This is how I remember it. Perhaps I should call this a portion of my “narrative.”
After the dramatic, across-the-board landslide Democratic victory in the 2008 elections many in the mainstream media were openly speculating on whether the Republican Party could even survive let alone revive. After this crushing rejection by the voters would they be swept into the ash can of history like the Whigs or the Know-Nothings? Obama and the Democrats won by the largest margin since 1964, a landslide by American standards. Riding the crest of a massive popular mandate for dramatic change, they had control of the White House, a 60-40 advantage in the Senate and comparable dominance in the House. The Democratic Party’s coffers were full. There was a massive wave of enthusiasm across the country and even the world. They appeared to have every conceivable advantage.
Yet almost immediately we heard White House spokesmen say, “We won’t be able to get much done since we don’t have a two-thirds majority in both houses. Don’t expect much from us.” I thought to myself then how did George W. Bush manage to get so much done? What is this defeatist attitude? this pre-emptive surrender? We had the stimulus package, most of which went to state and local government entities or consisted of more tax cuts for businesses. We had the bank bailout. What we never had was any attempt to explain to the people why there was no real assistance to the millions of ordinary people who lost their jobs and homes. Before we knew it, the Republican Party had suddenly revived under the cover of the “populist” Tea Party. Amazingly, the Democrats had lost the initiative and allowed the GOP to pose as the true voice of frustrated working class and middle class people. The Democrats had let the GOP pose as the populist party and found themselves branded the “elitists”, a charge that credibly resonated with many, many people. And this happened in an amazingly short period of time: they squandered their poltical capital and much of their popular support. It slipped between their fingers and was dissapated.
When Congress took up the issue of health care reform, many sincere people had reasonable questions they wanted answered:
“What kind of health care reform? What will it cover and not cover?”
“We don’t know,” White House spokesmen replied. “Could be this, could be that….”
“Will it include a public option?”
“Dunno. We’ll just have to wait and see what Congress comes up with. God knows what they’ll do.”
“You don’t know?”
“Yeah, see, we’re the Executive Branch. Under the separation of powers, We have no influence in setting the legislative agenda. All initiative rests with Congress. We can’t influence them in any way. We just administer what they decide….”
“Well, how will a health care reform bill impact Medicaid, Medicare, and private insurance?”
“No clue. We just have to sit on our hands and see what they come up with.”
“How will it be financed? How much will it cost? Will it control or reduce medical care costs? How?”
“No idea. The Administration has no role in setting the legislative agenda or influencing what the Senate or the House does. Our job is just to stand around with our hands in our pockets, shrugging our shoulders and waiting."
And they wonder why the final health care reform act wasn’t more wildly popular, why most people were confused and uncertain about what the ACA would really mean. They still are.
All along there has seemed to be this oddly passive stance, this failure of leadership, this inability or unwillingness to articulate what is being called a clear and coherent “narrative” these days. There was little or no effort to explain what was going on, to use the "bully pulpit," to educate people, to spark popular enthusiasm, to rally people to exert a public demand for meaningful change, to exert popular leadership. Perhaps it is because the people were never seen as real participants in any real political process beyond fund-raising. Perhaps this was the plan all along. This is why the articles by Gene Lyons and Drew Westen I referenced yesterday made such an impression on me.
I’ve had many jobs where I was the mediator, the conciliator, the reconciler, who had to bring diverse, agitated, angry agencies and people together and hammer out some mutually acceptable agreement. But even then I had to set out and enforce some ground rules, set some parameters, remind people of our goals and priorities, and so forth. Even with that background I cannot understand or appreciate what seems like a dramatic abdication of leadership by President Obama and almost the entire Democratic Party since the inauguration in January 2009.