Following GOP wins in NJ and VA, the Mass. senate surprise completes a trifecta, enshrined with full-throated chorus by the fickle Audacity of Nope crowd. Nope, nope, and nope – that’s one lesson learned when, in Mass. alone, two million Democrats stayed home.
What! – a voting minority from Main Street fed up with “change lobbyists can believe in” or “yes, we can” get ripped off twice by iniquitous bankers, first taking us to the cleaner, risking depression, then insisting we pay for the clean-up and bonuses? No wonder special election voters are “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.” Whatever “it” means.
Replacing Ted Kennedy with a rightwing, torture-backing Republican faking it as an independent returns us to the Reagan fold – that is, Nancy Reagan on drug abuse: Just Say No. In the absence of systemic White House solutions, even sensible acknowledgments of the magnitude and range of challenges, big surprise non-aligned Blue Staters are jumping the Obama ship, crying “Throw the new establishment bums out.” The Mass. vote could be, per Arianna Huffington, a blessing in disguise. But not likely, as post-election WH denials attest, with no talk of new personnel or new leadership, just “combative responses” that promise staying the course that clearly isn’t working.
Sham Populism Tops No Populism
Certainly, the Scott “Everyman” Brown win, leveraging centrist frustration fueled by Tea Party Rage, drives have-nots to vote against their self-interest – into the arms of those allergic to job-creation or bank regulation. This sham “populism” doesn’t so much endorse brilliant phonies like Brown but seeks refuge from the economic storm – and wimpy populism from this president. What if, as Mass. polls show, Brown-Obama voters want more activism, especially on health reform, from a leader who inexplicably cedes so much to Congress.
As rage undercuts rationality, alienated voters lash out against the “in” party, erroneously concluding the enemy of my perceived enemy (the timid, ineffective president) is my friend. What happens when this enemy of their perceived enemy aligns with truly despicable extremists pushing zero mediation between big business and big profits? In fact, the enemy of one’s enemy can be a worse enemy.
Looking on the bright side for Obama, Martha Coakley is so pathetic a loser her tin ear makes Rahm Emanuel look smarter, indeed makes the White House look merely mediocre, not the hopeless boobs bad news progressive bears censure. Compared to “political malpractice,” which one wag aptly pinned on Coakley, the Obama team understood you don’t really get to screw up in office without staying awake long enough to win.
Rahm’s Playbook: Screw fans, Coddle foes
Of course, once in power the Obama-Emanuel team played both sides against the middle, pushing the most bizarre strategy imaginable: take your most ardent supporters for granted, even betray them, while kissing up to incorrigible foes – while losing all credibility for trust and competence. Such jaw-dropping trade-offs invite more Coakleys, not impossible in the upcoming Illinois primary. What I’d love hear in next week’s State of the Union is this unalloyed Obama confession: Democrats don’t hold a candle to ruthless Republicans pandering to corporate lobbyists while snookering voters as fake independents or populists, as in fake rogue mavericks about as genuine as pit bulls with lipstick.
While the feckless Coakley sets the lowest bar, the single-minded GOP gang makes the entire Democratic Party look like wilderness hikers in a snow storm crawling around for the lost GPS device. We’re moving beyond what Obama inherited, however daunting, to this utter mystery: why can’t the president, or staff, present understandable, compelling, convincing messages, even about their own paramount health reform? The guy won the Oval Office but flops at bully pulpit, showing he’s not yet learned how to clarify in one syllable words and catchy lingo what his decisions mean to people who only watch TV or play AM radio. I hate to admit it but illiterate W. was better trained at cogent sound bites.
A second mystery: where’s the narrative for this presidency, even this past year? The GOP is winning not because they have better messages but because they talk like they have messages. They do have a narrative, such as it is: be suspicious of government, except when it comes to war-making (because the Pentagon rules, not politicians) and be especially suspicious of any silver-tongued devil crazy enough to think government plus public money ever solves public problems. With or without citizenship, with or without wedded parents, with or without dark skin.
Government designed to fail
In fact, thanks to willful W. perseverance, federal programs for years have flopped, rarely doing what they promised. Almost all (Patriot Acts, bank deregulation, No Child Left Behind, Katrina clean-up, tax rebates for the rich) made life worse for the average citizen. So, after a year, what single big thing has Obama fixed, other than stem-cell research, maybe credit card abuses, and a few secondary matters? Not Gitmo, not Iraq, not toxic mortgages, or lost mortgages, or huge job losses. Has he established gay rights or reversed environmental disasters, significantly worked up alternative sources, even a serious plan for energy independence? Nope, nope, and nope.
Today’s overriding anxiety, well beyond Brown’s win, is not ideological, but that no one at the top seems in charge. Obama the great campaigner seems at sea since inauguration, acting as if unsure what winning the presidency means, aside from playing nice. It remains a cosmic mystery when one as literate, and well-versed in history, somehow bought into Rahm Emanuel’s wrong-headed notion bold, new presidents don’t have to lead, just wait for Congress to produce the right bill and sign it, as if a bloody corporate CEO with a top-flight staff. But Obama’s never been a CEO until this year, so where did this guaranteed-to-fail idea come from if not the chief of staff? I say: fire Rahm first.
Empty gestures over powerlessness
Looking to this Congress for leadership, let alone rational common sense, is like looking to medical lobbyists to reform our health system. Oh, we already did that. This fox isn’t just in the hen house but ordering the next batch of chickens at a good price. In this wasteland the dispossessed and frightened (especially with health coverage) will naturally throw a tantrum and grab the most reductive brass rings. Any gesture is better than confirming powerlessness, especially as your savings perish while bank profits rise.
What irate, anti-incumbency voters show are, like volatile teenagers with tunnel vision, the desperate will cling to parent figures (with a truck) who give the impression of being in charge. And Scott Brown ran a smart campaign, even if at times channeling reality TV shows (really, offering up his daughters as “available” on national TV). But if there’s enough pain, even a fake populist seems more real than empty promises from untrustworthy, corporate Democrats saying, “Not today, not yet, but trust me and the establishment-Clinton carryover staff for another six months.”
Life can be a mystery, and religious folk invoke God to explain the inexplicable, but voters in special elections have simpler, more direct goals: to show they’re alive and mad as hell and won’t take it any more. Whatever “it” means. Someday, they’ll elect wise leaders who won’t betray their interests, but not this week.