It Actually May Not Be So Bad

Or it could be worse. But hear me out.

John Boehner

The House. Incoming committee chairs are so polluted by donations from the companies/industries they affect/oversee/regulate that legislation originating in the House will likely be as besotted as the new chairs. These guys are the old guard who have patiently risen through the ranks to position themselves for chairing committees. They aren’t going to enjoy any disruptions.

John Boehner, by all accounts, built his reputation on pragmatic compromise. Well that was until Obama got elected. He now has a very delicate balancing act. He has to appease the old guard who know the system and how to work it as well as the new rogues who seem not to care about how the system works and are unwilling to compromise at all.

Congress, as with any large, old institution, has a dynamic all its own and expecting it to pivot is delusional. For example, newcomers are expected to keep quiet for a time. They are to be seen and not heard. Hang back. Learn the ropes. The old guard aren’t going to put up with the rogue rabble-rousers for long. There are other, time-tested ways to get and retain power without being as disruptive as the newcomers promise to be. If the rabble-rousers don’t make nice during the orientation period, they’re going to get the smallest, most distant offices. They’ll get the most inconvenient parking spaces. And they’ll get rookies or third-string bench warmers for staff. Also, they better make nice with the Capitol Police, the elevator operators, the IT Department and other permanent staff who aren’t all that interested in party or ideology. If the rogues aren’t careful, they’ll marginalize themselves at worst or diminish their effectiveness at the least. And whining about it doesn’t play well.

So, back to Boehner. It’s been said that corralling Democrats is like herding cats. Maybe Boehner now faces, to an extent he’s not accustomed to, the same challenge. “Listen, I think our leadership team has done a pretty good job,” he told a small group of other journalists in late summer, when asked if he’d been surprised at the degree to which he’d been able to hold his fractious caucus together. “But I’ve got to give a lot of credit to President Obama and Speaker Pelosi for pushing my colleagues into my loving arms. Listen, I’ll say it: We’re not that good.” [emphasis added] the Republicans cannot stand around and piss and moan and complain. Now they must govern. Except now he has those “no compromise” rabble-rousers who seem unlikely to be willing to go along.

Harry Reid

The Senate. Hopefully in his campaign against loony-tunes Sharron Angle, Harry Reid managed to find his spine. You know, it’s the one he had surgically removed right after he became majority leader. First, he has to revise the filibuster rules. The beginning of the session is the opportunity to do that. Passing the rules at the beginning of the session requires only a majority and happens after every election. So seize the opportunity. Changing the rules after the session has begun requires a two-thirds majority. Back in April, WaPo’s Ruth Marcus had some very sensible suggestions. Reid ought to have a look.

Second, Reid should, under new or old filibuster rules, should call the bluff of those who propose or intend to filibuster. Oh, wait. That brings us back to that pesky spine thing. He seems not to have one.

Perhaps more important is this. There is only one person in the Senate who decides which bills come to the floor for debate and when. It’s the majority leader. Yep, Harry Reid. The House can get all whack-a-doodle for the next two years and legislation they send to the Senate gets voted on when Harry Reid decides to vote on it. It can get voted on or languish forever in a drawer. Also, there is legislation that can originate in the Senate — and might actually pass under revised filibuster rules. Oh, remember, the filibuster does not exist in the Constitution so the original-intent people should be OK with revising the rules.

President Barack Obama

President Obama. It seems he forgot how to play hardball. For all the Chicagoans he brought with him, he seems to have forgotten how Chicago politics works. Putting David Plouffe, his former campaign manager who also worked for Dick Gephardt, on the White House staff will be a very good start. Plouffe was brilliant at crafting a strategy for the campaign — and sticking to it. Part of the reason George W “succeeded” is because his administration knew they were operating on parallel tracks. While “governing” they also were engaged in a permanent campaign. It’s a model Obama needs to emulate, with different values, different priorities, different methods, and different results. Plouffe will be a big help with that.

Obama said in his post-election press conference, “The Republicans throughout the campaign said they’re very concerned about debt and deficits.  Well, one of the most important things we can do for debt and deficits is economic growth.  So what other proposals do they have to grow the economy? If, in fact, they’re rejecting some of the proposals I’ve made, I want to hear from them what affirmative policies can make a difference in terms of encouraging job growth and promoting the economy — because I don’t think that tax cuts alone are going to be a recipe for the kind of expansion that we need.” [emphasis added]

Will the Republicans recognize that as a challenge to lead — to govern — and not merely stand on the sidelines shrieking about how the sky is falling? When appropriate, Obama needs to call them out and show everyone that the Republican emperor has no clothes.

On a positive note, journalist Dan Froomkin offers some suggestions for things Obama can do without relying on Congress for authority or approval, because he already has the authority and it is not subject to further congressional approval. The article mentions things like the leeway built in to the financial regulation reform, having the EPA regulate carbon emissions, having the IRS revise rules on campaign donations by 501(c)3′s and 501(c)6′s, and more. Even if he does only some of this, he can make the lives of people on Main Street better. And Froomkin’s article is worth reading.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s also the veto.

Democrats. Democrats generally, not only Harry Reid, need to reacquaint themselves with their spines. We need to play for keeps, just like the Republicans. And we can do it without compromising our values even as we compromise on policy. We go to extremes only when we all go along, willingly or otherwise. Just because Republicans and Tea People scream loud and often does not mean their ideas are any better than ours. We need to stand for something and tell people about it.

We cannot rely on traditional media to tell our story. During this campaign just concluded, the only Obama rally that got major attention was the one in Ohio that had some empty seats. All the many other ones got scant notice. We have to develop new ways of communicating. And just as importantly, we need to be better at messaging. Can’t we find a Democratic equivalent to Frank Luntz? For example, I’m told that the legal word “torte” means harm. So when the Republicans talk about torte reform, they are talking about reforming the way people who have been harmed get redress for the harm caused. Find another way to say it, just as Frank Luntz came up with death tax as a euphemism for estate tax.

Democrats need to do some hard thinking and serious medium- and long-term planning/strategizing/coordinating. The Democrats need to do something like what some conservative Republicans did in 2008 after the election and before Obama was sworn in. The same cast of characters are gathering today to plan their next steps. Read this and weep or do something about it. Seriously, read that article.

So finally, checks and balances can prevail. You can work the system or the system can work you. We can find our way out of this. We can mitigate the effects.

It actually may not be so bad. Or I can be completely wrong. For the sake of us all, I hope not.

  3 comments for “It Actually May Not Be So Bad

  1. RHackett
    November 7, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Bill,

    You bring up a good point. All those tea baggers ran on a platform of curbing excessive spending and stopping socialism. I’m waiting to see their solutions that involve little things like the elimination of Social Security or Medicare. Several have hinted at a means test for those programs. Which is a defacto tax hike for those affected individuals.

    I won’t hold my breath. I give the GOP credit for mobilizing the suckers in that group to regain power.

    I predict the tea baggers will get seduced by the Republican Party for the revolutionary cause of voting down tax hikes for Goldman Sachs execs and not much else.

  2. MM
    November 8, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    Quick correction: The legal term is “tort”, not “torte”. A torte is a type of cake.

    • November 8, 2010 at 2:12 pm

      Thanks for that. I’ll remember it going forward. So now you know I spend too much time in front of the stove and not enough in front of the keyboard….

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