Speaking at the December breakfast of the Northern Virginia Democratic Business Council Friday, 3 December, at the Fairview Marriott, Jeanne Cummings of Politico gave one of her trenchant, insightful analyses in discussing the mid-term elections, and her estimate of how it will play out heading into 2012. She believes the election was, indeed, all about Obama. The independents turned against him in huge numbers, mainly because of the stubbornly high unemployment figures (that means, “it’s the economy, stupid,” although she never said it in so many words), as well as because of the number and size of the rapid-fire changes he and the Democratic Congress delivered.
The public was with Obama on the stimulus, but, beginning in June of 2009, as unemployment stayed in the 10 percent range, they began to complain, “Hey, we spent all this money on the stimulus, but nothing has improved…” Americans, said Ms. Cummings, while dealing with massive job losses, could not at the same time absorb all the changes like health care reform, Wall Street reform, and so on—- it was too much too soon The public, for example, is still convinced that Obama raised their taxes, when in fact the stimulus bill was full of tax cuts. The tax cuts were incremental, gradual, and extended over a period of time, so not only did people never actually notice them, the Democrats never explained them to the voters. Why, asked Cummings, was the Democratic message never delivered? If this complaint about messaging sounds familiar, it should. Her answer gave some insight into how Washington works (or does not).
Cummings pointed out that, living as we do so close to Washington, we all know that “Washington has a way of breaking people,” eventually massaging them into conformity. Presidents, whatever they say as campaigners, once inaugurated, do live in a bubble. Previous Presidents, even Bush, made some effort to meet and mingle occasionally with people outside their inner ring of advisors. This President lives in a bubble within the bubble. When he goes on vacation, even if it’s just to Camp David, it is always with the same seven families. In her view, Obama has “completely cut himself off from all the institutions of power,” with the result that he has no group to which he can turn for support when needed. Even his original liberal base is attacking him regularly from the left (she advised her listeners that these attacks from within Obama’s own party were going to have “an effect on his re-election in 2012, so keep that in mind”). “The liberals don’t like Obama anymore, the women don’t like him, labor doesn’t like him ” she said, and named every group across the spectrum, including of course, Republicans, all of whom have been turned off or ignored by the White House.
At first, in her opinion, Obama did give signs of making an effort to go outside his inner circle, and since the mid-term election he is promising further Outreach, but it remains to be seen whether this new effort will last. There are signs that the incoming Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH), is inclined to cooperate in governing when it comes to crucial issues; his roll model for Speaker is supposed to be Tip O’Neal—- she pointed out that Tip had undoubtedly said worse things than Boehner’s “chicken crap,” so don’t discount Boehner’s ability to compromise. Boehner was a Congressman during the shut-down of government in the 1990’s, and does not want to repeat the experience. His problem is his own caucus. There are 85 new members in the Republican caucus, and most of them have no compunction about enforcing any of the items on their agenda, including a possible shut-down to get their way. It remains to be seen how successful Boehner will be in controlling his own caucus when it comes to disciplining the newcomers to vote, for example, for a little tax increase here or a government program there. Since Republicans won with the help of corporate money, and “those Democrats who survived” did so because of labor support, the obvious lines are drawn in the sand for this Congress.
During a lively question period, Ms. Cummings gave her opinion that since the election Obama’s choices on the Bush tax cut extension were now down to two: temporary extension of cuts for all income levels, or making all the cuts permanent. The window of opportunity for modifications (such as raising the income level for tax cuts to, perhaps, $1million) has now closed. When questioned about education, Cummings said that education was one of the “non-economic issues” on which there could well be compromise achieved, resulting in legislation. The report of the Deficit Commission managed to create the biggest herd of “sacred cows” ever seen in town, including as it does slashing programs dear to left and right, and even the Pentagon and the military. The fact that two Senators from opposite sides of the aisle have indicated support for the Commission’s report is a sign that at last we will finally be having a serious conversation on the subject. The presidential election in 2012 will bring a much larger group of voters to the polls, and the results will probably once again be largely determined on how the voters view the economy; even if the economy has not recovered fully, even if the unemployment level is still in the 8 percent range, people may have adjusted and learned to live with the new normal, and they will not want to punish Obama…. but, who knows? Concerning Virginia, it was her contention that Virginia is a swing state, and will continue to be so. This last election does not turn Virginia into a permanently red state.
This was a full dose of Conventional Wisdom, delivered with engaging certainty. However, we heard nothing about why Obama is in his double bubble after a promising start at changing the tone in Washington—- could it possibly have anything to do with Republican obstructionism, their proclaimed intention to make him fail, and the byzantine path to passing any sort of legislation through the Senate, including a sort-of-reform health care bill? Cummings never touched on such an idea. We heard nothing about the corporate co-option of the originally populist Tea Party revolt, or how it was subverted into hyper-corporotism, to the supposed consternation of the inner Republican Establishment.
There was, significantly, nothing about the continued acceptance of the basic premises of Free Market economics, which has created repeated Wall Street meltdowns, and whose adherents now are agitating endlessly about the national debt and deficit. Why is there such knuckling under by Obama to the Republican version of the Free Market, when the theory has brought us one calamity after another, and clearly no longer adequately explains how the real economy runs, much less how to fix it, or to help it fix itself? Does this subservience perhaps help to explain the utter lack of messaging by the White House, or any effort actually to change the terms of the debate, something the Democratic grassroots plainly had anticipated during the 2008 campaign? I realize it was probably unreasonable to expect an Inside-the-Beltway pundit to touch on such topics, but Ms. Cummings’ obvious expertise and deep knowledge of Washington politics gave me a tantalizing moment of hope…. but I guess such a discussion would take more time than allowed for an early morning breakfast talk.