Remember when, amidst all the excitement over Barack Obama’s inauguration, Rush Limbaugh announced that he hoped Obama would fail? Limbaugh argued that the Republicans’ best strategy for revival was to “just say no” to everything proposed by Obama, regardless of the negative impacts on the nation. Limbaugh was attacked for his negativism at the time, but less than two months before the midterm elections his strategy has played out perfectly. Republican obstructionism has left many voters disenchanted with Democrats failure to achieve “change,” sufficiently depleting enthusiasm to potentially create the low-turnout midterm election upon which Republican success now depends. A President willing to paint Republicans as obstructionists from the start could have defeated Limbaugh’s strategy, but President Obama chose a different course.
One would have thought that, after Republicans used obstructionism to reverse Democratic gains in the 1992 national elections and win big in 1994, the Obama Administration would have been prepared for more of the same. But President Obama decided it was more important to promote bipartisanship than to publicly denounce Republican obstructionism from the start, and now the Democratic Congress risks falling prey to the same Republican “just say no” strategy that brought the GOP the House in the 1994 elections.
Think about this the next time you see Keith Olbermann and others make fun of Rush Limbaugh. Because unlike the Obama Administration, which scorns its core base as the “professional left,” national Republicans followed the advice of Limbaugh and other key constituency leaders – implementing a “just say no” strategy even when public pressure seemed to call for greater bipartisanship.
And now a strategy based not on doing what’s best for America – but on what’s worst for the Democratic Party – has the once down-and-out Republican Party in position to retake the House.
How did the seemingly super-savvy Obama Administration fall into this trap?
Misplaced Faith in the Recovery
I think the Obama Administration believed the recovery would be underway by November 2010, and that Democrats would safely win re-election as the party of jobs.
Christine Romer, who headed the White House Council of Economic Advisors, explained why her forecast that the Obama stimulus program would be more successful at creating jobs was “so far off”
in her final press conference last week. Romer is as straight a shooter as there is, and it was clear from her comments that the Obama Administration was taken by surprise by the stimulus’s failure to generate more jobs.
Obama had so much confidence in the economic turnaround, that he felt free to devote much of his crucial first year to a health care bill that won’t help most people until 2014. This confidence also likely led the President to ignore the political perils of seeking bipartisanship with a Republican Party whose revival depended on his failure.
Eroding Faith in Change
The greatest impact of the Limbaugh strategy was to erode popular faith in the capacity of the federal government to implement real progressive change.
This is why young people are not enthusiastic about voting in November. It’s not that their views have shifted to the right – a critical fact some commentators overlook – but rather that many have reached the perfectly logical conclusion that the structure of the federal government allows political minorities to defy the majority will.
Progressives have long been urging Obama to take on big fights to prove the government’s ability to implement real change, but he refused to do so (and even if we put the health care battle in this category, it was not a top priority for young people).
While many blamed Obama’s non-combative nature, Romer’s recent comments indicate that the President likely felt that he would earn young people’s faith in government by turning the economy around.
Not to sound like a broken record, but many of us implored Obama from the start
to maintain his connection to the thousands of young campaign activists who generated a record youth turnout in 2008. But Obama allowed the incredible campaign organizing infrastructure he created to almost entirely disappear, and all progressives could soon pay the price.
It’s Not Over Til It’s Over
Predicting House races is not easy.
On the Sunday before the November 1994 midterm elections, the New York Times
reported that Democrats had stemmed the tide against them, and a Republican takeover of the House was unlikely.
National polls on which Party people are voting for are distorted by the huge pro-GOP margins in the South
, and do not reflect dozens of close races elsewhere. Incumbent Democrats were taken by surprise in 1994, which will not be the case this year.
Many believe that President Obama still has time to re-energize the Democratic base, and that two months of campaigning on campuses, in union halls, and among Latino voters could make a huge difference. They point to the President’s Labor Day speech in Milwaukee where he spoke about powerful interests “talking about me like a dog,” as a sign that the feisty, combative Obama is back and will stir the base with a sharply partisan campaign.
I agree that Obama could help Democrats hold the House. But given the President’s track record, whether he will really spend the next eight weeks in full partisan campaign mode is unclear.
Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century