Drew WestenPsychologist and neuroscientist; Emory University Professor
Posted: January 20, 2010 02:32 AM
You can blame a bad candidate, bad organization, bad timing of a vacation -- choose your rationalization. But the reality is that voters in Massachusetts were reacting to the same foul mist coming off Boston Harbor that New Jersey Voters smelled coming off the Hudson and Virginia voters off the Chesapeake.
What they all understood was that the source lay on the shores of the Potomac.
It is a truly remarkable feat, in just one year's time, to turn the fear and anger voters felt in 2006 and 2008 at a Republican Party that had destroyed the economy, redistributed massive amounts of wealth from the middle class to the richest of the rich and the biggest of big businesses, and waged a trillion-dollar war in the wrong country, into populist rage at whatever Democrat voters can cast their ballot against.
All of this was completely predictable. And it was predicted. I wrote about it for the first time here on the sixth day of Obama's presidency, and many of us have written about it in the intervening year.
The President's steadfast refusal to acknowledge that we have a two-party system, his insistence on making destructive concessions to the same party voters he had sent packing twice in a row in the name of "bipartisanship," and his refusal ever to utter the words "I am a Democrat" and to articulate what that means, are not among his virtues. We have competing ideas in a democracy -- and hence competing parties -- for a reason. To paper them over and pretend they do not exist, particularly when the ideology of one of the parties has proven so devastating to the lives of everyday Americans, is not a virtue. It is an abdication of responsibility.
What happens if you refuse to lay the blame for the destruction of our economy on anyone -- particularly the party, leaders, and ideology that were in power for the last 8 years and were responsible for it? What happens if you fail to "brand" what has happened as the Bush Depression or the Republican Depression or the natural result of the ideology of unregulated greed, the way FDR branded the Great Depression as Hoover's Depression and created a Democratic majority for 50 years and a new vision of what effective government can do? What happens when you fail to offer and continually reinforce a narrative about what has happened, who caused it, and how you're going to fix it that Americans understand, that makes them angry, that makes them hopeful, and that makes them committed to you and your policies during the tough times that will inevitably lie ahead?
The answer was obvious a year ago, and it is even more obvious today: Voters will come to blame you for not having solved a problem you didn't create, and you will allow the other side to create an alternative narrative for what's happened (government spending, deficits, big government, socialism) that will stick. And it will particularly stick if you make no efforts to prevent it from starting or sticking.
Were Massachusetts voters reacting in part to the health care debate turned debacle? Sure. In a misguided effort to avoid the mistakes of 1993, the President decided that leadership on health care wasn't in his job description and encouraged the Democrats to make their sausage in public, after making his own deals with the same people who brought us pre-existing conditions and $150 prescriptions (and that's with insurance). He promised transparency, and he gave the country a huge dose of it. Unfortunately, what was transparent turned people's stomachs.
The White House allowed the health care narrative to be all about process, and the process the American people saw wasn't pretty. It scared seniors, who worried what would happen to their Medicare. It scared workers, who worried about what would happen to the plans their unions had negotiated so hard for in lieu of salaries. It scared middle class Americans with good health insurance plans, who had -- and have -- no idea whether their plans will be deemed -- if not today, in three or four years -- Cadillacs, which will first be taxed and then discontinued, leaving them with exactly what Frank Luntz told them it would leave them with: a bureaucrat between them and their doctor. And worst of all, it seemed to most Americans that the reason they were being asked to make such potentially big sacrifices was so that health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and millionaires wouldn't have to. It seemed not only risky but unfair.
So in that sense, the story of health insurance played right into the story that lies behind the looming tsunami that swept away Ted Kennedy's Senate seat and will sweep away so many more Democratic seats if the Democrats draw the wrong conclusions from this election. The White House just couldn't seem to "get" that the American people could see that they were constantly coming down on the side of the same bankers who were foreclosing people's homes and shutting off the credit to small business owners, when they should have been helping the people whose homes were being foreclosed and the small businesses that were trying to stay afloat because of the recklessness of banks that were now starving them. Americans were tired of hearing Obama "exhort" bankers and speculators to play nice as they collected their record bonuses for a heckuva job in 2009. It took him a year to float the idea of making them pay for a fraction of the damage they had done, and at this point, few Americans have any faith that a tax on big banks will ever become law or that the costs won't just be passed on to them in new fees.
The White House has squandered the greatest opportunity to change both the country and the political landscape since Ronald Reagan. It should have started with a non-watered-down stimulus package big enough to stop the bleeding in the job market -- and a smack-down of any Republican who dared to utter the word "deficit" after 8 years of reckless, unpaid Republican spending. It should have followed with stringent regulations on Wall Street and protection of homeowners and small businesses instead of with a jobs creation program inside the administration for failed bankers and failed regulators. A stimulus -- including a jobs program -- strong enough to prevent the hemorrhaging of 700,000 jobs a month and a muscular approach to the bad actors who had crashed the economy would have gotten the public firmly behind the President and the Democrats, demonstrating to the average voter that they have a choice between one party that's on their side and another that's not. Instead, the White House just blurred the lines between the parties so the average American couldn't tell the difference.
With all its efforts to tack to the center, the White House missed the point. The issue isn't about right or left. It's about whose side you're on. In Massachusetts, the voters believe they know. It's now up to the President and his party to convince the American people otherwise.
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