Nov 29 2009

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  • Amid all the predictions of success from Democrats regarding their health care reform efforts, there is another less tangible, but perhaps more important reason that the Democratic leadership wants the issue wrapped up before the end of the year.
  • You see, if the Democrats don’t come together and pass something called “heath care,” 2009 will have been one of the least productive “first years” for a new Administration in modern memory. Worse still, barring passage of a health care, the only other major legislation that Obama sought and Congress passed was the gargantuan and colossally wasteful Stimulus bill; hardly the stuff of a sturdy record going into mid-term elections.
  • The lack of progress is all the more frustrating for Democrats given their tight monopoly on power.
  • President Obama is the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to win more than 50% of the popular vote.1 Nancy Pelosi has won an astonishing 66 seats in the last two election cycles, and enjoys a 256-178 advantage over the Republicans.2 In the Senate, Harry Reid has 58 confirmed Democrats and two Independents – Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut – that caucus with the Democrats, providing a filibuster-proof majority.3
  • To understand how truly formidable these majorities are, consider that Republicans have never held 60 votes in the US Senate throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The elections in 1928 – 81 years ago – were the last time that the Republicans held united control of the government with majorities approaching that of today’s Democrats; with a Republican president, 56 Senate seats and 267 seats in the House.4
  • That said, a more detailed review of the Democratic majorities shows plainly why President Obama has not been successful in obtaining his legislative goals.
  • Simply put, Obama is acting like a typical base politician, governing from his liberal roots. In structuring proposals for economic stimulus, Cap N’ Trade and health insurance reform, POTUS has handed the pen to the most liberal lawmakers in Congress, and supported the bills that have resulted.
  • As the Administration has increasingly struggled with the competing priorities of so many initiatives, the docket remains full with fresh government interventions through Union card check legislation, financial regulatory reform and immigration reform in the wings. Democrats who criticize the president for not going far enough, or in taking on enough issues – gay rights and gun control stand out for the emerging attention they are receiving from special interests – seem oblivious to how far ranging, orthodox and liberal the Obama program genuinely is. All the while,  polls consistently show that the economy and jobs remain the nation’s #1 priority.5
  • To see the lack of balance, consider that on measures that have moved through the House this year, Obama has been able to attract little if any Republican support for his program. At the same time he has hemorrhaged votes from his own Party; 44 on Cap N’ Trade and 39 on health care. More amazing, 64 Democrats voted in favor of an amendment added to the health insurance reform bill that would limit the use of funds for abortion; a litmus test issue for many Democrats.6
  • Consider the House of Representatives. 49 of Speaker Pelosi’s 256 members are middle of the road centrists, many who have joined the moderate “Blue Dog” coalition. Without those votes, Mrs. Pelosi is 11 votes shy of a majority.
  • That is what makes the starkly liberal legislation pushed forward by the Democratic leadership such a challenge and why ongoing fights over abortion, Cap N’ Trade and a health care “public option” have created such upheaval.
  • Media reports to the contrary, this is not a Democrat vs. Republican challenge; this is a Democrat vs. Democrat challenge.  A sustained Obama appeal to his base has complicated matters for his own Party, and begun to alienate voters who thought Obama would usher in an era of “post-partisanship, particularly among independents.
  • The same is true in the Senate. Reid has 60 votes, which leaves him nothing to spare, but crucially provides the ability to shut down debate and pass legislation, so long as he has his caucus is in line. But like the House, what Reid and his colleagues are proposing is philosophically to the left of many members of the Senate Democratic caucus.
  • We know some of the names because they have been so prominent in the health care debate. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.
  • But looking at National Journal’s rankings of members by vote, it becomes clear that there are a number of moderates well to the right of the Democratic leadership, including: Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and even Max Baucus, who shepherded the Senate Finance Committee version of health care. All of these members would be potentially available for more mainstream versions of legislation that the President has proposed.
  • And then there is Joe Lieberman.
  • Do the math and we see that legislation that is able to gain traction within the Republican caucus suddenly provides the basis for a filibuster-proof majority.
  • Like any victorious Party after a thorough rout of their opponents, no one in the Democratic leadership was thinking compromise a year ago. As previously noted, Democrats held extraordinary power – but in the end it was only on paper.
  • A more extensive review of the make-up of the Democratic majority may have been a caution sign to Team Obama to move more deliberately and from the center.  It did neither.
  • Election 2008 is well behind us. But both presidential candidates promised change, to break partisan gridlock and introduce reform. We now have a chance to see in practice what one version of that vision looks like. How tantalizing it is then, in a bubble of legislation only, to consider what a McCain victory with the same Congress might have produced.
  • As this Journal pointed out during the heat of the campaign, of the two men, only McCain had a record or reaching across the aisle, and doing so, time and again, at considerable political peril to himself.  Obama had not – and since the election has not – put himself in a similar position.
  • For example, imagine a McCain stimulus.  Extended unemployment and health benefits to assuage Nancy Pelosi, and aid to state governments to keep first responders on the job. Maybe even “shovel ready” projects that were actually shovel ready.
  • But in return, a “President” McCain would have looked to stimulate the economy through the private sector. A review of McCain’s campaign promises yields the following; a cut in the corporate income tax from 35% to 25%, doubling the tax exemption for dependents, establishing a 10% tax credit on wages of R&D workers, a first year tax write off for new equipment and technology.
  • McCain promised to keep current tax rates on dividends and capital gains, to provide stability and assurance for investors. Moreover, he would have vetoed any bill with earmarks, temporarily halted discretionary spending to allow for a review of waste and fraud in a sustained effort to control the deficit.
  • Given the partisan make up described above, he would have fractured Pelosi’s majority much the way Ronald Reagan did with Democrats in 1981, attracting bipartisan support for such a bill.7
  • What about Cap N’ Trade? McCain has been supportive of many different cap and trade bills, but his primary focus during the campaign was on energy independence. To that end, he supported multiple technologies and approaches that both weaned the US off foreign energy sources, but did so without depleting or rationing US energy to meet artificial climate change targets that would adversely affect US economic growth, innovation and jobs.
  • During the campaign, McCain supported clean coal technology, more nuclear plants, expanded domestic oil  drilling, encouraging alternative fuels and promoted advanced energy technology. McCain’s goals would, again, have attracted a broad cross section of Congress, capturing those who want to be free of Middle East oil and moderate climate change enthusiasts.8
  • And McCain’s innovations in health care insurance reform could not possibly have less support than the current Obama-nation, government-run and controlled health care legislation.
  • As with Obama, McCain would have sought radical medicine for the health insurance challenges in America.  But McCain’s immediate focus would have been cost control, not extended coverage, and based in  private sector competition, not government control, which is the reverse of President Obama.
  • The McCain strategy would have provided tax credits to individuals to buy private insurance, expand health savings accounts and instituting tort reform to end defensive medicine and unnecessary tests and procedures. In addition, McCain supported an open insurance market across state lines to invigorate competition and bring prices down.9
  • Given his history of compromise, McCain could have realistically supported a ban on caps on insurance coverage, introduction of portability and the creation of pools of insurance to ensure that no one is denied coverage for pre-existing conditions.
  • If consumer choice and competition did not drive costs down sufficiently, it is likely that McCain would have agreed to a trigger for federal subsidies for the poorest – offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget to keep the increased spending deficit neutral. And perhaps there would even be  a trigger for a public option for the poorest – but only after Medicare and Medicaid had been put on a road to solvency, restoring public trust in public medicine.10
  • Yes, yes, there is no doubting the significant amount of speculation that is dedicated to a McCain plan that did not happen, but the facts are grounded in McCain’s own proposals from the campaign.
  • Given those proposals and his historical willingness to compromise, even at the risk of angering his base, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Team McCain would have come closer to finishing three major bills dealing with the economy, energy and health care insurance with bipartisan majorities. The hard left and the hard right would probably be foaming at the mouth, but the durable center-right – where the country continues to reside, outside of NY and LA, would be satisfied.
  • Moreover, as a deficit hawk and private sector supporter, McCain debt would not be projected in the trillions for years to come, and the UAW would not currently own GM through a bankruptcy forced on investors by the government. We would be talking about common sense regulation of financial markets to restore confidence, not to micromanaging them. McCain would have incentivized economic growth through recognition of the profit motive, instead of demonizing wealth and taxing it on every occasion.
  • The walk through the hypothetical is instructive for Team Obama as the Administration heads into Year #2. 
  • The numbers prove that the current Obama approach is failing.
  • President Obama has gone from a 65% approval rating on January 21st to 46% approval rating on November 26th.11
  • 62% of voters believe that the nearly $ 1 trillion Stimulus bill has had no effect or a negative effect on the economy.12By 56-35% Americans disapprove of the President’s health care insurance reform efforts.13 With trillion dollar deficits projects for the next several years, 67% of voters want a balanced budget.14 With unemployment at the highest point in 26 years, voters in almost every survey list the economy and jobs as their top priority, while Washington dithers on health care and Cap N’ Trade.
  • The disconnect is real, profound and growing.
  • As he plans for a tough beginning for 2010, President Obama would do well to look at the real coalition majorities in Congress and pivot accordingly on policy initiatives for 2010 and beyond; both for the sake of the nation, and the sake of his congressional majority. In any event, it would make for interesting practice in dealing with the growing potential for a Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell.

1. Almanac of American Politics

2. Office of the Clerk, House of Representatives

3. Ibid

4. Ibid

5. CNN-Opinion Research 11/12-15/09

6. www.thomas.gov – HR 3200

7. McCain Campaign Literature

8. Ibid

9. Ibid

10. Ibid

11. Rasmussen Reports

12. Washington Post Poll 11/12-15

13. Rasmussen Reports

14. CNN-Opinion Research 11/13-15


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