to obtain by our deadline. Edited ever-so-slightly by my spell-checker.]

As a life-long Democrat who's voted in EVERY election since turning 18 in 1980. I've never voted Republican in my life. Never before was I motivated to help a campaign before this past one. I manned phone banks and slogged through rain knocking on doors, for this? This isn't "Change I can believe in."

Over the years I've become increasingly cynical with politics in general, but took a chance believing in his rhetoric. Now I wish I had supported Hillary instead. The President has shown only weakness and needs to grow a pair!

I put my own personal reputation on the line supporting Obama early on. I convinced my Mom (a Hillary supporter) and my Step-Dad (an old-school southern redneck who still tosses around the "N"-word) to vote for him. Heck, I even managed to get my brother (a Republican) to support Obama. Now we're all wondering how we were so easily taken in.

Unfortunately, I've seen this act before. Where a young idealistic man came into power with large majorities in both houses, but didn't have the cojones to take on vested interests at home or dangerous powers abroad. He lasted only one term and set the progressive movement back 50 years. His name was Jimmy Carter. So far, Obama appears even weaker than Carter.

I now regret voting for both.

This is not just some isolated disgruntled Lefty. This is how a lot of people are feeling right now. Polling shows how Obama is losing at least a third of the Democratic base by the Lieberman Compromise -- who are explicitly saying they will not be voting next year, since there seems to be no point to it.

Howard Dean speaks for a lot of people, in other words. And insulting both him and (by extension) them is not exactly a brilliant political tactic at this point. Obama's poll numbers show that he has now lost most of the independents who supported him, and is fast on the road to losing a huge portion of his base as well.

Back when George W. Bush was in charge and his poll numbers approached single-digit approval, we all joked that he had finally achieved "being a uniter, not a divider" -- because he had brought together the Left and the Right in opposition to him. Barack Obama is inches away from achieving the same exact thing.

And he doesn't even seem to realize it.

The White House's political calculation appears to be a resurrected form of the Clintonian "triangulation." Obama's team appears to be assuming that passing any sort of healthcare reform bill will be seen as a giant political victory (no matter what it contains), and that most voters simply aren't paying as close attention as those crazed Lefty bloggers, and that they'll all rally around when it comes time to vote next year (and in 2012). This may be the correct read, but I really think the damage done this week could go a lot deeper than conventional political wisdom would assume.

Because Obama is losing his hardcore base over this issue. These are people who have stuck by the president for his whole first year, explaining away the continuation of Bush security policies, explaining away the reluctance to take on hot-button issues like gay rights, explaining away the Afghanistan decision, explaining away many many times where Obama has not lived up to other people's expectations. This hardcore base has patiently explained that Lefties who are annoyed with any or all of these things are newcomers to the political scene who don't understand that there is always a little disillusionment after a charismatic candidate becomes elected.

But the Lieberman Compromise is a bridge too far for many of these hardcore Obama supporters. It's the straw that broke the Democratic donkey's back. It's a canary named Dean keeling over in a coal mine. Choose your metaphor -- there are many such ways to boil the situation down.

These are committed Obama and Democratic supporters who have been paying close attention to the healthcare reform debate. They may grudgingly give Obama a bit of credit if he gets some stripped-down healthcare reform passed, but they have become thoroughly disillusioned (if not outright disgusted) in the process, and they will be in no mood to volunteer time, effort, or money to the next election or two.

Of course, there's always a chance that the bill will improve in conference committee, and that the final product will be much better than whatever the Senate manages to pass. But that is exactly what was said when the House bill passed, and there is nothing to stop Lieberman or Nelson from pulling the same shenanigans during the conference committee debate. Meaning this is becoming an increasingly thin reed for Progressive hopes to cling to. Much more likely is the possibility of the bill being further weakened by the conference committee -- especially since they will have an incredibly tight timeline to get it passed before Obama's first official State Of The Union address next month.

Progressive hope -- audacious hope, one might say -- is on life support as it is. Such hope has been crushed repeatedly by Obama himself, who appears (fairly or not) always ready to toss such hope on the Left under the bus of political expediency at the drop of a hat, but who has shown zero stomach for taking on the Center or the Right in the same fashion. The Left, at this point, wouldn't be half as annoyed with Obama right now if they occasionally saw a win, instead of being beaten down again and again by someone they had counted on to be their "fierce advocate." If the tally board were a bit more balanced, with Obama standing with them on some issues but bucking them on others, then Obama might be cut a lot of slack from the Left. Absent that, the disappointment and disillusionment is gelling into free-floating rage right now. And it's solidifying fast -- something Obama (secure within that presidential bubble, perhaps) just has not seemed to realize.

Democrats are demoralized. They are (quite rightly) wondering why they are eternally the "bad guys, standing in the way of progress," and why the obstructionist Republicans are never likewise made into "bad guys" -- even when such opportunities are presented on a silver platter.

To conclude this rant, I leave you with Exhibit A to prove what I'm talking about. Hours ago, thirty-seven Republican Senators just voted to kill the Defense appropriations bill, in a time of war. You read that right -- almost every single Republican Senator just voted to kill the Pentagon's budget. They did this, knowing full well that the temporary appropriations measure which is currently funding our war machine will expire over the weekend. This could have meant that the Pentagon's checks would have started bouncing within a day or so, meaning it was more than just some procedural vote with no immediate implications. Some Republicans even came out and admitted they were doing so just to throw a giant monkey wrench into the healthcare reform bill. The only three Republicans who voted to "fund our troops" did so after the Democrats had secured the 60 votes they needed to overcome the effort.

My question to Democrats, from Barack Obama down is: Do you people not remember the past eight years?!? Just imagine for one single minute that Democrats had done exactly the same thing, in (say) 2006, or 2007. Just imagine what the Republicans would be saying right about now. "Democrats refuse to support our brave troops in a time of war, proving that they hate America and everything she stands for, and are traitors to this country because -- for sheer political trickster reasons -- Democrats tried to throw the Pentagon budget into turmoil at a time when our brave troops are out there dying on the battlefield, which I consider nothing short of treason for every single Democrat who voted this way." That would be a mild complaint made by Republicans if the party names were reversed on this little sideshow. Democrats should have seen this as the biggest political Christmas present they have ever gotten in their lives and been shouting from the rooftops the fact that Republicans simply don't care if the Pentagon gets funded in the middle of two wars -- for petty partisan politics on a completely unrelated issue.

Instead, the White House is attacking Howard Dean. That is why people are so upset with Barack Obama and the entire Democratic Caucus right now. Because they appear to be so inept at the political game that they can't even make political hay when an issue like this falls into their laps from Santa's sleigh.

Christmas Day is one week away. Harry Reid has drawn a line in the sand, and said the healthcare reform bill will be voted on by Christmas Eve. Meaning next week could be as eventful as this week. The White House even made a tentative move to placate Lefty bloggers, in a conference call where they suggested in tepid terms that they might (no promises, of course) fight a tiny little bit when the bills reach conference committee. But, at this point, it has the feeling of "too little, too late" to assuage the rage out there.

If Harry's schedule stands, we've got one week before we get a final Senate bill. Let's hope next week isn't as disappointing as the past week was. At this point, that's about the best spin I can put on this mess. Ranting is about as politely as I can put things, at this point. The fractures in the Democratic Party which opened up into chasms and giant fissures this week are going to be a lot harder to mend than anyone in Washington now expects -- that's my prediction at any rate.


[Program Note: As I mentioned, for the next two Fridays this column will indeed appear for our end-of-year political wrapup, the framework of which we have always cheerfully admitted we stole from The McLaughlin Group. If you want a break from holiday merrymaking on Christmas or New Year's Day, we invite you to tune in.]


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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground

Cross-posted at: The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


2 Comments on “Friday Talking Points [105] -- One Bad Week”

  1. [1] 
    LewDan wrote:


    Rant on! As I've said before, I'd like the WH out of it altogether, just propose the initiative and let Congress hash it out. And I won't debate rumors, I need an actual bill—Still, I think you can safely save me a torch and pitchfork—and a spot at the head of the mob.

    Regardless of who leads the Democrats, with the exception of Dean the leadership's been criminally incompetent.

  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    Like I said in the previous commentary, ya really gotta feel sorry for the Democrats.

    Their two biggest hot button issues, the ones that they have been itching to pass for more than a decade, are going down in flames.

    They have the tools and the have the power to make it all happen. They, apparently, do not have the will.

    As CW (rightly) points out, the Democrats also have no one to blame but themselves.

    It's gotten so bad for Democrats, I wondered to myself, "Not even DEMOCRATS could have such a large majority, have every advantage going in and then screw things up so badly as this." I was thinking that it was all a big charade and Obama was going to "swing into action in the nick of time" and save everything from Carbonhagen to Crapcare to Mom's apple pie.

    But alas, after seeing 'Hopenchangen' go down in flames (see!!?? I TOLD ya'all that Obama shoulda stayed in bed!! :D) I don't think that Obama et al have clue one how to stop the train that is heading for damaged tracks and that huge 'precipice' that everyone is talking about.


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