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Jan 10, 2010
2009 almost went out with a “bang” and it is that failed attempt by a young Nigerian radical that has dominated the political scene for the last week of the year. But in many respects the almost immediate partisan sniping that followed the failed Christmas Day effort to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight was indicative of the mood in Washington almost all year long.
Whether it is a continuation of the intense adverse feelings (OK, anger) against President George W. Bush by Democrats stemming from the elections of 2000 or a recently formed animosity toward President Barack Obama by Republicans or by Tea Party activists against almost everyone, there has been only one true constant this past year — a deep division in the political environment that has been characterized by highly partisan rhetoric, a noticeable lack of civility and a growing sense of cynicism about the entire political process.
And 2009 wasn’t even an election year!
Oh my, what a difference a year makes.
When 2009 started, Democrats and their supporters were buoyed by the election of Barack Obama — someone whose campaign had inspired “hope” and a willingness to bring about “change” from the old way of doing things. Obama had, after all, defeated both Hillary Clinton AND John McCain and there was a sense that another Kennedy-like Camelot was in the offing. Alas, it was not to be. Or at least not yet.
While the Senate was waiting until the Minnesota race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken would determine whether there was a filibuster-proof 60 vote margin, the House wasted no time in allowing Speaker Nancy Pelosi to put her fingerprints (political correctness requires me to avoid the potentially sexist term “fingernails”) on the House leadership.
The oldest serving Member of the House, Rep. John Dingell was dethroned from his Chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee by Pelosi henchman and uber-liberal Henry Waxman. The ultimate result was a cap-and-trade bill which was rammed through the House over the strenuous objections of business interests.
The Obama “blame Bush” message allowed him to push through a deficit-busting, “stimulus package” following the last minute 2008 Bush administration action of bailing out financial institutions. But at the end of 2009 the stimulus money was largely unspent, the actual number of jobs has been a fraction of what was promised, and state/local financial problems were forcing a debate on whether the stimulus would ever work — in spite of the belief by most economists that a “jobless recovery” was in the works. That may be good economic theory but it is lousy political theory, and Congressional incumbents are going to have a difficult time explaining it to a 2010 electorate.
And then there was the healthcare debate – or should I say, negotiation. After conservative Democratic Senators (not always a contradiction in terms) tanked the union-desired “card check” legislation, it became clear that the Obama promise of dealing with the healthcare crisis was going to come down to how a small handful of Senators voted.
Note that in 2009 the House of Representatives was largely irrelevant because everyone understood what the outcome would be even before the debate began. House rules allow the majority to control the agenda, the debate and the way legislation is brought to the floor for a vote. Even the so-called Blue Dog Democrats in the House had a difficult time slowing down, much less overcoming, the stated desires of Speaker Pelosi. Elections have consequences and nowhere was this more evident than in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009.
But back to healthcare … Arkansas’ Sen. Blanche Lincoln was squarely in the middle of the debate. But unlike the “card check” legislation where her initial unwillingness to state her position had led to a drop in her poll numbers, she was largely able to avoid getting caught up in the “horse-trading for votes” that brought public outrage to Sens. Mary Landrieu (Louisiana) and Ben Nelson (Nebraska) as the bill wound its way to Senate passage on Christmas Eve. And then, with Senators ready to go home to celebrate the holidays, an idiot from Nigeria tried to set his underwear on fire and in our Internet-based communications world the public’s attention was refocused almost as quickly as a 3-year-old changes interest in Santa’s gifts.
But back to healthcare … Time will tell what the health care vote means for Sen. Lincoln’s political future but one thing is almost certain – just her Senate race alone will help boost the economy of Arkansas media outlets happy to take advocacy advertising to bolster their revenues. Come March it will be a rare television, cable, newspaper or electronic publication that does not feature at least one political ad, and perhaps several conflicting ones. Political speech is rarely “free” speech and the good voters of Arkansas will be inundated with campaign messages as well as fundraising solicitations to pay for it.
But back to healthcare … And if you are now getting the sense that this issue will not go away, you are right. Or at least I THINK you are right.
President Obama’s staff has been talking for months about ensuring that his actions in office are devoted to “legacy” issues — ones that will transcend his presidency — much like President Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency has impacted lives for almost seven decades. What this means is that Obama is willing to force Congress to tackle BIG issues, almost irrespective of the political consequences. Whether this is Chicago-style politics or something else, 2010 will continue to bring a chorus of squeals from the members of the President’s party.
Whether the Republicans can capitalize on that pain also remains to be seen. Thus far, national Republicans seem to be more divided than the Democrats. While it is always easier to oppose something than to get it enacted into law, Republicans are increasingly under pressure to say what they are “for” instead of what they are “against.” In the healthcare reform debate, that is far more difficult for Republicans than has been portrayed outside the Beltway.
One of the things to watch for in early 2010 is whether the Republican leadership can cobble together a legislative “reform” package that can be portrayed as a “better” alternative than any of the Democratic bills. And once again, Arkansas’ Sen. Blanche Lincoln will be a big target of the effort to find bipartisan support for anything related to healthcare reform.
On issues other than healthcare, one of the biggest surprises of 2009 was the inability of Congressional Democrats to pass all of the appropriations bills in a timely manner. When Democrats control the White House AND Congress, conventional wisdom says that legislation can be enacted in a timely manner.
But 2009 was yet another exception to the wisdom that is less and less “conventional.” 2009 saw a failure to enact a federal highway bill and a federal aviation bill. Plus there was a failure to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay in spite of campaign promises to do so. 2009 saw a highly contentious restating of the purpose of our troops being in Afghanistan and a deterioration of relations with Iran (if they could get any worse) and Obama supporters on the left were wondering exactly what “change” had come about because Obama’s speeches sounded a lot like the words of George W. Bush.
On the plus side, Obama was able to get his Supreme Court nominee confirmed and acknowledged that his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was based on what he had planned to do rather than on what he had actually done. It was a moment of humility that seemed to diffuse all but his most ardent critics – for a couple of days.
Then it cranked back up again.
And so it goes on and on and on … The American people are divided, they are frustrated and while they are not sure what they actually want from their politicians, they are almost universally in agreement about what they DON’T want — and that is more of the same. Members of Congress reflect their constituencies, and they are also frustrated.
What that means for the Arkansas congressional delegation, or candidates for local offices, is unknown until the elections actually occur. As Paul Harvey might have said had he lived through the year, “Stand By For Change.”
This piece was originally published in The City Wire.