A week later, it still stings. It's not that the Democrats lost the congressional elections and the Republicans, despite making no sense on any issue, won them. No, it's because progressive policies lost without even being tried. Worse, their defeat reverberated all the way to Raleigh, where an increasingly right-wing Republican Party won control of the General Assembly and also—though it was close—all four of the critical elections for seats on the Wake County Board of Commissioners.
You know, it's one thing to challenge the hitters with your fastball and get beat. At least you gave it your best shot. But what if you were afraid to come with the heat and ended up walking every batter on dinks and drops that never crossed the plate? What-ifs are worse than useless because you can't know—but you do care—and the missed chances will haunt you.
Especially if you don't get a second chance.
That's my fear about the Obama administration. For two years, President Obama threw weak stuff at the Republicans, who had no trouble letting it go by, despite his entreaties from the mound that they should take a bipartisan swing at things. This is not what Republicans do. Didn't Obama read the scouting report? Republicans dig in, take pitches, wait you out and dare you to throw strikes. Oh, and they have their own umpires at Fox News to say that whatever you throw is in the dirt or you're ineligible to pitch anyway because you're not really an American.
Regardless, Obama pitched a less-than-robust economic stimulus package in the first month of his administration in hopes of inducing a bipartisan response from the GOP's heavy hitters. At the time, we reported what Bob Borosage, president of the progressive Institute for America's Future, had to say about it: "Conservatives argue the plan should be smaller and include more tax cuts. This is seriously wrongheaded. If anything, the plan should be larger and contain more public investment. Conservatives have learned nothing from the collapse of their economic policies and the decline of their political fortunes. By staying in obstructionist mode they are placing themselves on the wrong side of history."
Borosage was right about the economics, wrong on the politics. Obama settled for a too-small stimulus that was heavy on tax cuts, light on the kinds of jobs-producing infrastructure investments and public works projects that he'd talked so much about during the '08 campaign. How many Republican votes did he get? Zero in the House, three in the Senate. Last week, voters punished him for letting unemployment soar to 9.6 percent—and polls showed that they'd forgotten all about those tax cuts. They wanted to know where the jobs were.
Meanwhile, voters rewarded the Republicans for a campaign in which they blamed the economic collapse on government overspending and blamed Obama for doing it—despite the fact that it was President Bush's $2.5 trillion tax-cut package that caused most of the damage. Plus Bush's two unfunded wars and his unfunded Medicare prescription-drug program.
But what if Obama had followed through on another key campaign pledge: to fund health care reform by repealing the Bush tax cuts for the richest 2 percent of Americans, those making $250,000 a year and up? (And remember, higher taxes would've applied only to the portion of their earnings over $250,000.) That would've brought in an estimated $700 billion in additional revenues over 10 years and reduce the red ink—not to mention that it would've been just plain fair.
Higher taxes on the rich was another fastball Obama never threw, however, despite the fact that almost every Democrat in the country supported it. Instead, he aimed his $500 billion cutter at Medicare, a pitch he still claims was a strike (it just nicked the privatized corner called Medicare Advantage, Obama argued, while leaving the heart of the plate—er, program—untouched). Republicans screamed to Fox News that Obama's curveball was low and outside the mainstream, and last week senior voters endorsed the GOP's nonsensical dictum to "Keep the Government away from my Medicare."
You throw weak pitches, the fans start booing. Then you're yanked from the game—or your party is—at the mid-term elections and nobody ever sees the high, hard stuff you had: the true health care reform with the public option that you supported in your campaign but abandoned once elected; the labor-reforms you promised to strengthen workers' bargaining rights; the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell to advance gay rights; the DREAM Act to give the children of illegal immigrants a path out of second-class noncitizenship. Oh, and the jobs that were to come from investments in renewable energy, broadband infrastructure, and the traditional public works like railroads and bridges and the steel that goes in them.
Easy? Not at all. Is every pitch a strike? No way. You might get clobbered. On the other hand, though, two years in, you've been sent to the showers and nobody has a clue that the Republicans don't have a bat in the lineup. (Except maybe Sarah Palin in the cleanup spot.)
The shame of it is, we've seen this game before. Twice in my adult life, voters have been alarmed enough about the ineptitude of the Republican team—notwithstanding the money lavished on their campaigns by wealthy backers and the cheerleading by the corporate media—that they've elected a Democratic president with a Democratic Congress and told them, "Let's see what you can do."
The first time was Jimmy Carter in 1976, following Watergate. Carter was ahead of his time on renewable energy, but his economic policies were so weak—remember double-digit inflation?—that Carter was out after a single term.
Twelve years passed before a recession brought Bill Clinton to the White House in 1992 with a Democratic Congress. Clinton campaigned on promises of universal health care and jobs-producing public works investments. Once in office, though, his efforts to appease Wall Street and the health insurance industry caused both to fail. In the '94 midterms, voters rejected his weak efforts and put the Republicans back in charge of Congress for the remaining six years of his presidency. After that, Clinton backed the GOP on free trade (NAFTA) and free-wheeling bankers (the repeal of Glass-Steagall), which made the top 2 percent even richer while the middle class settled for steady employment at stagnant wage levels.
It took eight years of George W. Bush and a near-total meltdown on Wall Street before the voters turned again to the Democrats. After 2010, we could be in for a repeat of the Clinton experience: Obama's stimulus package (plus the Federal Reserve's enormous generosity to the banks) should be just enough to restore wealth to the wealthy, while the middle class muddles through and 7 percent unemployment becomes the new 5 percent.
In other words, the Democrats' chance to initiate the kinds of structural reforms needed to, in JFK's words, lift all the boats in the American economy, rather than just the yachts, may be lost for another six years—or 14.
Meanwhile, the Republicans will go to work in Washington and in Raleigh cutting budgets for social services, education and infrastructure. In Wake County, we can look forward to the advent of underfunded high-poverty schools and charter schools in the suburbs for those who can afford to live there. And it won't end until there's another Republican meltdown.
Yeah, it stings.