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.
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.
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”.
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.