Much has been made about the enthusiasm gap between the two major parties in the lead up to next year’s midterm Congressional elections. This presents a very real problem for the Obama administration as well as Congressional Democrats. It may also present problems for incumbent Democratic governors facing reelection, though I would argue that the more pressing danger for them is related to the general unpopularity of governors during fiscal downturns. No one likes state budget cuts, no matter how much they profess support for limited government.
The Democrats are in a bind of their own making. Sure, economic conditions are hurting all incumbents and will continue to do so. But there are other specific factors that are driving this malaise. Though Obama and the Democratic Congress each face apathy and discontent, their solutions are somewhat divergent. I explain below.
President Obama ran on a platform of hope and change. He committed himself to ushering in a new day in Washington, DC. Gone would be the stereotypical insideritis that plagues DC. This rhetoric is what attracted millions of people to his side. They were voting not just for a man, but for a movement. In creating such a movement-type campaign, Obama created certain expectations fueled by his supporters’ idealism.
However, what they have received has not been the type of government they expected. The president has had his share of successes, but unlike in his campaign where he tore up the rulebook, Obama has governed in a very traditional DC manner. The broad vision seems to be gone, and the politics of governing has been far too small-minded. The administration caved on the Stimulus, and we’re seeing the results of a too small package in intractable unemployment. They punted health care reform to Congress, and as a result we will likely see a very unambitious final bill. Contrary to campaign rhetoric, DADT is still on the books and there has been no effort to repeal DOMA. And the administration has offered no real leadership on cap and trade.
Now, supporters of the President will, and have, claimed that now is not the “right time” to push for all of these proposals. But that is letting DC conventional wisdom dictate administration policy and priorities. Obama was elected to change this small-mindedness.
Sure, the President has to work with a fairly dysfunctional Congress in which the opposition party has vowed to oppose everything and many members of the President’s own party exhibit the type of terminal political cowardice that can only grow in DC. But this does not absolve the President from his very real duty to lead. What the administration needs to do is take back the mantle of dynamic change.
This can happen in a couple of different ways. The President can propose his own plans for reform on health care or climate change, rather than give some broad parameters that the Congress will inevitably screw up. He can also make his case more forcefully to the American public. Take a page from the Gipper’s playbook, get the public to support you and put pressure on Congress to get their job done. It is clear from past experience that the most valuable asset to Team Obama is Barack himself. Perhaps his political team is afraid of spending what they perceive as limited political capital. Again, this is myopic DC thinking, fueled largely (I would guess) by Rahm Emanuel. The reality is that Obama earns more political capital the more he is in front of the American people.
In some ways, what I am suggesting is that Obama may be best served by distancing himself from Congress. And potentially running against them in 2012. Of course he cannot be too forceful in his criticisms of Congress now, as the future success of his administration depends on having Democrats in control of the House and Senate.
The Democrats in Congress face a potential reckoning in 2010. After retaking the reins in 2006, Democrats in Congress said that they needed stronger majorities in order to pass progressive legislation. They were given a supermajority in the Senate and increased their hold on the House in 2008. Yet, eleven months into Democratic dominance there is very little to show- a weak Stimulus bill, no cap and trade, no health care reform (yet), etc. It is no wonder that the Democratic base may stay home next year.
Unlike their counterparts in the GOP, Congressional Democrats have all the discipline of a toddler. Conservative Blue Dogs threaten to upend the will of the leadership, and of the people, on important issues like health care and cape and trade. Senate “centrists” derailed any hope of a large enough Stimulus package. Many Democrats in DC have the terminal political cowardice spoken of earlier.
The most galling part of terminal political cowardice is that it reflects Beltway conventional wisdom, as opposed to actual polling data. We have all read the nonsensical statements by Blanche Lincoln and Joe Lieberman for why they oppose a public option. The opinions of those at Georgetown cocktail parties or at the Washington Post carry more weight than the voters of Arkansas or Connecticut.
It is difficult to see a path for the Democrats in Congress to regain the enthusiasm of the base. Passage of health care reform will help, as will a rebounding economy (assuming that happens in the next 10 months), but there will still be a sizable portion of the base who simply will not ever trust their leaders again. The only place that I see real enthusiasm in the base is where an actual progressive is running. A sizable portion of the base simply feels that it is no longer their duty to elect Democrats.
But the enthusiasm gap affects not only the base, but all of those hundreds of thousands (millions?) of new or first time voters from 2008. They put their faith and hope in a new leader, who they believed would work with a Democratic Congress to address the big issues. And what they have gotten instead has been the same Washington style micro-politics. They were told that if they gave the Democrats the power in DC their lives would improve. And many of them now feel they were sold a false bill of goods. Who can blame them?