January 19, 2010

If there was any doubt that health care reform was, for the umpteenth time in American history, dead as a doornail, following the election of a Republican to the Senate seat held for generations by the Kennedys, it was dispelled when Rep. Barney Frank flatly asserted in the aftermath that further negotiations between the Senate and House would be useless. The real problem, as Frank notes, is the filibuster, the archaic, authoritarian parliamentary tool which has been used in this circumstance in the same way it has been used throughout American history: as a way for a minority to thwart those rare progressive attempts to extend the benefits of liberty and justice beyond the privileged few.

The health care bills passed by Congress were clearly not very popular, but any reform worth its salt that could have been popular would have upset too many special interests, and obtaining an extraconstitutional 3/5 super-majority meant too many compromises needed to be made. It may be politically incorrect to say this, but most great legislation is not accomplished through compromise of disparate coalitions, but through the politics of sheer power. LBJ signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act after he had shoved it down the throats of the Dixiecrats and libertarians that opposed it, not because he made some sort of deal, and Lincoln only ended slavery with the barrel of a gun.

So losing the "supermajority" is probably not the most significant event to have come out of tonight's election. Any coalition that depends on such disparate elements as Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson is not going to produce much in the way of productive lawmaking, and now having to hope that Olympia Snowe (or the Playgirl model who just got elected) can be wheedled into supporting something useful isn't much to hang one's hat. And in any event, as Mickey Kaus has repeatedly noted, the House of Representatives can, at any time before the next Congress is seated in 2011, vote to ratify what the Senate has already passed (even in a lame-duck session after a November 2010 landslide defeat).

No, tonight's event will be most significant within the Democratic Party. In the year since he took office, Barack Obama has, bloodlessly and without passion, generally supported a very progressive domestic policy, but he has done so through the goo-goo rubric of "good government." It is a style of governing that is contemptuous of public opinion, of the down-and-dirty aspects of democratic politics: vote for me for your own good, no matter how bitter-tasting the medicine. Policymaking without inspiration, wonkery without populism, is a political recipe for disaster, and it will doubtlessly lead to a huge defeat in November.

But in the more immediate term, it also spells the end for Barack Obama. Part of his 2008 campaign's raison d'etre, its motivation, was the fact that he was The Change. No one who voted for him could have any doubt that his election, in and of itself, would change American politics forever, simply because he was who he was: an African-American in a society which had historically treated others like himself as a second-class citizen. His election made manifest that the principles of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were real, not fatuous statements of idealism fit only for white male property owners.

Now that he's elected, though, we can also see that whatever gifts he has as a policy wonk and a thinker, he is a half-hearted leader. He won't fight. He's a McClellan, not a Grant, and he has no coattails. He has political gifts, but they don't transfer. By rebranding America, he has served his most important purpose, but there is nothing more needed from him in that respect: America has already elected a black President. In the Democratic Party, no one, whether it be the Blue Dog right or the left-of-center base, fears him, and thus there will be nothing to impede anyone from challenging him for the party's nomination in 2012. Short of the GOP nominating Sarah Palin, we are looking at a one-term President.