Practically nowhere

(Cross-posted from Think it Through)

This week Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana announced he had organized 15 Democratic senators to form the "Practical Coalition" to work for more "moderate" policies.

My question is:  Why?

- Have we seen the Senate pass wildly liberal legislation lately?

- Are the Democrats fighting to redefine themselves, at a time when the public has embraced the new Democratic President and the party controls both houses of Congress?

- Is it a political message training camp for centrists like Bayh and Mark Warner of Virginia to learn how to run for President while keeping their audiences awake?

- Is this just a tool for Bayh to run for majority leader after 2010?

- Does Bayh think he needs to do this to win reelection in Indiana?

What is it?

When Bayh says we need more practical policies it can only mean he wants more conservative, anti-government, and pro-business policies.   This prompts the question:  has Bayh been in Tahiti for the last five months?

We have a Democratic president and strongly positioned Democratic House and Senate because Americans want honest and responsible government that will take action for them against forces that are too large for individuals to tackle on their own.  This means protect them from the abuses of big business, and provide programs that work.  They are fed up with bail outs and bonuses.  They are not against the government spending money on our schools and energy resources and transportation that will create jobs.

President Obama's victory created a new constituency consisting of the traditional Democratic liberal base, as well as a majority of moderates, suburbanites, and people earning over $200,000 a year. This new coalition was not drawn to Obama because he promised to be more pro-business, or more moderate in tackling the big problems that confront our country, but rather because he offered the promise to hold government and business accountable and to enact big changes like health care reform.

The Practical Coalition reminds me of the Democratic Leadership Council, a tool of Democratic governors and members of Congress who were searching for a new profile for the Democratic party in the 1980's when Ronald Reagan was president.   Democrats like Bill Clinton, Bruce Babbitt, Al Gore, and Dick Gephart started the DLC because they felt the party needed to redefine itself away from what they perceived was its liberal cast.  Reagan had won over working class Democrats who were fed up with Jimmy Carter's double digit inflation and unemployment.  Anyone who disagreed with Reagan was dubbed a tax-and-spend Democrat.  So the DLC set out to define the party as one that would not tax as much and not spend as much.

The DLC adopted much of Reagan's rhetoric about responsibility and smaller government, and started a think tank that cranked out half-baked ideas echoing the party they were supposed to oppose.  The ideas were usually conservative and nearly always pro-business.  I remember reading one DLC treatise on why Democrats should oppose raising the minimum wage because it would hurt the economy.  A more famous DLC initiative was welfare reform, the idea of taking away health, nutrition, and child care benefits from mothers with dependent children who were trying to work.  When it passed in Congress, President Clinton predicted it would decrease the welfare rolls.  He was right, it did knock many single moms off public assistance.  It also helped to increase the poverty rolls for families and single moms with kids.  (for families, poverty rates rose from 9.3% of families in 1999 to 9.8% in 2007, and for single mom families, it rose from 27.8% to 28.3%).

It remains to be seen what bright ideas the Practical Coalition will put forth.  Is their reason for being to reduce federal help to state governments during the recession? Is it to go slow on health care reform so we don't upset the insurance companies?

These are not the priorities of the broad coalition of voters that that elected Obama President to solve our nation's problems and bring about big change.

Message to Bayh and company - the DLC is history.  If you truly want to be practical and move the country forward, disband and support the president.

John Russonello is a partner with Belden Russonello & Stewart:Public Opinion Research and Strategic Communications in Washington, DC. He writes the blog "Think it Through."

There's more...

Let's hear it for earmarks

(Cross-posted from Think it Through)

Every now and then, something happens that reminds us what suckers the news media can be. The most recent example is earmarks. The news media generally lionize the politicians who rail against earmarks, the term used to describe how Senators and members of the House of Representatives win government funds for pet projects in their states without going through the normal legislative process.

Senator John McCain, coming off a recent 16-month run as a maverick committed to comforting the comfortable, has decided to return to his previous vocation of protecting the country from government waste and abuse.

There's more...

Guantanamo's Catch-22

(Cross-posted from Think it Through)

Joseph Heller's novel, Catch 22, in 1961, described a world in which government creates a living hell for people because of its arrogance and ineptness. Heller did not go to Guantanamo, but he imagined it almost 50 years ago.

This past week the catch-22 nature of the Guantanamo prison came into sharp focus because of a court decision on the fate of 17 men from western China who belong to a Muslim ethnic minority called the Uighurs. Reportedly at odds with the Chinese government, they face persecution and possible death if they return to China. Unfortunately, they chose Afghanistan as a destination around the same time the CIA was offering cold cash to anyone in Afghanistan with the ability to raise an index finger, point toward another living human, and pronounce the words: TALIBAN, or AL QAEDA.

There's more...

Don't fear the filibuster

(Cross-posted from Think it Through)

Why is it that Senators, lobbyists, and the news media who cover Congress take as an article of faith that Democrats need 60 votes to pass their legislation in the Senate and the Republicans only need a simple majority?

The press has been reporting the need for 60-vote majorities as if it has always been a given -- because 60 votes are needed to close down debate if the minority objecting decides to filibuster.Under Majority Leader Harry Reid, the idea of upsetting the Senate by daring the Republicans to actually carry through on their threats to filibuster is out of the question.When I asked a 30- year veteran Senate staff person this week how this phenomenon has come about, he said, "comity in the Senate is valued more than taking a stand for something."

There's more...

A Nuclear Lesson

(Cross-posted from Think it Through)

When progressive groups fail to challenge what they oppose in Congress because they think the other side is too big, has too much money, or has already won the public opinion war, they should take a lesson from Friends of the Earth [FOE] this past week.

There's more...

Recession maker could become recession slayer

(Cross-posted from Think it Through)

In assembling his economic team President Obama has made one move that can only be described as spectacularly counter-symbolic.  It is the equivalent of naming Dr. Kevorkian to head a cabinet-level office on long term care.

Obama's choice to head the nation's economic recovery team for saving jobs and putting people back to work is the man who was singularly responsible for erasing the jobs of four million Americans from 1981 to 1983. He did it deliberately, methodically, and effectively to bring down inflation.

Paul Volcker was chairman of the Federal Reserve Board from 1979 to 1987.  When President Jimmy Carter appointed Volcker, the country was in a panic over inflation that had risen from 3.2% to 14.8%, and consumers were wondering if their dollars would become worthless in the near future.   As soon as he became Fed chairman, Volcker raised interest rates, squeezing the money supply, which made business investing and hiring very difficult.  Unemployment, already high at 7.0%, rose to 10% under Volcker.  But within two years, Volcker had stopped inflation in its tracks and reversed it all the way back down to 4.2%.

During this wrenching period, Volcker was vilified for his policies.  The Federal Reserve building in Washington saw its first protestors since the 1930's. Members of the House and Senate denounced him. Labor unions considered him public enemy number one.  The eccentric chairman of the powerful House Banking committee, Congressman Henry Gonzales of Texas, reserved time at the end of each day that Congress met to speak on the House floor calling for Volcker's removal from office.  As a young staff person, I can remember seeing Gonzales' face get redder and redder as he got worked up over Volcker's policies.

Throughout the two-year ordeal of economic correction, Volcker's six foot seven inch frame was a symbol of more than long unemployment lines.  He epitomized giant-sized, confident decision making based on knowledge and stony resolve.  He was the anti-Alan Greenspan.  He was not pals with the politicians or the press.  When angry congressional committee chairmen would call him to testify, you would see his bald giraffe-like figure walking slowly to congressional committee hearings in a cloud of cigar smoke.  The whole picture told you he was above them all.

Volcker succeeded not only in stopping what Americans feared would be an out of control inflationary spiral, but also in lowering inflation and putting the country on sounder economic footing.
Volcker's story suggests there is a double irony at work in his new appointment.  The first is obvious -- that the jobs killer has been appointed to be the jobs creator.  The second irony is that he could be exactly the right man for the job, if the president is willing to give him more control over economic decisions.

I say this for several reasons:

  • First, unlike Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, Volcker is a man who is not on his way up.  At 82 years old, Volcker has seen a great deal of good times and bad, and his knowledge of real-world economics is more than that of Summers and Geithner combined.

  • Second, Volcker knows Wall Street but he is not a creation of Wall Street.  He is not tied as so many of the other advisors are to the Robert Rubin, Hank Paulsen mentality of telling taxpayers in Kennedyesque terms, "ask not what Citibank and Merrill Lynch can do for you, ask what you can do for Citibank and Merrill Lynch, and its executives and stockholders."

  • Third, Volcker is a steady hand on the wheel, and has shown courage and wisdom in riding out a storm.
  • Just as you can make a case that Dr. Kevorkian's experience helping patients die peacefully would make him an especially sensitive and effective administrator for those who choose life, so too Volcker's experience in 1981 and 82 could make him the perfect person to figure out how to restore jobs in 2009.  He may not be as skilled a self promoter or infighter as others on the Obama team, but he is someone who has a proven record of doing what needs done to save the economy.  He might even be willing to regulate what the banks do with the money the feds are giving them.

    As the first team stumbles, President Obama should consider tapping Volcker to come off the bench and show them how it's done.

    John Russonello is a partner with Belden Russonello & Stewart:Public Opinion Research and Strategic Communications in Washington, DC. He writes the blog "Think it Through."

    There's more...

    Spare us the bipartisanship 2

    (Cross-posted from Think it Through)

    President Obama's first strategy for his stimulus package was to try to guilt trip Congress into approving it because the dire state of the economy demands that we show bipartisan support.

    His message to Congress essentially said, "the moment is urgent, we need action now, so do not worry over whether you agree or disagree with certain provisions, go along with it because of the need to be bipartisan." These were the same arguments that got us the Patriot Act, the war in Iraq, and the Vietnam war.

    To their credit, the Republicans would not be guilt-tripped. They wanted to fight for their ideas, however wrong they may be.   More tax cuts, less school modernization, more tax cuts, less aid to state government to provide services for people.

    President Obama's team has been slow and fuzzy in response, but in Indiana today he is starting to move beyond merely criticizing the stimulus opponents for ignoring the need to act quickly and to be bipartisan.  He is beginning to engage in a debate on his ideas:

    ...I put forth a Recovery and Reinvestment Plan that is now before Congress. At its core is a very simple idea: to put Americans back to work doing the work America needs done.

    The plan will save or create three to four million jobs over the next two years. But not just any jobs - jobs that meet the needs we've neglected for far too long and lay the groundwork for long-term economic growth: jobs fixing our schools; computerizing medical records to save costs and save lives; repairing our infrastructure; and investing in renewable energy to help us move toward energy independence.

    He needs to take it farther.  Instead of accepting more tax cuts in return for  more Republican votes, he needs to tell the country why building new schools is a better thing to do than to give upper middle class people more tax incentives to buy a home.

    Ronald Reagan did not win his legislative battles by asking Congress to stop playing politics and be bipartisan.  He won many Democrats to his side by appealing to values of responsibility and individuality and then rolling over those who opposed him by labeling them as politicians who had been addicted to "deficit spending" all their lives.    He omitted the part about how his tax cuts were about to increase the size of the federal deficit far beyond what it was under his predecessor, Jimmy Carter.

    Obama needs to define the current debate by contrasting his vision for the country and his policies with those of his opponents.  Part of the problem may be that he felt he did not have opponents.  Now he knows better.

    John Russonello is a partner with Belden Russonello & Stewart:Public Opinion Research and Strategic Communications in Washington, DC. He writes the blog "Think it Through."

    There's more...

    Spare us the bipartisanship

    (Cross-posted from Think it Through)

    Before President Obama prostrateshimself at the altar of bipartisanship, he should consider that working with political opponents should be a means to an end - not an end in itself.

    When someone calls for bipartisanship, I immediately wonder:  Is the person not able to argue for the idea on its own merits?   Bipartisanship has come to mean putting aside your political convictions, if you have any.  This usually leads to disastrous results.

    • Bipartisanship kick-started the war in Iraq. So strong was the call for bipartisanship that Democratic and Republican Senators were willing to ignore the report from the United Nations weapons inspector who reported that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. The Senate voted a lop-sided 77 to 23 to give President Bush the green light for an unnecessary war.  This was not unlike the bipartisan Senate support - only 2 nay votes -- for the Tonkin Gulf resolution President Johnson used to send Americans to die in another lost cause.

    • Bipartisanship produced the Patriot Act, which the Senate passed 98 to 1 shortly after 9/11. Members of both parties admitted they did not read the act they voted on, even though they were warned it took away civil liberties.  The need to show bipartisanship overtook their responsibility to uphold the Constitution, protect the rights of their constituents, or even the duty to know what they were enacting.

    • Bipartisanship became an alibi for Democrats and Republicans on the Senate and House intelligence committees, and the leaders of each party, who remained silent for four years even though they knew the president was authorizing illegal wiretapping of American citizens.  When the New York Times uncovered the government eavesdropping without a warrant, the Democrats (Reps. Nancy Pelosi, Jane Harman, Sens. Jay Rockefeller, and Harry Reid) who had known all along about the surveillance on American citizens feigned outrage -- a bit like the Vichy general in the film Casablanca who is "shocked" that there is gambling going on in the casino.   In Washington, this type of behavior is excused because it is done in the interests of bipartisanship.  It reminds me of the words of the late comedian George Carlin, who said "bipartisanship usually means that a larger than usual deception is being carried out."

    Where did we go wrong?  The word partisan took on darker connotations in the late 1980s and early `90s when Newt Gingrich showed Republicans that they could regain entrance to the halls of power through the doorway of the politics of personal destruction.  Instead of engaging in partisan debates on issues, Gingrich made partisanship synonymous with character assassination.

    This page in the Republican handbook was practiced with gusto by President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Attorney General John Ashcroft and many others in the Bush administration.  The vice president, in particular, often accused any Democrat who disagreed with him as helping terrorists.  After hearing these attacks for 8 years, Americans decided that the administration was a one-trick act.  Eventually they got bored and annoyed with the act.

    Possibly in reaction to the Bush years, the public embraced Obama's non-belligerent personal style.   By being too cool to personally attack others, he gives people confidence that he can run the country better than those who relied on name-calling and fear-baiting to stay in power.

    There's more...

    Give the money back

    (Cross-posted from Think it Through)

    When President Obama says "shame on" those corporate executives on Wall Street who took $18.4 billion in bonuses last year and Senator Chris Dodd fulminates that we will "use all legal means" to get the money back - knowing full well there are probably no real legal means to do so - it all rings hollow to me.  It is as meaningless as Sen. Dodd's comments yesterday that if he gets really angry at the Wall Streeters, he will hold a committee hearing on the topic.

    Recognizing that most experts say it is not possible to pass laws limiting compensation or to force companies to take away bonuses already given, there are some things our leaders could do that are more effective than denouncing the bonuses.  

    For starters, the President and the Treasury Secretary could call upon the executives who received the excessive bonuses to give the money back to the companies.  The president should address the nation, urge the banks and securities companies to list the bonuses and the executives who received them, and urge the executives to return the money to their struggling companies.  

    Next, since the Treasury Department is propping up many of these firms with bailout money, and many such as Bank of America, its subsidiary Merrill Lynch, and American International Group, are on track to receive billions more, the Treasury Secretary should inform all the companies on Wall Street receiving bailout money that they may have money deducted from their next federal bailout checks unless a large proportion of the executive bonuses are returned.  Call it bailout minus bonus.

    All of these things will be more effective than presidential finger wagging or Senatorial bloviating.  

    The President, however, can use his moral authority to move the nation to demand changes on Wall Street.  President Obama could make this his first effort to bring the country together around the value of responsibility that he stressed in his inaugural speech.  It is an opportunity he should not pass up.

    John Russonello is a partner in the opinion research and message development firm Belden Russonello & Stewart:Public Opinion Research and Strategic Communications in Washington, DC. He writes the blog "Think it Through."

    There's more...

    Five years is a lifetime to a child

    (Cross-posted from Think it Through)

    Five years is a lifetime to a child

    Like the Bill Murray character in the movie What About Bob, who is so immobilized by fear that he cannot move forward, the U.S. Senate took a "baby step" yesterday toward becoming a functioning institution which actually represents the hopes and needs of the rest of the country.  The Senate passed a law providing health insurance to about 11 million low-income children who have not had access to affordable health care.

    Last year the bill, known as SCHIP, died after two Bush vetoes and Republican opposition.  This year, more Democrats in the Senate and House were able to expand SCHIP, but not before some Republicans tried to defeat it by raising the specter of immigrants using services.  The Republicans objected to giving health care coverage to immigrant children whose parents are legal residents of the United States, who live and work in our communities and pay taxes.

    One of the most contentious changes in SCHIP, and an improvement over the bill Bush vetoed, is the elimination of the current requirement that children of immigrants who are here legally wait five years before being included.  Five years may seem like a flash to a U.S. Senator - just barely enough time to raise the $15 million+ needed for the next reelection campaign.  

    But five years is a lifetime to a child.  That is exactly the phrase average Americans told BRS researchers in focus groups we conducted across the country for the National Immigration Law Center.  When given the chance to think it through, the voters we heard from believe children should not suffer for a situation they did not cause.

    Armed with the righteousness of their cause and that simple phrase - five years is a lifetime to a child- SCHIP coalition advocates won their case on Capitol Hill and persuaded them to include legal immigrant children.  The president will sign this bill and the Senate will have done some good. Baby steps.

    John Russonello is a partner in the opinion research and message development firm Belden Russonello & Stewart:Public Opinion Research and Strategic Communications in Washington, DC. He writes the blog "Think it Through."

    There's more...


    Advertise Blogads