Tuesday, January 26, 2010

We Have Met the Enemy

Michael Cohen, writing for Newsweek in this must-read web exclusive, lays out the biggest problem facing President Obama: It is us. Between the Congress, the electorate, and the media that enables it all, it seems the term "ungovernable" isn't just for California anymore.

First, he calls out the "obstructionist Republicans". Glad to see this moniker is starting to stick across the country; Lord knows we have seen it enough in Michigan to understand it right off the bat. And it applies to the GOP across the entire governing spectrum as far as I can tell: From the national right on down to the local, they just say "no" to every attempt made towards bispartisanship, and as a consequence, nothing gets solved - and then they promptly blame everyone but themselves for the problems they refuse to fix. It's maddening, and it's about time that people started to call them out on it.

Perhaps the greatest hindrance to good governance today is the Republican Party, which has adopted an agenda of pure nihilism for naked political gain. The most bizarre feature of post-Massachusetts political spin is that President Obama has done a poor job of reaching across the aisle. But any regular observer of Washington would conclude that congressional Republicans have no desire to be reached out to—because they aren't actually very interested in governing the country.

Cohen goes on with some examples using health care; Republicans did nothing about it when Bush was in charge, and now, instead of offering counter-proposals or their ideas, they simply lie about the whole thing or threaten filibusters to halt progress. Why do they do this? Well, when you hire people who show nothing but contempt and disdain for the system they work for, don't be surprised when that system stops working.

There is no governing ideology behind these obstructionist tactics except to demonstrate that government is simply unable to operate effectively. So far, mission accomplished.

Cohen doesn't spare the "spineless Democrats". Putting health care on the back burner after the Brown victory is a huge tactical mistake at this point.

Even if Democrats pass health-care reform, it's an extraordinary commentary on their lack of confidence. Instead of making their case to voters, the first thought among Democrats was to run for political cover. Such fecklessness raises the question: if Democrats with a huge majority in both houses of Congress and control of the White House can't pass the centerpiece of their agenda, what can they possibly hope to accomplish? Why should anyone vote for a party that has such little demonstrated faith in their own principles?

Most people at this point are probably confused as to what those Democratic "principles" are. I know I am. Lack of a strong message, and the inability to take a stand for anything or anyone, has brought about the most stunning drop in enthusiasm among the faithful that it's a wonder anyone will turn out this November. While that feeling will certainly change as time goes on, Cohen points out that the "increasingly incoherent electorate" has some issues it needs to face as well.

We want "change", but we don't want to change. Health care, for example:

On health care, polls indicate that Americans want Congress to extend access, cut costs, and tame the insurance industry. But they don't want their own benefits affected, or government's role in the health-care system to increase, or be mandated to buy insurance. In short, they want change, but they reject the most commonsense means of bringing that change about and generally refuse to sacrifice for the greater good of society as a whole.

Part of the problem here is that the public feels they have already "sacrificed" enough: They've lost jobs. They've lost homes. They've lost health care. Their wages are stagnant (or have been cut) while the cost of living keeps going through the roof. They are terrified that the American Dream is slipping away from them: No matter how hard they work, no matter if they play by the rules, they can't hope to ever get ahead, for themselves or for their children. In this sense, the word "sacrifice" leaves the public with the impression they have to "give up" something more, rather than "give to" something that will bring them a better life in the long run. There's a big difference between the two, and we are right back to the problem of framing the message once again.

Cohen thinks that President Obama should be honest with America about all these things. Maybe so. But somehow, I don't think that "knock it off" is going to go over too well, either, no matter how badly we need to hear it. This is a critical moment in time, and it will set the tone for a difficult year to come.

I wish President Obama all the luck in the world with "us". He is going to need it. We are a real pain in the ass, but overall, we are worth the effort. It may not seem like it at times, but deep down you know it's true.