Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The United States of Paralysis

The results are in, and there were no big surprises from last night's US midterm election. As predicted, Republicans have wrested control of the House of Representatives from Democrats but failed to take the Senate. But maintaining "control" of the Senate is surely cold consolation for the Democrats today. As the Washington Post's Ezra Klein writes in his blog this morning, there was perhaps no worse outcome from the perspective of actually getting anything done in the next two years than the result delivered yesterday.
"Republicans don't fully control Congress, so they don't have enough power to be blamed for legislative outcomes," he writes. "But Democrats don't control the House and they don't have a near-filibuster proof majority in the Senate, so they can't pass legislation. Republicans, in other words, are not left with the burden of governance, and Democrats are not left with the power to govern. Republicans don't have to be responsible, and Democrats can't do it for them."
That's the rub, isn't it? Given that the Senate is the institution that has given Democrats so much trouble during the past two years in the first place, holding on to it is not much of a consolation prize for them. By overusing an ancient procedural rule that can block any vote with just 40 out of the 100 senators, Republicans in the Senate were able to block almost every bill the House of Representatives passed. Indeed yesterday's result is really stinging because it was the House Democrats that really showed political courage over the past two years, casting tough votes even though they knew they would be politically unpopular. There were few such profiles in courage among Democrats in the Senate. And yet it's the senate Democrats that have clung onto power. Nobody ever said politics is fair.

So the Democrats are left controlling the Senate - an essentially useless institution - while the Republicans control an institution that can't get anything done without the Senate. This means two years of a figurative (and perhaps within a year literal) government shutdown. Given that the US is still reeling from the economic crisis, one can't imagine a worse time for this to happen.

So what will the Republican house do? Well they can't legislate, because anything they try would be blocked by the Senate. Early indications are that they will fall back to the Republican playbook of the 1990's and launch endless investigation after investigation into the White House. So, we're back to the good old days of Ken Starr vs. Bill Clinton. The man who will now take over leadership of the House oversight committee, Daryl Issa, told Rush Limbaugh last month, "There will be a certain degree of gridlock as the president adjusts to the fact that he has been one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times." Republicans have a history of this. Many of the new tea party representatives who were elected last night have said they want to launch procedures to impeach Obama.

The View from Europe

As usual, the US election is big news here in Europe today. There was 24 hour coverage of the results all night last night on the BBC, another reminder that US elections don't just affect Americans. At today's European Commission press briefing, the EU executive was asked about the outcome twice. The government standstill in Washington will have a big effect on Europe when it comes to international agreements. It is now certain that the US will not pass a climate change bill in the next two years and will never pass a cap and trade regime. This will put the EU's cap and trade scheme, the ETS, in real jeopardy. Everyone is now asking whether the ETS can survive without a US counterpart. Certainly, there's no way the US can commit to any binding CO2 reduction targets in the next two years now. Similarly, the US will now certainly not ratify the historic agreement reached at Nagoya last week to protect biodiversity.

The prospect of closing Guantanamo Bay or ending the ban on gays in the military now seems impossible, as the Republican congress will surely oppose both measures. And this development will dramatically change the plan for the US recovery, which will have profound effects on the rest of the world's economies. And the Republican congress may block Obama's plan to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in 2011, which would mean European coalition forces would have to stay there as well. And a large proportion of the incoming Republicans want to cease negotiations with Iran over their nuclear option, the option favored by Europe, and instead launch military strikes their nuclear facilities. The Republican congress with also resist any move from the administration that appears even slightly critical of Israel.

Europeans who are tempted to think the Republican victory will mean the US will move toward Europe's strategy of drastic austerity measures should think again. While the Republicans and their tea party supporters have made reducing the budget deficit a central part of their rallying cry, in reality the Republican Congress has no plan to reduce the budget. In fact their stated policies will only increase the budget deficit. Republicans have ruled out any cuts to welfare programs for the elderly like social security and medicare, since they are mindful that old people make up the majority of their voters. They have also ruled out any cuts to the defense budget. Together, these three things make up 3/5 of the US budget. Instead, they are planning a big fight to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, which were set to expire this year, which would add $360 billion per year to the debt.

There are also concerns in Europe over what this portends for the political direction of the US, particularly regarding nationalism and militarism. Some European media reports are drawing parallels between the tea party movement and the recent rise of far-right parties across Europe, particularly the recent far-right electoral victories in Sweden and the Netherlands.

As you can imagine, Europeans are not happy about this election result. People keep asking me today with exasperated expressions how it's possible that the American public can blame Barack Obama for an economic crisis that began before he even took office. They are perplexed by the idea that just two years ago Americans worked themselves up into a dizzying fervor over this man and then when he hadn't changed the world in a few months suddenly wanted to hang him by the rafters.

I can't fully explain the lunacy that goes on in people's minds over on that side of the Atlantic. But this election came down to four things: a population scared to death by the economic crisis, a powerful right-wing media driving the news agenda, an administration that was unable to communicate what it had achieved simply and effectively, and a Supreme Court ruling last year that allowed unlimited and anonymous political advertising this election cycle from corporations. That ruling allowed unlimited political ads from shadowy groups with names like "Taxpayers for Sanity" or "Americans for Growth," which were actually front operations for corporations and industry. From big oil companies afraid of the Democrats' plans for climate change legislation to Wall Street banks afraid of the Democrats efforts on financial reform, everyone got into the game this year, running ads against vulnerable Democrats accusing them of reckless spending and socialism. This ad below was anonymously funded by the health insurance industry posing as a citizens group (the Democrat the ad is attacking lost last night). All told this midterm election had more money thrown at it than any other in US history, an astonishing $5.3 billion. All of this was made possible by the (Conservative-packed) Supreme Court.


A conservative nation

None of these factors listed above is solely responsible for the Democrats huge defeat yesterday after being in power such a short time, but they all combined to create the perfect storm. And of course, all of this is happening in the context of a fundamentally center-right country where conservatives always have an advantage. The US is on a political spectrum far to the right of where Western Europe is. Democrats would be conservatives in Europe, and Republicans would be the hard right. It is an environment where any politician even slightly left of center has a hard time holding on to power.

Just look at last night's results. Russ Feingold, the most liberal member of the Senate (and one of the few truly liberal Democrats left), was trounced by a tea party challenger and kicked out of the seat he's held for 17 years. Alan Grayson, who has gained notoriety in the House over the past two years as being the only Democrat who has tried using the same type of incendiary language and hyperbolic rhetoric that the right uses, was kicked out of congress by voters in Florida. And yet Joe Wilson, the Republican congressman who screamed out "You lie!" during the president's state of the union address last year, won another term. So did Michele Bachman, a Republican congresswoman who has said gays are natural child molesters and has demanded an investigation to find out who in congress has "un-American views". Rand Paul - the tea party candidate I've written about before who wants to dismantle all government regulation and opposes the 1964 Civil Rights Act that banned discrimination based on race - won his senate race in Kentucky last night.

The examples are endless, nobody on the Democratic side of the aisle can get away with the kind of hyperbole and extremism that elected politicians on the right can demonstrate in America. There are just different standards for the two sides. Americans are just a much more conservative bunch than Europeans these days, and what seems normal to Europe seems scary and threatening across the Atlantic. As German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung noted today:
"Europeans have to understand that America is different, and that means it is also different from how they would like it to be. In Western Europe Obama still enjoys almost messianic approval ratings of 80%. Nowhere else on earth regards Obama's program as more self-evident. Reforms such as health insurance for all, an active state and more environmental and climate protection are seen as catch-up Europeanization, a simple normalization. Millions of Americans, on the other hand, see this as an audacious if not revolutionary agenda to serve the interests of the state."
It was for this reason that I told Europeans not to get too excited about Obama's election back in 2008. The man in the oval office may have changed, but the American people are still the same. Even while controlling congress and the presidency, even after winning an election with such a mandate, the Democrats were not able to change the trajectory of America. It is just not a country where the odds are in their favor. In America in 2010, there is little hope for progressive politics. And that is just the sad, very un-hopey reality.

6 comments:

Cathy said...

I am so depressed and embarrassed for my country. The Obama administration has done so much, but nobody was willing to listen because they're so angry about the economic situation, which he's trying to fix! I just can't understand how people can be so stupid.

Anonymous said...

Obama has been so ineffective as a leader, what has he even accomplished? I had huge hope for him but now I'm very disapointed, and I wish Hillary had won.I am in the US but I didn't vote on Tuesday. What's the point? Nothing changes here, Washington is completely broken.

Anonymous said...

Well, as someone wrote after the election:
'Now that the world is going down the drain they've elected a black man to take the blame'

Captain Kid said...

At least, Dilma was elected!

Julia said...

This makes me want to cry...

Kallisti said...

Anonymous 1:
So it was your fault..

I cannot understand why Obama has been so reluctant to communicate with the electorate?? Not counting the weekly youtube-addresses.

And I don't understand why he and the democrats on the hill didn't drop everything to revert the Supreme Court decision on 1st amendment rights for legal persons.

Combined with the death of Europe - the idea this makes me scared of the future of the world.