Massachusetts Debacle

The defeat of Martha Coakley in the race to succeed Ted Kennedy certainly shows the folly of taking victory for granted and failing to mount a serious campaign. But it also puts on display the complete political incompetence of the Obama administration and the national leadership of the Democratic Party and the Congress.

How else to explain the squandering of an overwhelming electoral victory, scarcely a year ago? How else to explain handing victory to a party that created the economic crisis and got us into two disastrous wars? How can it be that Obama has simultaneously managed to discourage and alienate his own liberal base, while allowing the Republicans to terrify the moderates?

The fundamental strategic error of the Obama White House was to persist in the effort to work with Republicans after it became clear that the GOP leadership was determined to oppose him at every turn, and to block him if they could. By continuing to compromise in hopes of gaining Republican votes, he hopelessly diluted, polluted, and delayed the Health Care plan, with no gain in GOP votes, but with a distinct loss of enthusiasm and commitment on the part of his base.

At the same time, though, the Health Care plan retained enough features (like the mandate on individuals to have health insurance coverage) that the Republicans and Tea-Party types could distort in order to frighten senior citizens, or anyone already satisfied with their coverage. Thus Obama could be simultaneously condemned by liberals and the left for failing to fulfill his promises of radical change, and demonized by the right for being a totalitarian socialist. It is not possible to bring about the sort of sweeping change he envisioned by means of consensus and compromise.

Obama simply failed to use his substantial rhetorical ability to effectively make his own case, either on health care or on the economy. He thus permitted his opponents to define him. He also failed to exert enough leadership in Congress on the health care issue, learning too much from the Clinton debacle of 1993. For an entire year, he had no specific plan to put before the public to counter the opposition’s wild accusations. With more direction early on, he could have brought a bill through both houses much sooner, and allowed himself and the Democrats more time to educate the public about it.

Well, what to do now? I believe Obama has now forfeited the chance to be a truly progressive president. He must now, as Clinton did, make his peace with the Republicans as best he can. If he does it now, he may salvage Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, and not be doomed, as Clinton was, to six years of Republican majorities. If he does it now, he may be able to win reelection, particularly since the Republicans will be emboldened to nominate some extreme right-winger like Palin, who could be accurately depicted as far from the thinking of the majority of Americans.

john-peeler.gifIf, on the other hand, he finally finds his voice as a progressive, he might please many in his base (including me), but he would be blocked at every turn in Congress, and easily beaten in 2012. The time to have taken a forthright progressive stand was last year, when he had popular and congressional support. He could have pushed through measures that could be touted as improving the lot of average Americans. Instead, he tried to be a conciliatory visionary. Now, he won’t be able to push though anything without Republican acquiescence.

It’s hard to believe one special election could change everything.

John Peeler

Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Bucknell University

LA Progressive


  1. George says

    I live on the left coast and haven’t a clue whether Massachusettians are really gunhappy redneck racists or mentally disturbed or just dim bulbs, but the one thing that is very clear is that the American system is fatally flawed. Parliamentary systems work better in their cumbersome manner because they are capable of including many voices. In our system, the two parties have to split close to the middle and it is worthwhile for the big money to pour enormous effort into each crucial race. They can’t do that so easily where diverse coalitions are required.

    Voters are mostly flat-screen morons with no concept of enlightenment values or even the Constitution. They go for any decent line repeated often enough on the screen. The US will probably become a Bible-thumping version of free-market paradises like China or Haiti as a result, and they will still think it is the best of all possible worlds because every alternative is worse according to Fox News.

  2. John Peeler says

    Thanks to all the readers so far. I agree that the Democratic Party is a weak vessel for those who want sweeping progressive change in the country, & groups like MoveOn are essential to keep the pressure on. And while I lament Obama’s hesitancy to depart radically from Bush policy on many issues, I don’t agree that there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats. I don’t care how disappointed I am in Obama, he is not George W. Bush. We are stuck in a political system that entrenches Republicans & Democrats & makes it impossible for alternative parties to gain mass support, a system in which money rules and supports the two major parties. Look at what happened to the Libertarian, Joe Kennedy, in Massachusetts: he got a lousy 1% of the vote. Obama’s bungling has allowed the Republicans to fundamentally change the political climate, such that if he takes a hard left line now, he’ll be crushed in the next election. Last year, that wasn’t the case, but he failed to seize the moment.

    We need to simultaneously support the Dems against the Reps, AND work to build a stronger left. If we don’t do the former, we’ll have Sarah Palin & co. ahead as far as we can see. If we don’t do the latter, the Dems will have no incentive to be other than Republican-lite.

    • Walter Ballin says

      John, Contrary to what you said, if Obama will get a decent health care reform package through Congress now and if he and the Democratic Congress quickly pass big programs to put people to work and if as a result of the high unemployment rate is reduced, that will drastically prevent the Democrats from losing several seats in Congress next November. If Obama fights for us, with improvement in the economy his popularity will rise again. If Obama does not do the above, the Democrats will surely lose several seats in Congress next November and the Repugs might very well have the majority again. If the economy does not improve by 2012 and Obama’s current policies are not helping to bring that about, Obama will be a one-term President. Bill Clinton was able to get a 2nd term, because although not great the economy was far better than it is now. One other point that I have to add is that about half of the Massachusetts voters who voted for Obama in 2008 but voted for Repug Brown in last weeks Senate election said that the Senaete passed health reform bill did not go far enough

      • Walter Ballin says

        I forgot to mention that Obama must insist that the Repugs in the Senate along with traitor Joe Lieberman and the blue dogs, not be allowed to filibuster his programs. He must insist on a majority vote. There’s nothing in the Constitution about a filibuster. Past Democratic Presidents such as FDR, JFK, and LBJ never would have allowed their opposition to do torpedo their programs the Obama has allowed his opposition to do so.

  3. says

    JOhn Peeler seems MOST concerned about keeping a Democratic Party majority in Congress–but, TO WAHT END? If democrats ACT LIKE REPUBLICANS, wtf REAL differnce does it make? SO far we have people with a D by their name as a CONGRESSIONAL MAJORITY AND IN THE WHITE HOUSE and these re the results: STILL in 2 FAILED WARS–with Afghanistan ESCALATED AND EXPANDING INTO PAKISTAN; TORUTRE CONTINUES & Obama helps COVER IT UP;Banksters GET bonuses & HOMEONWERS GET FORECLOSED; mroe jobs gong away;STATE & LOCAL BUDGT=ETS cut cut cut–AND NOW oBAMA HAS A dEFICIT cOMMISSION” WITH THE AIM OF FIUGRING OUT HOW TO CUT Medicarem, Medicaid, and Social Secuity.

    Might as well be REPUBLICANS in Congress…NOTHING HAS CHANGED–exept for the WORSE. The Democratic Party is BANKRUPT. RALPH NADER KEEPS ON BEING PROVED CORRECT–I voted for him in 1996 & 2000. WISH I’d voted for him in 2004 & 2008. Obama is a slick sellout that makes Bill Clinton look like an amateur.

  4. says

    Raul Emanuel said a few months ago that the administration wasn’t concerned about Progressives because “they have no (other) place to go” or some such. Well, yes they and I do have other places to go. The money that I donated to Obama and other democrats can stay in my pocket, go to MoveOn, and/or go to progressive candidates who will stay with the program that got them elected when they win. Two nights ago some right wing acquaintances accosted me at a meeting and were chortling because they were pulling for Smith and thought he would win. I fought back saying that we need national healthcare, (medicare for all), the EFCA, and other really progressive policies to be enacted and implemented and that the rich should be taxed to pay for the changes. They then said that I was for “class warfare” because that is what taxing the wealthy means. I responded that when the rich, Dems and GOPers, attack medical care, SSI, unions, and other progressive agendas that are to benefit the poor and the working class middle income population it is “class war” and bring it on. I honestly must say that I don’t care if the rich live or die just so their money is seized and used for the commonweal. When the rich and their minions such as Raul Emanuel prevent medicare for all, cut social programs and work to benefit the wealthy then they are killing people like me, my friends and social class, and my parents who died quite poor after a long life of very hard work. If the Demos won’t work for the people then we have to work to create a party that will. They take our money and then p__s on our boots. Enough.

  5. Sam Adams says

    Joe Weinstein is right on! Obama is the political equivalent of Bernie Madoff. It might be said, too, that those who voted for Obama, believing that he would effect change, are analogous to Madoff’s hapless, magically-thinking victims. One only had to view Obama’s campaign web site from day one or listen to his drastically revised platform in the last few weeks before the election to understand where candidate Obama really was coming from. His transition team and cabinet appointments were the icing on the evidentiary cake.

    As Durant and Weinstein point out, progressives can’t look to the Democratic Party politicos and apparatchiki to guide the nation on a humane, just, egalitarian course. We have to get off of our comfortable couches and either hijack the Party, purge it of its corrupt functionaries, and provide collective, cooperative, commonweal-oriented leadership, ourselves, or start a new party with the same guiding principles. In other words it’s ¡a las barricadas! (at least metaphorically). Otherwise, we might just as well quit our bitching, sit back to our blogging, and enjoy the crumbs of relative ease, wealth, and tranquility that the American plutocracy tosses us.

  6. says

    Commenter Durant is telegraphic but accurate.

    For his part, writer Peeler has accurately described the past year, but in his advice for the future he operationally contradicts himself.

    Correctly – and regardless of when and what were or will be Obama’s “progressive” opportunities – Peeler has laid out the basic fact that congressional Republicans (like, by the way, the Iranian and N Korean regimes and all the Islamic jihadists) are not interested in lovey-dovey compromises. They’ll ‘engage’ just for the purpose of running out the clock and thereby taking extra delight in being extra sure you get nowhere.

    In this, they haven’t really changed since the Rove/Cheney/GW Bush days.

    So even now there is no percentage for Obama or anyone in following Peeler’s belated and self-contradictory advice to now make up nice with Republicans. Not only will Democratic majorities thereby not be helped to be ‘saved’, but even if they are somehow ‘saved’ there will be no point to them.

  7. Durant says

    He is a moderate Republican Clintonite and never the hope progressives thought coming. I voted for Nader. He sold us out and the Democrats sold us out. Being more Republican will just make it worse. The majority of the country want the wars ended. He went on a pro-war rant accepting his “Peace” prize. We wanted war criminals in jail. We have to look forward not back. We wanted to see Banksters in jail. Instead they get bonuses. The Republicans ideal of government is Haiti. The Democrats believe in nothing but lining their pockets with lobbyist money. Both parties rot and are destroying the country. Emmanuel, Reid, Pelosi, and Obama are utter failures.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *