Posted by: mutantpoodle | February 17, 2010

The Pit of Despair

I can’t get too upset that Evan Bayh is going Galt. Sure, the GOP may get another Senator in Indiana, but listening to Bayh preen endlessly about deficit reduction while opposing elements of health care reform, like the public option, that would have actually helped reduce the deficit, was stomach churning. Good riddance. Ezra Klein said it well:

So: Evan Bayh’s not a major deficit hypocrite. He’s a minor deficit hypocrite. But a deficit hypocrite all the same. In his exit speech, he describes himself as “a lonely voice for balancing the budget and restraining spending.” Of course, there’s no such thing in Washington as a “lonely voice” for a balanced budget. There is a cacophony of such voices, and a dearth of such votes. But votes are the only things able to do the job. If voices balanced the budget, treasury bonds would never rise.

Accusing a politician of deficit hypocrisy isn’t a particularly serious slur. Pretty much every politician is guilty of it. It’s a bit like trumpeting the fact that some politician or another wears a suit. But if Bayh’s sins are ordinary, so too was his career. Which is why I was surprised to see my colleague Jonathan Capehart term this a “brain drain.” I’ve talked to Bayh before, and like Jonathan Chait, found him special only in his ability to formulate platitudes on the fly. The guy missed out on a terrific career as a fortune cookie author (“Your country will be assured of greatness! Your lucky deficit number is zero!”), but the sciences will not weep for their loss.

Take Bayh’s dramatic exit. “I have had a growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should,” he says. “There is too much partisanship and not enough progress — too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving.” All true enough. You’d expect that he’d then diagnose the problem and explain how he’ll help fix it. But nope. Instead, he simply laments it and then says he’d like a job “helping grow a business, helping guide an institution of higher learning or helping run a worthy charitable endeavor.”

Respectable goals all, but small ball for a senator who has concluded that the American legislative system is so crippled that he can no longer bear to participate in it. Even in this, his most dramatic hour, Bayh was unable to be more than a perfectly typical politician, seeking praise for raising his voice while doing nothing to solve the problem.

In fact, Bayh did make it worse, because as someone with centrist credibility, he failed to call out the unprecedented obstructionism of a radicalized minority on the Senate.  Instead, legitimized their obstructionism by claiming that, if only Democrats would moderate their views, they could find common ground with the GOP.

I guess now he realizes he was wrong. Oh well.

Washington is broken, and not just the GOP, but the Democrats, too; and not just the politicians, but the media. I am not usually a “throw the bums out” kind of guy, but I’m getting closer.

Let’s look at the players.

  • President Obama: I understand why he needs to make noises about bipartisanship.  First, he needs to be above the fray; second, he needs to demonstrate to independents that, Fox News notwithstanding, he’s not actually a blind partisan. BUT:  he limited his options with the GOP to early, and allowed Dems in the Senate (Max Baucus) to drag out the healthcare legislative process long enough that Martha Coakley’s loss in Massachusetts mattered.
  • Senate Democrats: First, the notion that Harry Reid ever had 60 votes he controlled is laughable.  Still, the Senate’s glacial pace, its tolerance of GOP holds and other obstructionism, and Harry Reid’s decision to put the public option into the Senate Bill, causing at least 4-6 weeks of delay and drama before Reid could secure his own caucus’s votes (for a bill WITHOUT a public option!), was clearly a screw-up of the highest order.  In this case, for all that progressives railed at the Obama administration for not pushing the public option into the Senate bill, their calculus was clearly correct. And then you have Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson gumming up the works and feeding the GOP ammunition on an almost daily basis. Plus, a special shout-out to Evan Bayh, who helpfully parroted GOP spin that a vote for cloture was a vote for the bill.  Thanks, Evan. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.
  • The Republican Party: Now, I’ve never been a fan.  But today’s GOP is like Mos Eisley spaceport – a wretched hive of scum and villainy. I’ll stick to two points. First, the socialist takeover of health care that they claim to oppose is almost exactly the legislation the GOP offered up in 1994 as an alternative to Clintoncare.  Not to mention that many of their ideas have made it into the bills that each branch of Congress has passed.  Are they exactly what the GOP might want? Well, no. But – and I’ll type this slowly if any GOP members of Congress are reading – you guys are in the minority. By a whole lot. Not to mention that you had 4 full years of complete control of Congress and the White House.  And you didn’t do squat (except pass Medic are Part D, which is helping blow sky high the deficit for which you blame Obama).
  • The House Democrats: Other than the Blue Dogs, who preen about deficit reduction and then, like Bayh above, oppose elements of health care reform that would reduce future deficits, the House has worked well. Too bad the Senate is necessary, too.
  • The Media: DC media report on politics, not issues.  Most people don’t know that they got a tax cut last year, or what is in health care reform, or how well the stimulus has worked.  They know that the GOP says the stimulus hasn’t worked and that health care reform is a government takeover, because the media has been transcribing GOP talking points without challenging them.  (That said, they’re happy to play gotcha with Obama or Robert Gibbs.) Every once in a while, someone will commit journalism, like the NY Times David Leonhardt, in this piece about the stimulus.  But mostly it is all about the game, which George Packer takes on here:

David Broder had a devastatingly unremarkable assessment of Sarah Palin in the Post the other day. Her speech at the Tea Party convention in Nashville “showed off a public figure at the top of her game—a politician who knows who she is and how to sell herself.” She used the televised occasion to “display the full repertoire she possesses.” Palin is not only “the most visible Republican in the land,” she has also “locked herself firmly in the populist embrace” and mastered “a pitch-perfect recital of the populist message that has worked in campaigns past.” Broder’s conclusion: “The lady is good.”

Broder wasn’t analyzing Palin’s positions or accusations, or the truth or falsehood of her claims, or even the nature of the emotions that she appeals to. He was reviewing a performance and giving it the thumbs up, using the familiar terminology of political journalism. This has been so characteristic of the coverage of politics for so long that it doesn’t seem in the least bit odd, and it’s hard to imagine doing it any other way.

Sigh.  As Steve Benen says, elections used to have consequences. Now, they only matter if Republicans win.

If the Democrats can’t figure all this out, and get some stuff done in the next 6 months, then they deserve to lose.  But those of us out here in the world would lose, too.

The GOP isn’t going to change. Democrats – and President Obama – need to act accordingly, starting now.

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