- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 26, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The victory in Massachusetts of Republican Scott Brown is being misinterpreted widely as proof that the Obama administration has swayed off course and is doomed unless it changes its politics and policies.

Instead, the lesson is that the nation is so closely divided between the left and the right that a single election can change the outlook for the entire federal government.

Yes, it is remarkable that a Republican will soon take the seat that the iconic Edward M. Kennedy held for 46 years in the reliably Democratic state.

However, that compelling soap-opera irony should not obscure the bigger reality that the partisan split in Congress - and in the country - is so stark and narrow that neither party can be confident that its approach to Washington will win popular support in the end.

The pendulum clearly has swung rightward during President Obama’s first year in office. Health care as sweeping as he advocates has lost the backing of a majority of Americans - if it ever had it. Massive government spending to bolster the financial markets and to stimulate the economy has been rejected by most voters as excessive, wasteful and worse.

The Massachusetts Senate race is evidence of the public’s disaffection with Obama initiatives, just as were the Republican victories in November in New Jersey and Virginia.

But the issues have not gone away, and it would be too facile to say voters have rejected the Democrats’ solutions in favor of the Republicans’. That has yet to be determined.

The Massachusetts election has caused a parliamentary stalemate in the Senate; Democrats no longer have the 60 votes they need to move legislation with impunity in the chamber. However, that is not the same as a mandate to toss out everything the president wants and to approve whatever the opposition party says.

Instead, the election has shocked the Washington establishment into realizing that the battle to win the hearts of the electorate is nip-and-tuck, not one-sided. Democrats will have to compete with Republicans to devise legislation that attracts widespread support.

This will involve a lot more than simply asserting how important it is to “fight.” Mr. Obama used the word more than 20 times during his town-hall meeting last week in Ohio. But vague promises to “fight for you” are only a starting point.

The fight is not about posturing or tactics. Bringing a nuts-and-bolts political operative like David Plouffe into the White House will not be enough to save the seats of many Democrats in November.

Actions will speak more loudly than rhetoric or campaign tricks. Populist speeches and attacks on “special interests” will always excite the base for a Democratic president - and for some Republican presidents, too.

More telling will be the shape and size of the president’s new economic stimulus package, his fallback health reform plan and the proposals he makes (if any) to trim the federal budget deficit, now running at a grotesque trillion dollars a year.

The president will have not only to invite Republicans to help devise these initiatives - that’s just for show. He will have to genuinely work with them and come up with solutions that borrow ideas from each side.

The conventional way to express this is to say Mr. Obama will have to “moderate” his views. Certainly, that’s true. But more to the point, he and Republicans will have to cooperate and compromise in ways that they have been unable to do so far on major issues.

For example, both parties agree that improving the economy and getting people back to work is Washington’s top priority, but they disagree on how to accomplish those things.

Most voters like parts of each party’s agenda on the topic. They like the Democrats’ direct spending, but not on as large a scale as we’ve seen. They like the Republicans’ tax cuts, but not ones that benefit everyone.

The same goes for health care. Most Americans would be happy to have greater access to health insurance, but they are skeptical of allowing government to get too involved.

The smart approach would be to select consensus proposals from each party and pass them. Unfortunately, that’s easier to say than to do.

Republicans appear content to continue to resist voting “yes” on almost anything. Mr. Obama remains eager to bash Republicans at every turn.

Such deadlock carries a risk for both parties. Voters could well decide in November to “throw the bums out.”

It may be too early to predict the midterm elections, but it’s not too soon to say that voters are not persuaded by either side.

The Massachusetts election was not just a defeat for Democrats. It was a wake-up call for both parties. They need to understand that the electorate is not happy with them and is hungry for bipartisan policies that will actually work for a change.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is president of BGR Public Relations, a columnist for The Washington Times and a Fox News Contributor.

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