Friday, May 14, 2010

Giving Them All the Rope They Need

I've never thought that Barry was a progressive activist. I read The Audacity of Hope and saw in it the approach of a measured, thoughtful lawyer/politician who had studied American social and political history pretty deeply. His successful political campaigns featured unbelievable acts of self-destruction on the part of nearly all of his opponents, and other than that, some tasty rhetoric on his part. In practice, he seemed always a pragmatist when it came to getting things done and relied mostly on the behavior of his colleagues and adversaries to determine where he would eventually land. Unprincipled as it sounds, it's practical politics and regardless of the fawning appreciation of the non-Fox mainstream media and DailyKos left during the campaign, he never behaved as anything other than a politician slightly left of center of where Bill Clinton ever was, which was only nominally left of center.

I suspect that in a different environment he'd be further left than he has acted while in office but that is simply not where we are today. We have been in a gradually rightward political shift ever since Reagan came to office. Much of the shift has been in the rhetoric rather in the actual policy because during much of this period, we still had oldline liberals in Congress capable of fending off the noise coming from the right. But because of the unusual ability of the Rove-led GWBush political machine to force the GOP congress to toe the presidential line, things took a fairly wild swing during that administration.

It's not normal for Congress and the President to work together as well as it did during the GWB years. Our Constitutional system of checks and balances was designed to assure that a certain degree of human ego would inevitably lead the members of the branches of government to jealously cling to every shred of power and influence that could be gathered. In practical terms this means one branch refusing to go along with what the other wants without a substantial degree of give and take and compromise.

In today's American government, we have a generational shift in the White House but we are still living with the Congressional detritus of the previous political generation. In other words, Congress is heavily laden with loud-mouthed rightwing Repubelicans who think they still represent a majority of opinion in this country while the Democrats fail to behave as if they actually represent the majority. For a pragmatically minded President, a very young and generally inexperienced one at that, this is not fertile land for growing a progressive program; even with the current extreme economic conditions he was bequeathed. So what's a dude to do?

Barry laid out some goals and pretty much let the congressional democrats create the roadmap to get there. The result is that at each and every point: stimulus, healthcare, banking regulation, environmental/energy policy, we end up with heavily watered down versions of what one would expect for such programs following the apparent sea-changed represented by Barry's ascension to the White House. This is because the still-existing democrats in congress have never had the stones to play hardball against their bloviationary colleagues to the right.

Accordingly, Barry has been in no position to force himself on Congress the way Rove and Bush did, so he's essentially gotten the best deals available and taken the credit for it, while congressional democrats get faulted for being pussies and the repubes get trashed by their own teabagging base for caving to the dems (as if there was any choice when in the minority). What does this all mean??

It means that Barry's tactics have essentially given all of Congress enough rope to hang themselves in the upcoming midterm elections. Barry himself is still wildly popular and his goals are as well (and yes, above 50% popularity this deep into a first term is defined in American politics as wildly popular). He gets popped now and again for not playing hardball, but ultimately congress gets blamed for how it all turns out -- intransigent, corporate-owned, out-of-touch buffoons that they can be.

It means that come the second half of his first term, when he has to crank it up for his own re-election, we are likely to see a congress with a lot of new faces, many of which are more likely to go to the further ends of their policy rhetoric than we've had for quite some time. But the dems will still hold sway and Barry and the slightly more left of centers, are likely to have their way.