Friday, January 22, 2010

Obama: the dream dies

A year after the ecstatic spectacle of Obama's nomination, and more than a year after the Republicans were overthrown in some surprising new places, the Democrats have lost the previously safe senatorial seat of Massachusetts, lately the fiefdom of the late Ted Kennedy. This spells the end of Obama's 'healthcare reform' in its current, pathetic, version. Nancy Pelosi has made this clear: "I just don't see the votes," she has said. Her Democratic confederates largely agree. It looks as if, predictably, the massive public consensus in favour of healthcare reform, has once more been squandered. This was the Republicans' hope when it became clear that candidate Scott Brown was leading the polls. He told his suburban voting base that if they wanted to scupper this socialistic abomination, he would be the vital 41st vote for Republican filibusters.

The 'debate', if I may speak loosely, over healthcare reform was one that acted as a lightning rod for right-wing hysteria about high government spending and taxes. Relatively rich GOP voters identified their class interests in terms of lower taxes, a smaller state, and less handouts for the lazy bums. (Didn't those irresponsible, impoverished, often black folks cause this crisis through their subprime borrowing? Isn't it time to reintroduce red-lining and free up the police to deal with the inevitable crime spree among this hapless bunch, rather than lining their pockets with other people's hard-earned cash?) Scott Brown knew this, and evidently recognised that the best way to package some dog-whistling over the issue would be to give it an impeccably liberal imprimatur. His campaign crafted the successful 'JFK ad', which segued JFK spelling out his Keynesian tax cuts programme from 1962 into Scott Brown explaining that lower taxes would equal more jobs - he even delivered a concise account of the 'multiplier effect', though I suspect this was a coded appeal to 'trickle down' economics. The great majority of polls taken after the ad was aired put Brown ahead. Notably, Brown won in some of the areas with highest unemployment. One thirty-second slot would by no means have been enough to do the job. What really mattered was the disillusionment of Democratic voters. The turnout, though reasonable for a 'special' election, was way down on 2008, and fell most dramatically in the most Democratic areas:

In President Obama’s strongest areas — towns where he received more than 60 percent of the vote — the number of voters was about 30 percent below 2008 levels. In the rest of the state, the number of voters was down just 25 percent. In Boston — one of the strongest areas for Democrats — the number voting fell 35 percent.

The Democratic base, in other words, was just not mobilised. Lance Selfa, author of a critical history of the Democrats, asks why this was. It is easy to blame the lousy performance of Croakley, or whatever her name was. Her campaign treated the race as a coronation, at a time when voters are angry. But if right-wing voters are exercised by 'socialism', liberal voters had little to be excited about. In November 2008, they voted for a healthcare programme with a public option, lower insurance premiums, and universal coverage. What they were offered was a system that provided government enforced subsidies to the insurance and healthcare companies, lacked a public option, compelled people who might not be able to afford it to buy insurance policies, and didn't offer universal coverage. The healthcare industry, which had co-drafted the legislation, saw its stocks soar on Wall Street as soon as the legislation was finalised.

The unpopularity of Obama's proposals cannot be reduced to right-wing hysteria, which is only persuasive for about a fifth of Americans and two-thirds of Republicans. Such shrill nonsense motivates a right-wing base and, for that reason, cannot be dismissed - but let's get some perspective here. For a start, Americans hate the current healthcare system. The majority in poll after poll favours something like a single-payer or national insurance health system. That isn't reflected in every poll, of course, but the overwhelming trend is for Americans to prefer a government-run health system to the private, heavily subsidised, system. Secondly, this is Massachusetts we're talking about here. This is a state where a powerful majority voted 'yes' on a ballot initiative favouring a single payer system in 2008. The vote against the Democrats in their heartland was not a vote against socialised medicine, because that is not what was on offer. And despite the slavishly positive spin put on the proposed legislation by Democratic congresspersons, even many of the pro-Obama progressives hated it, and were deeply disillusioned by it. Even Arianna Huffington, bless her Coca-Cola advertising slots, has declared the end of hope.

The current polling status of congressional Democrats is pitiful, hovering at about the same level of popularity as the Bush administration in its lowest ebb. Obama's popularity has also sank, if not to the same lows. This rapid dissipation, after only 12 months, reflects a class anger. As Selfa points out, the president who won on the basis of a claim to represent Main Street rather than Wall Street (ho ho!) is widely understood to represent his major backers:

A September 2009 Economic Policy Institute poll asked a national sample of registered voters to say who they thought had "been helped a lot or some" from the policies the administration enacted. The result: 13 percent said the "average working person," 64 percent identified "large banks," and 54 percent said "Wall Street investment companies."

Obama knows this perfectly well, which is why he was blustering some while back about not running for office to serve a bunch of fat cat Wall Street bankers, and may also explain some of his tentative moves to lightly tax and regulate the parasites. Indeed, in the wake of the loss of Massachusetts, Obama has talked up his reforms yesterday, promising a 'fight' with Wall Street firms who tried to sink his proposals. These are not radical reforms - if the multi-millionaire Tory shadow chancellor George Osborne approves of them, they aren't that radical. But the president's combative language at least suggests that he is aware of where his weakness lies. This electoral pressure is important, though it is nothing compared to a mass movement. And I would contrast the miserable healthcare reforms with the surprisingly good proposals for immigrant rights reform, which comes on the back of pressure from a well-organised campaign rooted in labour and the migrants themselves, despite the latter's difficulties with organising under the ICE jackboot. This tells us that the Democrats are susceptible, if only at some remove and with considerable reluctance, to pressure from the left. In that light, the best thing that could happen to the electoral coalition that swept Obama to power is that they stop hoping, and start fighting.