Archive | March, 2010

Cooking the Sausage

31 Mar

photocredit: globevisions

Research has shown that there is a strong correlation between the health of the economy and “trust” in government. Unemployment, GDP growth, foreclosures rates and economic boons may lead people to believe in their government more than lack of corruption scandals or unsavory politicians. This makes perfect sense. As James Carville used to remind Governor Clinton in ’92, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

But with today’s multi-tasking administration, it’s not just the economy, stupid. There’s more than one 500-lbs. gorilla: healthcare, Afghanistan, Iraq, immigration, nuclear weapons, Iran, and global warming, just to rattle off the ones populating the front pages. Reform is used often enough by President Obama to dizzy some Americans unsure of change. The massive undertaking underway is enough to stoke claims of “radicalism,” “socialism,” and any other -ism that oversimplifies reality.

Obama’s numbers began to sag after his first big push, the stimulus package. This was in part due to his team not controlling the narrative, and being too cautious in selling the measure, avoiding accusations of overzealousness. The fight for healthcare, the wars, and overhauling the economy seemed to sap his already dwindling political capital. Many pundits, from Left to Right, considered his presidency dead soon after his first anniversary. What these pundits failed to understand, or maybe decided to ignore, was that approval numbers and overall trust in government were bound to fall. The sausage was being made.

In politics, when the sausage is being made, it is not a pleasant sight to see. Deals are cut, compromises are accepted, denied, and renegotiated, and unlikely alliances are built, leaving some Americans with an awful aftertaste of “opportunism.” But once the politics are pushed aside, and tangible benefits and reforms are enacted, people can see government for what it is: gradual progress based on consensus-building. That is not the sexiest thing in the world, but neither is a sausage factory.

The last couple of weeks before healthcare was passed (and then passed again, thanks to the Senate Republicans doing some parliamentary shenanigans that amounted to fouling the other team, 15 points down and with 5 seconds left in the 4th quarter), you could sense a bit swagger emanating from the White House. Even if healthcare reform would not be all it could be (no public option, no strengthening of reproductive rights), it was reform, and it was substantial. It was considered on life-support by almost everyone at least once in the past year, and nearly moribund after Scott Brown was elected. Once Obama used 22 pens to sign the most sweeping domestic legislation in the last 30 years, the sausage began to cook.

His poll numbers have jumped considerably, almost over night. The legislation is already favored by the majority of Americans, when just a month ago most considered it unsavory. Talks of a GOP takeover in November are falling to a whisper. One victory has led a couple more (student loans, nuclear arms pact), and may lead to yet a few more (global warming and immigration). The American people woke up the day after healthcare reform was passed and saw America as they knew it was still there, intact and on solid ground. The sausage was made, and they, along with Obama and Pelosi, were able to stomach it. Now, they are starting to smell the treats.

Warped Democracy

3 Mar

photocredit: WashPo

One of the most celebrated “Average Joe takes on the Government” movies of all time is Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, with Jimmy Stewart. Dozens of movies have since copied the idea of one man or woman fighting for justice and all that is good by giving those DC folks an earful. It is, like most movies that take the unlikely and stretch it into the reasonably possible, mostly a fairy tale; it is chicken soup for the frustrated citizenry. Mr. Smith stopped Congress from voting into law an unfair bill by filibustering for 23 straight hours, by himself. One man, one mission, one government being taught a lesson in what is just. The moral was that everyone gets a say, and everyone has power.

This month, two Republican senators, Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, and Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, had their own warped Mr. Smith moment. Sen. Bunning stopped the vote on an extension of unemployment benefits for 200,000 Americans, because, according to him, the government just couldn’t “afford” to pay for it. Sen. Shelby held the nomination process of 70 qualified candidates, most for important Defense roles, because he wanted to secure two pet projects for his home state. They both claimed to be representing the will of the people…but which people? And does this type of representation even qualify as “democratic”?

In a country of over 300,000,000, should the survival of a personal ideology, or the prosperity of a few sweetheart companies, be enough to suspend government? Sen. Bunning’s halt led to thousands of people not getting their unemployment check in the mail, when long-term unemployment is at a historic high. Sen. Shelby’s “blanket hold” (ceasing all Senate activity through procedural maneuvering) left critical Defense and National Security posts empty. Is this still part of a democracy?

On the other end, there are tools and protocols in our system that are misused. The filibuster is no longer used to debate or give pause to transformative legislation. It is now used to fight petty political battles, or threaten gridlock for the sake of a political win. The reconciliation process, which is inherently democratic, is called “partisan” and “forceful” for the same reason.

The rules and the tone of the discussion are being rewritten constantly, by both the majority and minority party. There is no consensus on what classifies as “consensus.” A filibuster can be patriotic to some, obstructionist to others; majorities are allowed to set the pace of the agenda, unless you are in the minority and want your vote to count as much as when you were in power. A see-saw like this can make any American feel thrown out of the process.

With the midterm elections 9 months away, it’s unlikely that the see-saw will slow down. The aftermath of those elections, however, will be a rude awakening for many. Bunning and Shelby are up for re-election this year, so their antics may be more of a show than an pervading attitude. GOP Senator Mitch McConnell’s incessant call for filibustering anything touched by Democratic hands may be more of a distraction maneuver than a party strategy. It may all be glitz and fireworks.

But if Americans want to send a message to political divas, letting them know that power should always be more of a burden than a benefit, they must cast a vote against those flaunting it recklessly. If Americans wants someone like Mr. Smith to have a chance to exist in our politics, they must vote for people who want to fight the good fight, not just fight for the sake of fighting.

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