Thursday, 21 January 2010

When 40 is more than 60: Why Republicans always win

In the wake of Tuesday’s game-changing Republican victory in Massachusetts I’ve been inundated by questions from perplexed Europeans. How is it, they ask incredulously, that one year after Barack Obama came into office on a wave of popular euphoria, he has somehow come to attract the rage of the very Americans he’s been trying to help?

The answer lies in this not-often-observed reality: despite the fact that voters banished Republicans from the leadership of every branch of government in the 2006 and 2008 elections, since Obama's inaugeration they have been able to wage one of the most effective oppositions in American history. Though the Grand Old Party is in the midst of a leadership vacuum and is no longer coming up with any actual policy ideas, they've somehow managed to stymie the Obama agenda to such a degree that in practice they are effectively a co-equal power in government. You’ve got to hand it to them, it’s truly a remarkable feat. They’ve managed to get the American public demanding a return to the party of George W. Bush.

Of course this wasn’t the result of any particular stroke of genius, but rather a sort of accidental stumbling into a fortunate set of circumstances. The first is the media climate. Though the infrastructure and policy apparatus of the Republican Party is in disarray, the right wing still has a powerful and vocal media presence that tends to influence the overall news agenda. The notoriously right-wing Fox News is the highest-rated American news network by far (it has more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined and was the most-watched source for news coverage of the Haiti earthquake last week). Last year the Obama administration was widely viewed as stating the obvious when they said that Fox News is “a mouthpiece of the Republican Party,” but really they were wrong on that point. In reality, because the Republican Party is in such chaos while the conservative media is so strong, it is the Republican Party that has become a mouthpiece for Fox News. And never did a television network have such loyal foot soldiers.

Fox News has been instrumental in the formation and promotion of the populist “tea party” movement, which exploded in August with demonstrations across the country against the healthcare reform legislation proposed in June. Fox actively organised the demonstrations and marches with right-wing think tanks like Freedom Works. The protests were successful in spooking a handful of conservative Democrats into demanding that the most controversial aspect of the bill,  a government-administered public option (as exists in Germany), be dropped.

Of course the protests, organised and promoted by Fox News, then became such big events that the other news networks had to cover them. Soon almost all media coverage of Obama's initiatives seemed to be taking its cues from issues brought up on Fox News – from the idea that the legislation contained “death panels” to kill old people to the assertion that Obama never uses the word “terrorism”. All of these things were demonstrably untrue, but once Fox brought them up as issues the rest of the media would pick them up as well, leading to a litany of misinformation about Obama’s policies among the public. The healthcare reform bill ended up being a fairly moderate proposal that was not the start of a national healthcare system as exists in the UK or France. It was instead a modification of the existing private system in order to get more people covered and prevent health insurance companies from denying people coverage because of pre-existing conditions. But Fox News convinced the American public that it was a revolutionary piece of legislation that would lead to "socialised medicine" and rationing of medical care. In other words, the first step to a communist dictatorship.

“Obama’s Waterloo”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. To fully explain how the right has managed to thwart Obama’s ambitions despite nominally having no power, we need to go back to where the Republicans were in January 2009. Still stinging from the harsh rebuke they had received at the hands of voters in November, the GOP entered last year in a period of soul-searching. “We came to change Washington, but Washington changed us” was their common lament. There was a willingness to acknowledge the mistakes that had been made, and a feeling that the party had lost touch with voters and forgotten the basic principles of good government. There was talk that the party could be out of power for a decade as it tried to regroup.

But that didn’t last long, as the GOP soon found a strategy that seemed to guarantee a quick return to power with no painful soul-searching needed: obstruct, obstruct, obstruct. And they saw the defining battle as healthcare. The strategy was outlined early. In July of last year, just before the August town hall protests, Republican Senator Jim DeMint told a conference call with tea party activists, "If we’re able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”

DeMint quickly took the reigns, devising the Republican strategy to neutralize the Obama threat almost immediately. First, Republicans would stand strong as a unified block to vote against anything proposed by Obama. Of course, this alone wouldn’t stop the healthcare bill since Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority in the congress. Here’s where the second part of the plan came in: the tea party movement would organise vocal protests against the bill. The importance and numbers of the protests would be inflated by heavy coverage from the conservative media, and this would scare conservative Democrats away from voting for healthcare. "Senators and Congressmen will come back in September afraid to vote against the American people," DeMint told the conference call.

Democrats were caught completely off guard by this strategy, maintaining a naïve belief well into the autumn that they would be able to convince some Republicans to vote for the bill by offering numerous concessions. Within months they found they had been caught in a trap. After whittling down the bill to something largely ineffective in order to appease Republicans who never intended to vote for any bill, they found their delay had allowed time for huge public misperceptions about the bill to arise. By the time it came to a vote, DeMint’s plan had worked like a charm. Not a single Republican voted for the bill. And by then, so many conservative Democrats had been spooked by the protests that the Democratic leadership had to abandon their cherished public option -which progressives regard as the essential component in the bill to control consumer costs.

As DeMint predicted, the Democrats had been drawn into the swamp. And they began to panic as they realised how quickly they were sinking. Obama had wanted the healthcare bill voted on before August. Instead the ugly fight has been drawn out for months and months, allowing the right to control the narrative by spreading wild stories about what the bill planned to do. Because it’s been focused on the healthcare fight, the Obama administration hasn’t taken action to fix the economy (beyond the unpopular stimulus early in the year), re-regulate the banks and commit to climate change targets.

Though the Republicans have been a minority with just 40 votes in the senate (not even enough to use a filibuster to prevent legislation), they were able to become a devastatingly effective opposition by remaining completely united. At the same time, they stoked public fears and anxieties to spook Democrats into disarray. In the end, a united 40 has proven to be far stronger than a disunited 60.

Obama defeated

Flash forward to Tuesday. The national “tea party” populist movement has grown massive and powerful, even if it doesn’t seem to have any clear policy goals other than being “anti-government”. They start hearing about an fairly inept Democratic candidate in the race to replace Ted Kennedy in a special election in Massachusetts, and sensing vulnerability, they make the pounce. Fox News finds its telegenic hero in the handsome Republican Scott Brown, a truck-driving everyman who came out of nowhere but won people over with his handsome smile and his vague promises of sticking it to those crumbums "playing politics" in Washington. Of course the irony is that it has been the Republicans playing politics with these economic and health issues by blocking any and all legislation - valuing a return to power over actual cooperative governing. But the vast swathe of the American public is not aware of this, so they blame the party in power for the situation the US finds itself in - the Democrats.

Fox News gave Brown almost unlimited coverage in the weeks before the election and had links to donate to his campaign on their website. Donations from around the country started pouring in (it’s been estimated that almost 80% of Brown’s campaign contributions came from outside the state of Massachusetts), allowing Brown to blanket the airwaves with expensive TV advertisements in the final weeks of the campaign. Being a special election (or “byelection” as they’re called in the UK) only the most passionate voters turned out. And the most passionate were the ones who had been repeatedly told over the past six months that Obama was trying to railroad a Socialist agenda down America’s collective throat.

Democrats have responded to Tuesday’s enormous setback with their trademark wimpiness. Even though they still have 59 out of the 100 seats in the senate, they’ve accepted the Republican re-definition of 60 as the new 50 (Republicans have used the filibuster, which was originally intended only as an emergency measure in exceptional circumstances, more times in this congress than at any point in US history). It seems likely at this point Democrats are going to quietly abandon the healthcare reform effort. Even though it's already been passed by both houses, it needs to be passed again after going through reconciliation - and Brown would support a filibuster as the 41st vote. But if Democrats do abandon healthcare, it will surely be Obama’s Waterloo as DeMint predicted. The Democrats will have wasted eight months of America’s time with an incredibly painful and ugly debate over healthcare, all for nothing. Going into the November 2010 midterm election, Obama will have almost nothing to show for his time in office. Demoralised and disillusioned Democrats will not show up to vote, while worked up, hysterical Republicans and independents will. The Democrats could be swept out of their majorities in both houses of congress in a landslide that will make the 2006 and 2008 elections look like child’s play. Can anyone say one-term president?

Once the Republicans have achieved their return to power, take a guess who their new majority leader will be. I would be shocked if it were anyone but the man who devised their winning strategy, Jim DeMint.

Of course we’re only one year into Obama’s presidency and there’s still plenty of time for him to reverse his fortunes. But it’s not looking good so far. I think it’s important for international observers, particularly those in Europe who seemed to greet Obama’s election with naïve delusion. Despite Obama’s election, the right wing remains the most powerful force in American politics, and the US remains fundamentally a conservative country. It’s telling that even when Democrats can obtain nominal control of the government, they are still outmanoeuvred by conservative forces. As the saying goes “Republicans are great at winning elections, but horrible at governing”.

British comparison

As a final note, I would say this: observing all of this makes me feel very fortunate to live in Europe. I know I’ve had a go at the British system of government in the past for being entirely dominated by the prime minister and his cabinet, but the fact is at least the government here can actually get things done. I still believe there are far too many MPs with nothing to do in Westminster, but I do admire how in this country if the government wants to do something it can actually do it – and quickly. It’s a refreshing change from the land where I come from, where the government seems to be stuck in absolute paralysis. You have one party which dominates the media narrative and can consistently win elections, but they have no real solutions in policy. You have another party with real policy ideas, but they are politically inept and incapable of getting their message out to American voters, being drowned out by the right-wing screaming.

With all this in mind, I’ll take Westminster over Washington any day.


Torsten said...

An excellent analysis. I had no idea that this comeback by Republicans was all planned out so far in advance, but there it is in black and white, quoted and everything!

Dominik said...

I've always said that Americans seem to vote against their own economic interests, but this is taking it to the extreme!! They're actually trying to stop Obama from giving them healthcare! It's amazing that Americans can be so easily manipulated. Why is this?

Teddy said...

And now that the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations can spend an unlimited amount on political advertising, we will see even more manipulation of the voting public by large corporate interests in the November election. As long as American corporations - through vehicles like Fox News and astroturf "tea party" protests organised by powerful corporate-funded lobby firms like FreedomWorks - continue to mislead the gullible American public, we are being ruled by a corpocracy. And it is our own fault for being too stupid/apathetic to realize we are being deceived.

Steve S. said...

Don't forget that the Dems didn't have a 60 vote majority until Franken finally got seated in July. Norm Coleman contested the results of the election for eight months quite possibly as part of a national strategy of obstruction.

John Morgan said...

You analysis is misguided. Are you invoking the "vast right wing conspiracy" bit again? Allow me to offer an alternative explanation. The vote in MA was for a Senate seat, and not for the presidency--that is, this was not a referendum on Obama. Congressional approval ratings are ~25% in spite of the overwhelming Democratic majority. Due to this ... See Moremajority, it is IMPOSSIBLE for Republicans to block health care legislation (hence the term "fillabuster-proof"). It was in fact democrats, specifically Senators Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu, who stalled the bill as they jockeyed for closed-door deals that would secure their vote. It was this behavior that disgusted the independent MA voters who were sold on Obama's overt campaign promises for a new era in DC where this "culture of corruption" would no longer fly. Brown pummeled Coakley on this point and won the day. This had nothing to do with Fox News (which for those who don't know is a cable/satellite channel and not a government-backed broadcast monolith like the BBC--you have to choose to subscribe to cable/satellite and choose that channel over numerous other outlets like CNN, MSNBC, CSPAN, and the broadcast ABC, NBC, PBS, and CBS). This had nothing to do with a elaborate conspiracy carried out by Republicans. This was much simpler--the people of MA were tired of the "Inside the Beltway" establishment and voted someone new in. Time will tell if Brown doesn't ultimately fall into the same crowd.

Gulf Stream Blues said...

Well as I said in the post I think it's been more a question of dumb luck that some kind of orchestrated "conspiracy". And you're right that Democrats had the capacity to pass real healthcare reform on their own but didn't. But why didn't they?

The tea party protests in August terrified moderate/conservative Democrats who are up for reelection in November. Without Fox News there would be no tea party movement. Without the tea party protests, moderate/conservative Democrats would probably have towed the party line and voted for meaningful healthcare reform.

Obama's made his share of mistakes in this process. He erred in thinking he could avoid a repeat of the Clinton healthcare mess by standing back and letting congress craft this bill in full view of the public. It yielded the transparency he promised in his campaign, but not in a good way. Seeing this bill be made has been ugly to watch, particularly the horse-trading that went on with Landrieu and Nelson that you mention. ... See More

However, this horse-trading wouldn't have been necessary if the Democrats had had party unity on this issue, and that unity was shattered by intimidation from the tea party movement and misinformation from the conservative media. It also was harmed by Obama's reluctance to get involved and take a strong stand on what he wanted from this bill.

So there's plenty of blame to go around. But the lion's share of it lies with the conservative media which has confused an already anxious public with misinformation about Obama's initiatives.

Björn said...

John, are you honestly trying to argue that the fact that America's most watched news network is telling people the healthcare bill contains death panels and is part of a socialist agenda has had no influence on the defeat of this reform??? That seems very naïve!

John Morgan said...

Bjorn, the reform has not yet been defeated. I don't believe the dire predictions that reform is dead due to the Brown's election. That's just absurd. Polling indicates that the American people at large want some reforms (me included). Totally scrapping the bill and moving on the other things will just make all of Congress that much more unpopular... See More (remember 25% approval rating?). Instead, Congress should live up the Obama's numerous vows of transparency and stick to the basics.
As for Fox News, did you miss the part where people have to go out of their way to watch it? You have to purchase satellite, and even then, still tune it over the half dozen other news networks. That aside, Fox News has indeed largely lead cable/satellite outlets for years ("most watched cable news source", etc, etc.)--long before the MA special election. Coakley was whipping Brown by some 30 points in the polls 3 weeks before election day. However, that was about the same time that the Nelson/Landrieu deals were made. This blatant violation of promises for a "new era" really angered the MA independent (and a good number of democrat) voters who had largely voted for Obama. Did Fox News report (accurately--I challenge anyone to question it) that the Nelson/Landrieu deals where a direct contradiction to widespread promises of open government? Yes. Did Fox News' success force the other news organizations to report the same story? Probably. Did that story further fuel displeasure with Coakley? Also, probably. Thus, I can concede that perhaps Fox News did play a role in the defeat. But they did it by reporting a true story, not by threatening the MA electorate with socialism. Besides, MA already has a "socialized" health system run by the state, so what would they be afraid of?

Anonymous said...

I think in Europe we were fooled into thinking the election of Obama would solve all the world's problems. But it seems the American system is still the same. Perhaps the problem is with Americans themselves, not their leaders.