Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid just scored a political victory by losing a vote. That sounds counterintuitive, but it's true. By failing to bring the Wall Street reform bill written by Chris Dodd to the floor for debate, and by losing a cloture vote on the issue to Republican opposition, Reid has shown that the Democrats (and the White House) have learned a few lessons from the health reform debate. Because by refusing to back down, and refusing to "compromise" (read: water the bill down and add loopholes for Wall Street) with Republicans, Reid is showing real strength, and real leadership.
Harry Reid is from a gambling (or, if you're employed by the industry, "gaming") state. And he has just raised the stakes, because he thinks he's got a winning hand in this debate. The Washington Post just released a poll today showing that reforming Wall Street is wildly popular with the public at large (two-thirds are for it), which certainly helps Reid's position. But just because an issue (or a sub-issue) is popular with the public, it doesn't always win in Congress (see: public option). Sometimes politicians squander the issue's popularity, and drive away their own supporters by continually weakening and gutting the bill they're debating.
There's another sort of strategy for this situation, and it is precisely the strategy Reid and President Obama have taken -- refuse to give in to the lobbyists. Stand up for strong reform, and shout it from the mountaintops. Defy Republicans to obstruct the effort, and vow to exact a political price upon them for doing so. This is precisely what Reid just did.
Republicans, in this metaphorical card game, not only have a bad hand to play, but they were actually allowed to thumb through the deck and pick their own cards, and they still have no good cards to play.
Because Republicans tried to bluff. They tried to hinge their arguments for obstruction on "we want to make the bill stronger," when (of course) nothing could be further from the truth. What they really would like is to make a backroom deal with Chris Dodd, and water the bill down, far from the light of day. What they most assuredly do not want is for this bargaining to happen on the floor of the Senate, in the open, with everyone watching. If debate on the bill proceeds, then Republicans are free to offer amendments to strengthen the bill, if they so desire. Democrats would likely even support a few of these, if they truly did strengthen the bill. But any loophole-filled lobbyist-written amendments are simply not going to pass. Which terrifies Republicans, who don't really want a stronger bill to begin with.
The way to deal with this bluff is, so far, exactly what the Democrats have done. First, make lots of political hay decrying the obstructionism of the Republicans, painting them as being nothing more than Wall Street's handmaidens. Second, when challenged by Republicans to strengthen the bill, then actually strengthen the bill, and then dare Republicans to oppose it. Thirdly, don't just threaten to hold votes and force cloture (filibuster) votes, actually follow through and put the Republicans on the record voting with Wall Street, and against reform. Fourthly, make it obvious that this issue will be the number-one favorite for Democrats to run campaign commercials on, in the upcoming elections.
So far, Democrats have been doing all of these things, and actually doing a fairly good job of them. Instead of entering the bargaining from a position of "let's give away the store before we even begin talking" (see: health reform debate), Democrats are (for once!) throwing down gauntlet after gauntlet to Republicans -- "well, if you're complaining that the reforms aren't strong enough, then we will strengthen them!"
Republicans, it should be noted, are getting very, very nervous about their overall obstruct-everything strategy in this particular debate. They're scared. You can tell, because almost without exception, every Republican interviewed on television of late has admitted that "something's going to pass." Compare this to their stance during health reform, when they were confident nothing would get through. Republicans, in essence, are already admitting that they're going to lose this one, and that President Obama is going to score a major political victory, likely before Memorial Day.
Today's vote was a party-unity affair. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell got all 41 Republican senators to sign a letter, formalizing his filibuster bluff, a few weeks ago. He held them together today. But he is likely not going to be able to do so on subsequent votes. Republican unity is going to crack. And a trickle of Republican votes crossing the aisle to vote for Wall Street reform could become a flood, by the time the final vote is taken (after the House and Senate hammer out the final language in committee). There are two reasons for this: Republicans saw that story on the polls, too; and the only way Republicans can explain today's vote on the campaign trail is going to be: "we forced Democrats to strengthen the bill, so that we could then we could support it." It wouldn't surprise me in the least to see the final vote on Wall Street reform win with 80 or 90 votes in the Senate, and a similar overwhelming majority in the House.
President Obama released a statement after the vote. It doesn't pull many punches. Here's the full text of it:
I am deeply disappointed that Senate Republicans voted in a block against allowing a public debate on Wall Street reform to begin. Some of these Senators may believe that this obstruction is a good political strategy, and others may see delay as an opportunity to take this debate behind closed doors, where financial industry lobbyists can water down reform or kill it altogether. But the American people can't afford that. A lack of consumer protections and a lack of accountability on Wall Street nearly brought our economy to its knees, and helped cause the pain that has left millions of Americans without jobs and without homes. The reform that both parties have been working on for a year would prevent a crisis like this from happening again, and I urge the Senate to get back to work and put the interests of the country ahead of party.
This shows Obama has also learned the lessons of the health reform battle: don't compromise early, fight for a strong bill instead, and don't let your opponents define the playing field. And do not back down.
Two footnotes to today's vote are the two Democrats who voted with the Republicans. The first one is a technicality, since Harry Reid switched his vote to "nay" when he saw he was going to lose. This is, as I said, a technicality which allows him to reintroduce the bill later (which he swears he's going to do, possibly as early as tomorrow -- which, conveniently, has scheduled the chairman of Goldman Sachs testifying before a committee hearing), and should in no way be seen as a lack of support on Reid's part.
The second Democrat who voted with the Republicans was Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who was trying to get a sweetheart deal inserted in the bill for his constituent Warren Buffett. You'll remember Senator Nelson from the health debate, for pulling the same maneuver to extract the "Cornhusker Kickback." This time, however, the Democratic leadership didn't blink, and refused to play ball with Nelson. Nelson will now find himself in a very untenable political position (as he did with the Cornhusker Kickback) and will likely end up sheepishly changing his vote to "yea" at some future time in this debate. Thus showing the power of transparency, and why it is good politics to bring these backroom deals out into the open.
As I said, today's vote, while seeming to be bad news (we'll see how the mainstream media spins this one...), is actually stunningly good news for Democrats everywhere. Because it shows that two of the "weakest links" in the health reform debate -- Harry Reid and President Obama -- are actually out in front, and doing a good job of leading, on Wall Street reform. They appear to be moving in lockstep, defiantly resisting calls to water the bill down. And they're also not exactly being shy about explaining their position -- to a public who already approves of what they're doing by a two-to-one margin.
If both Obama and Reid can keep this up, it will prove a political case many progressives and liberals were trying to get them to understand, last August. If you get out in front of strong reform that the public overwhelmingly approves of, not only will you draw some of your opposition over to your side eventually, but you also will boost the public's approval of what you are trying to accomplish. Many Lefties were absolutely disgusted at how the health reform battle played out, and with good reason. Sinking poll numbers for both Obama and Reid have driven that point home even further, ever since. Democrats appear to have learned this lesson, and are trying it a different way this time around.
And, I have to say, they are being led in these efforts admirably well by both President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Reid. This is going to lead to, eventually, a much better bill on the president's desk. Far fewer things will be "thrown under the bus" in this debate. Of course, no bill is perfect, and there may be disappointments along the way, but arguing from a position of strength means you will have to accept fewer compromises during the process. And that is good news, for this bill, for reforming Wall Street, for the American public, and for the Democrats in general and for Harry Reid and Barack Obama in particular.
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
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-- Chris Weigant