Entries from January 2010

What Kind of Senator Will Brown Be?

David Frum January 20th, 2010 at 3:34 pm 5 Comments

Boris Shor crunches the numbers and suggests – as liberal as Olympia Snowe.

Harper’s Dropping Numbers

January 20th, 2010 at 3:32 pm 3 Comments

A startling drop in the polls for Canada’s  Conservative party, has both pollsters and pundits pondering the reason. Or, rather, pondering an explanation.

The true “reason” for the demise in political popularity may have nothing to do with what the people who specialize in giving explanations after the fact, say about the situation.

Last fall, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were 12 to 15 points ahead of the Liberals (depending on which poll you trusted) and in majority territory if an election were held.

The conventional explanation for the difference was that Liberal leader  Michael Ignatieff was too unconnected with voters, that he hadn’t campaigned all summer to woo support, that he was too arrogant, elitist and Toronto-oriented.

Ignatieff  hasn’t done much since then to change his style, other then embark on his present tour of universities hoping to shore up intellectual support – as if that’ll wow the Joe the Plumbers who comprise Canada’s working stiffs.

So how to rationalize current polls that show Tories and Liberals roughly even at around 30%? Harper hopes his cabinet shuffle will correct that. It won’t, but it’s a try.

A widely accepted explanation is that voters are angry that Harper prorogued – suspended – Parliament until March, thereby cutting off debate (and opposition criticism) over Canadian soldiers turning over Taliban insurgents they captured to Afghan authorities who might (undoubtedly did) mistreat or torture them.

The PM, defence minister, and a passel of generals accept responsibility but blame others, insisting they weren’t told (but should have known anyway). Their poor-mouthing the diplomat in Afghanistan (Richard Colvin) who reported such abuse (though he hadn’t witnessed any), supposedly has turned the public off the Tories, and boosted Liberals at the polls.

If you ask me, it’s a bunch of hogwash.

Canada’s Parliament traditionally takes long Christmas and summer breaks that are only dreamed of by working Canadians. When Parliament is on such breaks, the country cruises amiably along, generally at peace with itself and relieved that the squabbling and acrimony of Parliament is muted for a time.

Looked at objectively, and compared with almost any other country anywhere, Canada is faring better than most in this time of recession and economic unease. When confronted, most Canadians realize their fortune.

They realize too – and when asked, polls show it – that while Stephen Harper isn’t as warm and fuzzy as they might like, he’s a damn good administrator, has no shortage of ideas, isn’t inclined to panic, and runs the government pretty effectively, albeit a trifle dogmatically and high-handedly. Not a bad trade off. No rival matches his leadership.

What may give him trouble when he decides to call an election (which no one really wants), is his apparent fading support for our military in Afghanistan.

Canada is due to remove all combat troops by next year, regardless of the situation. If not exactly cut-and-run, it’s as Conrad Black recently wrote — a policy of “We’ve done enough.” This is not acceptable in an on-going war against terror that must be won, or at least resolved. Barack Obama sees this (finally), and he is right.

It may well be an election issue for Canada, but for the moment, Harper’s  unusually quick response to Haiti’s earthquake will likely stop bleeding at the polls. Meanwhile, proroguing continues.

Happy Birthday to Us

David Frum January 20th, 2010 at 3:30 pm 2 Comments

Today is this site’s one year anniversary. Like a neglectful parent, I’m not home for the party: I’m in Caracas Venezuela on a lecture tour sponsored by the Conciencia Activa Foundation and the U.S. Department of State. But we at FrumForum.com could not have asked for a better birthday present than the Scott Brown election result – a dramatic putting into effect of exactly the kind of moderated style and tone and refocus on economic issues that we’ve urged here since Day 1. There’s still a long way to go. But what a way we’ve come!

Obama Faces His Limits

January 20th, 2010 at 3:20 pm 1 Comment

Today the country awakened to a snapshot of clarity. Not the moral clarity that comes back to bite, but the clarity that comes with a cold winter sun shimmering on a frozen New England pond. Massachusetts’ voters spoke:  Ted Kennedy is gone, say a requiem for Obamacare, let’s deal with the realities of joblessness, and deficits, and please, Democrats, stop acting like you know better than the rest of us what is best for us.

Whether the White House and the Congress “get it” remains to be seen. The first indications are mixed. On the one hand, Congressman Barney Frank and Senator James Webb are making the kinds of noises that give one hope that these lessons are being learned.  Last night, Frank issued a statement that indicated that you can’t force things on the public that it doesn’t want. Early today, Webb said that the Senate should not take up healthcare until Massachusetts Senator-elect Scott Brown was seated. This is smart. This is political maturity.

Unfortunately, it is not clear that all are acting like grownups. In the run-up to yesterdays special election Speaker Pelosi vowed to pass healthcare, one way or another. The House Democratic campaign chair Chris Van Hollen made all the noises of being unmoved and unbowed.

At the White House there was a full press to localize the election loss and blame it on Coakley. Was Coakley a lame candidate? Yes. Was it simply about her? No.  Can I blame the White House for trying to distance itself from the debacle? No.  The White House must find the idea of Scott Brown sitting and watching the State of the Union Address from the floor of the House galling.

But the White House is ignoring the recent results in New Jersey and Virginia. There is a trend. The White House is pretending it didn’t hear the heckling in Boston.  It was there alright – much as Obama’s face clouded up when it didn’t go away.

The White House is also willfully forgetting the 1991 Democratic victory in the Special Election for the senate seat of the late John Heinz, when Democrat Harris Wofford beat former Pennsylvania Governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. Thornburgh’s loss was a harbinger of Bush 41′s loss a year later. Pennsylvania went Republican in ‘88, but was sending a message to the Elder Bush. The Bush White House heard the message, but failed to digest it.

So now Obama is in the same place. On a personal level, the country finds Obama likeable enough, as the Washington Post put it this morning. But his policies are meeting growing skepticism and resistance. Oddly, in the face of all this, Obama is preliminarily vowing to fight on. For what? To what end?

At this juncture, healthcare is close to unsalvageable. The House can either pass the Senate Bill or push for reconciliation. For House Dems, the Senate Bill is too pork laden, too fiscally conservative, and insufficiently pro-life unless you’re pro-choice.

As for reconciliation, its chances are too iffy and the process, at this juncture too anti-democratic.
Even trying to ram healthcare through will further transform Reid and Pelosi into caricatures of who they are – an ex-boxer who has seen too many rounds and the nation’s ward heeler in chief.

Meanwhile, the White House is saying that it doesn’t want to play small ball. Sounds like Bush 43 redux.

There is wisdom in incrementalism. As Dirty Harry said, a man has to know his limitations.

In the next 9 months we will find out how smart Obama and Company really are.

Did the Dems Get the Message?

January 20th, 2010 at 2:19 pm 17 Comments

Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts Senate race vastly complicates the House-Senate discussions on the healthcare bill. I don’t think Pelosi or Reid will get the message (yes, they are completely politically deaf), so I expect they will keep driving left, but I am not sure all the so-called moderate Democrats will stay with them. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) said on television that he “feared the Democrats’ policy plans had gone too far to the left.” Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) said it “would only be fair and prudent that we suspend further votes on healthcare legislation until Brown is seated.”  That is just the beginning and it will irritate Pelosi and Reid no end.

There will be a lot of political arm twisting and there will be a lot of fear. The message is — if this can happen in Massachusetts, it can happen anywhere no matter how liked, loved or well funded a Member is. So I think some Democratic members will become even more nervous and will make the job of compromising to attain 218 and 60 votes respectively that much harder. That is especially true because Scott Brown’s victory is a victory for “independent” Republicans. He ran on a Republican platform, even life issues, which tells Republicans they can win with that message if they will actually follow through on it.

This of course will impact the leadership of both houses and their ability to get a health bill passed before Jan 27 when the President is due to give his State of the Union speech. And here I would like to make a point: in the Senate, the Republicans have a “conference” — the Leader of the Conference, Sen. McConnell, does have the power to persuade, to cajole, to bargain — but he does not have the unilateral power to assign committee seats, to distribute money to Senators or to Committees. All decisions of that nature are made by the Conference as a whole and are voted on by the Conference. On the other hand, the Democrats have a “caucus”—the leader of the caucus is Sen. Reid who does in fact have the power to assign people to committees, to distribute funds, to discipline his team. He has an enormous amount of power to make members accede to his demands. So Democrat members of either the House or the Senate will have some very unpleasant discussions in the not-too-distant future.

The White House and Democrat leadership are in a box—a self made box. They have said and they seem to believe that they must pass the healthcare bill no matter what. But the election in Massachusetts and what the members heard on their Christmas recess back home means that if the Democrats continue on the healthcare drive they will lose—and lose big. But to drop healthcare now means they will have nothing to show for all this effort—and will start the 2010 campaigns with nothing to show but a terrible economy, unimaginable debt and a war fought half-heartedly.  It will be interesting to watch who retires soon and who steps up to run for Senate in Indiana, Wisconsin and Oregon, seats which until now hadn’t been thought to be competitive.

I am told that the House Dems will not let the Senate bill pass — and not just because of the abortion language but because of the broader bill. The leadership may try to ram it through, but it won’t work. So the Dems are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

Here are some possibilities:

1. House passes Senate bill and it goes straight to the President for signature.

2. Finish the conference before Brown is seated (which may not be possible)

3. House doesn’t pass Senate bill, and it’s dead.

4. Attach something to budget and use reconciliation but the backlash will be brutal.

5. House tries to change Senate bill and sends back to Senate (highly unlikely)

But there is another issue that Scott Brown’s strategist Eric Fernstom highlighted in an interview with Robert Costa on NRO. Fernstrom said that their own internal polling showed that

‘the more potent issue here in Massachusetts was terrorism and the treatment of enemy combatants.’ … ‘Health care’, he says, ‘was helpful in fundraising, but it was the campaign’s focus on national security in the final week that he believes helped to give voters another issue to associate with Brown.’

And tonight in his victory speech, Brown got a huge ovation for saying that we ought to spend money buying weapons to kill terrorists, not hiring lawyers to defend them. That practical insight warms the heart of independents, moderate democrats and Republicans. And that wins.

The Biggest Loser

January 20th, 2010 at 8:51 am 6 Comments

Years ago, Martha Coakley told the Boston Globe that if things didn’t work out with her political career, she would “retire to Martha’s Vineyard and write murder mysteries.” Reason magazine’s Michael C. Moynihan recently quipped that he was looking forward to her literary debut.

Last night’s stunning defeat of a Democratic candidate who once led by 30+ points will have fallout. Of course, the Obama White House is likely to blame others first, and ask hard questions later. Among the early fall guys: the next great novelist from Martha’s Vineyard, much of anyone associated with the Republican Party, and maybe even the underwear bomber.

But in the coming weeks, with such a humiliating loss behind them, someone close to the President will pay dearly.

Here’s my bet: the geek with the charts.

OMB Dir. Peter Orszag is one of the most public faces to President Obama’s efforts to overhaul American healthcare.

He is also the person who’s run out of allies. He’s enraged liberals with his belief that health reform really is about “bending the curve” – to use his trademark expression – changing their moral crusade into a fiscal debate. And, as for the pragmatists in the Obama White House, Mr. Orszag is hopelessly associated now with the biggest domestic policy disaster since Hillary Clinton’s 1994 healthcare debacle.

For weeks, there have been rumors in Washington that the President is thinking about shaking up his economic team. Post-January 19 that may well mean that Mr. Orszag will be deciding to spend more time with his family.

Not All Politics is Local

January 20th, 2010 at 8:34 am Comments Off

Almost everybody who follows politics knows the late Tip O’Neill’s famous aphorism, “All politics is local.” What most folks don’t know about that statement is that O’Neill wasn’t describing an existing reality; he was describing a political strategy. The late House speaker was no fool. He knew that big chunks of the Democratic platform – gay rights, big spending at home, weakness and retreat abroad – were broadly unpopular with the American people. His solution: “localize” races to the extent possible. Deliver strong constituent service, bring home the bacon, be a familiar face to the home town folks. Do all those things, O’Neill believed, and no one will care how you vote in DC.

And it largely worked, for a long time. When Republicans were able to finally “nationalize” House races in 1994 and 2002, they won big. The Democrats were able to turn the trick themselves in 2006 and 2008, but with the help of an increasingly unpopular GOP administration that appeared generally incompetent and losing a war.

Now the wheel has turned again – and with astonishing speed. I lived in Massachusetts for two years around 20 years ago and, believe me, Massachusetts voters have taken more than their share of abuse since that time from a Democratic machine that has grown ever more bloated and ever more entitled. But Scott Brown’s landslide victory was clearly achieved by nationalizing the race around the most unexpected issue of all: healthcare. His campaign seems to have really taken off with the Christmas Eve vote in the Senate, enabled by the Cornhusker Kickback (which has grown so unpopular that Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson now, pathetically, wants to give it back.) The attempted terrorist bombing over Detroit the next day also didn’t help Coakley, who then, bizarrely, claimed there were no terrorists in Afghanistan.

But it was healthcare that did the trick. (Don’t believe it? President Obama didn’t even mention the subject during his Sunday speech in Boston.) Much as it pains me to agree with Barney Frank, he is almost certainly correct: Brown’s victory means the end of healthcare reform as we know it. Already, it appears Evan Bayh of Indiana and Jim Webb of Virginia are signaling they will not go along with any parliamentary shenanigans to jam the bill through. There will likely be more such declarations in the days to come.

What Obama did do was attack Scott Brown’s truck something like a dozen times in his speech on Sunday. I just saw a clip on Fox of John Kerry attacking the truck, too.

Truly, you can’t buy political tone deafness like that. The attacks on Scott Brown’s emblematic truck played into every elitist liberal stereotype there is. Roughly half the vehicles on America’s roads are trucks. (Put there, it should be noted, by liberal CAFE standards that made cars smaller and smaller.) And the people who drive them vote. Who on earth dreamed up this line of attack?

A word has to be said about the tea party activists and the incredible political maturity they displayed in this race. As David Frum has written, Sen. Scott Brown is likely to disappoint many of his more conservative supporters. I suspect many of them knew that going in, however, and supported him anyway as the only person who was likely to get elected in Massachusetts. Based on these results, those who think the tea party movement will split the GOP are likely to be disappointed.

So as Scott Brown heads for Washington, all I can say is: Keep on truckin’.

A Warning for the Dems and a Lesson for the GOP

January 20th, 2010 at 1:04 am 11 Comments

Scott Brown’s decisive win in the Massachusetts U.S. Senate race cannot help but create panic among the Democratic members of Congress, particularly those that represent moderate, swing districts.  The outcome of today’s special election will send shock waves, creating a sense that no one is safe in the current climate, which is fostered by an unpopular health care bill, high unemployment and an unpopular administration.

Clearly, with the loss of the 60th Democratic vote in the U.S. Senate, the result of this election will have implications for the passage of health care reform.  There have been rumblings that the Democratic led Senate will not seat the newly elected member until a health care bill has passed both bodies.  However, that does not appear to have wide acceptance within the Democratic Conference, as U.S. Senator Jim Webb, from Virginia, has just released a statement emphasizing that no further votes should be taken on health care until Senator-elect Brown is seated.  Senator Webb is on the right track, as Americans are sick and tired of the slick gamesmanship that Congress has been engaged in.  They want their representatives to be open and honest and all inclusive.

Assuming that Senator-elect Brown is seated in a timely manner, the Democrats have three options if they want to pass health care reform:

  1. The Democratic leadership can exert pressure on their House members to accept the Senate version of the bill.  (If the House passes the Senate bill as is, the bill does not have to go back to the Senate for another vote.)   The challenge with this option is that the Senate version of the bill differs significantly from the House version, as it does not provide for taxpayer funded abortions; it provides for full Medicaid funding for Nebraska (but no other state); and it taxes “Cadillac Health Plans”, which includes the labor unions’ health plans.  With the outcome of today’s Senate election, I believe that the House members will become risk averse and will be reluctant to vote for the Senate bill.
  2. Congress can pass a health care bill, through reconciliation and call it a victory.  The problem they have with this approach is that they would only get a small part of what they want and the bill would sunset several years from now.
  3. The Democratic Senate leadership can try to persuade Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, from Maine, or two other moderate Republicans to “join their team” and support their health care reform.

Keeping in mind that the House’s version of the bill passed by only four votes and that the House members are up for reelection this year, there may no longer be enough votes in the House to move forward with health care reform.

But, I don’t believe that, from a policy perspective, the outcome of this special election was due only to the deep opposition to the health care bills.  I believe that the unemployment rate in Massachusetts, among blue collar workers, was also a significant factor in the outcome of this election.

In an article in today’s Boston Globe, reporter Robert Gavin wrote that “the recession has been more like a depression for blue-collar workers”.  He cited that, “in Massachusetts, there are 65 unemployed construction and 24 jobless manufacturing workers for each available position, according to a new report by Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies.”  That compares to just two job seekers for every job in professional occupations.  He further reports that for blue-collar workers, matters are expected to worsen, remaining well below prerecession levels for years to come, according to the New England Economic Partnership.

These out of work individuals have watched the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress take the United States trillions of dollars deeper into debt, supposedly to stimulate the economy.  But they have seen no personal results, as they still do not have a job with almost no hope of securing one.  And that word – hope- is an important one.  I believe that the reason these voters who supported President Obama in 2008 are now turning away from him, is because he ran his campaign promising “the hope of a better future”, but these Americans have lost all hope of a better future, as they do not have the one thing that they need most – a job!  They are not only losing hope, they are also losing their dignity, which results in anger played out in the ballot box.  These votes are anti-establishment votes.

As for how this election will impact the Republican Party – Senator-elect Scott Brown, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie all proved that when Republican candidates focus on economic issues, they win. Republican coalitions must be built on economic issues, as low taxes, job creation, smaller and more efficient government, and a healthy economy are what Americans care most about, in the current economic climate.  That message is attractive to both the moderate and socially conservative arms of the Republican Party.

Brown’s Win a Lesson for Tea Partiers

January 20th, 2010 at 12:05 am 12 Comments

The Tea Party movement has finally done what FrumForum has long been urging: they supported a less dogmatic Republican in a moderate state. But how long will this detente between moderate and conservative factions in the GOP last?

Every Republican in the nation rejoiced tonight at the unexpected news that GOP State Senator Scott Brown was elected to replace the late Ted Kennedy.  Brown’s fundraising came largely through the wildly successful ‘moneybomb’ campaigns that he organized in the last week of the race, when Tea Partiers showed up in force to support the Republican that might provide the 41st vote against President Obama’s health care plan.

One of FrumForum’s most oft-repeated points is that the GOP must represent a big tent, and perhaps our most frequent criticism of the Tea Party movement is that they demand unblemished purity.

Tonight the Tea Party witnessed the spoils of allowing ideological flexibility; they learned the benefits of backing moderate candidates when they run in moderate jurisdictions.

After all, this is Massachusetts, and Senator-elect Scott Brown is no Tea Partier.

In an interview with FrumForum, Brown said he was a “Massachusetts Republican” who wouldn’t hesitate to cross party lines if he deemed it necessary. Brown told us that there “must be room for everybody, there has to be, in this [Republican] tent.” Excellent reporting by Byron Tau shows us that Brown thought it is “short-sighted to have purity tests.” When asked about her stance on gay marriage and abortion, Brown’s state chairman, Jennifer Nassour, said that “social issues are personal issues… I am not [for] legislating anyone’s personal views.”

Would many Tea Partiers have found this acceptable outside the context of this special election, on which the fate of Obama’s healthcare reforms presumably lay? If the stakes were different, would they not have tried to find a Rubio, or a DeVore, or a Hoffman to run against Brown? If that had happened, would a Republican have prevailed in the state of Massachusetts?

How long will it be before Tea Partiers turn against Sen. Scott Brown? This is a politician who, if not compelled by his own views, will be compelled by the nature of his state to express moderation if he wishes to be re-elected in just two and a half years.

The lesson from tonight is clear: to win in moderate states, Tea Partiers must allow for some flexibility. They must step back from an insistence on purity where to be pure is to lose.

Remember this feeling of victory tonight, and ask yourself: do I want to feel this way again for races in Massachusetts? In New York? In California? In Illinois?

Dems Running Out of Options

January 20th, 2010 at 12:01 am Comments Off

You know you’re having a good evening when you get to quote yourself in a previous FrumForum blogpost.  As I wrote the day after the elections last November:

The health bill has now become a no-win conundrum.  The public is clearly anxious (Note:  make that worried to the point of fury) about the economic trajectory and the federal deficit and are quite skeptical (Note:  you can say that again) that another trillion in federal spending on healthcare will result either in a better health system or in lower costs.  The federal government’s old saw, “you gotta spend money to save money” is now so discredited it is met with grimness rather than a grin.  Democratic claims to the contrary notwithstanding (“victory begets victory,” says Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky in this morning’s Washington Post), the most likely response to a big health bill from the worried middle of the country is a sharp electoral rebuke. [Note:  it doesn’t get much sharper than Massachusetts electing Scott Brown to the Senate.]

What to do with the rebuke?  To paraphrase Woody Allen, the Democrats have reached a fork in the road. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction.  And they have put Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid in charge of the map and compass.  As they say in academia, let’s unpack that a bit.  I return to myself:

The Blue Dog Democrats [Note:  those who haven’t switched parties or retired yet] get this – they have been living it for six months now – and seem to be making a strenuous case for delaying and scaling back the Democratic approach on health [Note:  strike “strenuous” and insert “panicky”].  What the Blue Dogs miss, of course, is what the liberals see clearly: a failure on universal coverage invites a downward spiral with the liberal blogosphere tearing the party to pieces and depressing the base for 2010. [Note:  Rachel Maddow made a good case this evening that Democrats must pass the health bill or lose their base.  Jim Webb, Evan Bayh, Blanche Lincoln and others are about to insist the opposite.  The public seems to be with Webb, Bayh and Lincoln.  Good luck with that.] From an electoral standpoint, you never want to have to choose between an energized base and the affection of independents.  They are both ‘must-haves’ yet the debate over healthcare legislation could easily end up delivering neither.  [Note:  Too late.]