Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Kennedy, Obama ...

... and a little more about me

Blogging has been, in bursts and dormancy, a bit of a metaphor for my life. At the best of times, it feels like a gift, an inspiration, a duty, an engagement. But it has also slipped away, eeled out of my grasp, a task quite beyond me. Lately, it has been more the second than the first. I wonder at how unable I have been to make myself do it.

About three weeks ago (two weeks, maybe), I had a plan to write about Ted Kennedy and how his illness had changed political and policy outcomes. I'd spoken to a lobbyist I know who had been quite clear that if Kennedy had not been dying--had been present and functioning in the Senate--we would already have passed a health care bill, and passed a watered-down version of the Employee Free Choice Act, too. She was emphatic.

I was somewhat surprised to hear her say it, and even more surprised to note that I had seen stuff written about Kennedy and his legacy, but not a peep about how dramatically his absence had affected Congress and the country. The director of a progressive think tank echoed some of what the lobbyist had to say. "I don't know about health care, but I've seen him get things done in the Senate that others couldn't manage." Despite Kennedy's reputation as a liberal, he has generally been more effective working with conservative Republicans than his more moderate colleagues have been, the source observed.

But of all the people who should rue Sen. Kennedy's illness (and, as of today, his death), Barack Obama and David Axelrod must have felt the pain of his absence most, or nearly so. Here's Barack, trotting about, trying to get the country back on his side and in full support of his version of health care reform when, barring a single cancer, he might still be enjoying his earlier-in-the-term popularity and posing with Kennedy at the signing of a health care bill.

Such thoughts incline me, briefly, to a more charitable attitude toward what's happening politically. Obama is in the midst of a difficult communication battle, his spin on health care reform has not been persuasive to a big part of the public, and his political agenda has been stymied, if not also revealed as patchwork and shallow. We have always known, or should have, that Obama is no progressive, but the momentum should have remained with the Democrats longer than it has, and we should have been enjoying the continuing belief that change we could believe in remained ahead.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I thought I should be the first on my block to blog about Kennedy. I could have even thrown in some references to Tom Daschle, who was supposed to be Obama's point person on reform, but who ended up unable to serve formally (and immediately) in that leadership role because of unpaid taxes. Kennedy's death is sad, of course, but his inability to play a role unique to him, and Daschle's unavailability, may have moved us into an alternative political universe in which the fruits of Obama's election victory turn out to be dramatically less progressive than anticipated.

But I didn't write about it--because I've hardly been writing, at all, these last few weeks--and now Sen. Kennedy is dead. The point ought not to be that I am more frustrated by my unproductivity than I am by the loss of an opportunity that almost certainly died with Kennedy, but clearly, I have been on my own mind quite alot recently. Still, I'm actually blogging here, today (the day after my 62nd birthday), and I ought to try and maintain my focus.

So, here's the deal: Kennedy and Daschle aside, the collapse of the economy and the huge loss of asset wealth had already made the political landscape gloomier and less fertile. Kennedy's loss alone should not have doomed health care, but it's easy to imagine that he would have made a huge difference had he been healthy. But it's over now and Obama is in for some hugely difficult politics over the next year to eighteen months. Moderates, except as peace keepers in an incredibly polarized political debate, aren't going to make much difference politically, even if the media and a good portion of the public wish them all the best.

Obama is a moderate, himself, but he's not going to gain any points trying to referee. He needs an agenda to guide him, but the one he had is in a shambles. Neither he nor Congressional Democrats are going to get much support from progressives, either.

They don't have a peace agenda for Afghanistan. They have no clear sympathy for the plight of Palestinians and no effective ways to deal with a pro-Israel lobby that continues to frame the debate about the Middle East. They are badly mishandling Latin America, siding with the engineers of coup in Central America and making friends with the same, old right-wingers.

And if the economy has not turned dramatically positive by spring, the summer of 2010 will be the hottest summer in the inner cities since the 1960s. The moment for change we can believe in seems to be passing us by. Worse, it may already have happened.


  1. I'm vastly less pessimistic than you appear to be. Perhaps it's partly because I'm less plugged-in, but I have a bit of a hard time believing EFCA and Health Care Reform would have passed with a healthy Teddy in the room.

    For one thing, his presence in Senate negotiations wouldn't particularly change the electoral calculus for most of the obstructionist Senators. It might alter the terms of the deal, but the media pressure, conservative hostility and death-panel fearmongering that the Blue Dogs are reacting to would have been just as present, even with Teddy healthy and involved.

    And yes, he was a master negotiator and achiever of the possible, but it's not like he won all (or even most) of his battles. And he wasn't even on the committee that seems to have held up progress the last few months - his committee (HELP) passed a pretty reasonable version of the bill, basically the equivalent of the House bill if memory serves.

    Finally, I still think we're going to get something decent out of this Congress - in all likelihood, the largest expansion of health care coverage in more than a generation. While that may not be the radical overhaul of the entire health care industry that we'd been hoping for, it's a pretty good start, and the history of radical reform in America in the 20th century is that it starts out timid, gets popular and expands dramatically. I'm hopeful that the pattern will repeat itself with Kennedy Care, and if it does, the long-term benefits resound solidly in the progressive camp.

  2. You may have a hard time believing that a healthy Kennedy would have moved health care and labor law reform through the Senate, if not the House, but I'm not suggesting that they would have been good bills--only things that might have happened sooner.

    There are several reasons for taking this possibility seriously:

    1. Earlier in the year, there wasn't much of what you refer to as media pressure--the focus was on stimulus packages and bailouts.

    2. There was certainly conservative hostility, but it was disorganized and ineffective until it became clear that the effort was floundering in Congress. Had the legislative process appeared to be moving along, we would never have heard of "death panels." That concept, as a rallying cry for opposition, materialized after the antis realized that Congressional floundering had unmarginalized them.

    3. There's ample anecdotal evidence in all the tributes to Kennedy that both the left and the right saw him as something more than a symbol, but as an elite agent capable of moving his own agenda. There are even several stories about how Kennedy blocked Nixon health care proposals that would have accomplished more than the reforms under discussion by the Senate Finance committee. It seems that at the time, Kennedy saw the Nixon reforms as too moderate. Though it is true that it is far easier to block a thing legislatively than it is to move something, the fact remains that leadership means something, even in an assembly of relative elites.

    Even Bill Bennett, who has had little good to say about Kennedy offered that there is "no one in the Senate of his force, sheer power and impact."

    For a left critique of Kennedy, read Andrew Cockburn's recent piece at: