Lessons of a Mass revolt

Read the tea leaves but read them carefully. To the mainly rightwing folk who make up the Tea Party crowds of protesters, the vote in Massachusetts is to shove the whole Obamacare health reform package into the sea — and a vote, too, against Obama himself whom they variously portray as Adolf Hitler or Joe Stalin.

The latter conviction is a delusion. Obama personally remains admired as a good guy, even though neither he nor Bill Clinton could swing it this time. Voters can distinguish between the man and the administration. More substantively, the pundits of all shades agree today with the more radical of Tea-Party crowds, folk known as Wingnuts. Almost all declare that the failure of attorney-general Martha Coakley to hold the Senate seat from which Edward Kennedy for years campaigned for health reform means it cannot pass, indeed ought to be abandoned.

The big assumption here is that the negative votes, particularly from the growing number of independents, were simply because of the health bill. It doesn’t wash. Three sets of voters have given the thumbs down to the Obama administration’s first year. Republicans recently won the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, yet in the exit polls they supported the health bill. So, too, in a special election upstate in the 23rd district of New York.

The real issue
Yes, it’s true that in polls the public has become disenchanted with the bill, as they see it. But this wasn’t a single-issue election. Of more significance, in my view, is the mood of the country, and it is becoming as sour as it was in the worst Bush years.
With Obama, this disenchantment is not so much because of what might be. It’s because of what is. And what is lies at the core of the national despair. The Obama administration has disappointed millions by its failure to get people back to work. Nearly nine million jobs have been lost. The official unemployment rate of 10 per cent understates the disaster because it does not reflect the short-time working, nor those out of work for a year who’ve given up bothering to look.

Where the administration has failed is in the scale of its recovery plan and in Obama’s distraction by making health reform his No 1 priority. Obama basically left it to Congress to decide where the stimulus money should go. Too little went on infrastructure, too much on Congressional pork. The idea of a stimulus was decried by the Republicans as runaway spending, but they have been as wrong on this as Herbert Hoover was in 1929. History’s clear lesson is that public investment is essential in a depression — and that’s nearly where we are. But the concept has never been fully grasped by the electorate, and the Republicans have been able to rouse resentment at the amount of entitlement spending.

Now Obama is in a tight spot. He ought to restimulate the economy. The Mass vote gives him no scope for that, especially since the major weakness of the health bill is that it is not convincing on its cost reduction elements. My own view is that despite its weaknesses he should go right ahead and press on with the bill. For all its deficiencies, it is a big improvement. And if he backs away from the bill on which he has lavished so much of his attention, what will he have to show? He has accomplished many minor reforms, reversing some of the cruder Bush policies, but he will be seen as weak, and that is already the damaging perception of his attitude to terrorism.

One good thing may emerge from the Mass revolt. It may yet make the Democratic leadership pause in thinking it can do what the hell it likes to feed the party base — exempting unions from the tax on luxury health plans, and extending entitlement programmes. This administration is not as transparent as Obama promised, arrogance has seeped in. They’d do well to remember the rejoinder of the Massachusetts victor, Scott Brown. Asked on TV whether he really would vote against healthcare reform if he were to “sit in Teddy Kennedy’s seat”, he replied: “It’s not the Kennedys’ seat. It’s the people’s seat.”

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