August angst

by Ken Feltman

There is a new America every morning when we wake up. It is upon us whether we will it or not.
– Adlai Stevenson, Jr.

When he was driven from power by a politically motivated attack, former House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) remarked that he had finally failed to “reinvent” himself one more time to meet the latest challenge. Wright stuck with what had worked in the past. Times changed. Wright did not. Is there a lesson here? Maybe President Obama should change. Instead, he seems to be readying one more multi-million dollar advertising blitz in defense of his healthcare – or medical insurance – reform vision.

The August Congressional recess usually provides lawmakers with time for fact-finding missions to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and many other places. Courageous members of Congress brave the wilds of places such as Munich, Saint-Tropez and Hong Kong. Exactly what facts need finding in Munich that a senator or representative would be capable of finding? In Saint-Tropez? Hong Kong?

This year, travel to Tokyo, Rio and St. Petersburg reduced the amount of time lawmakers spent back home. That meant fewer townhall meetings with constituents, which cut down on the shouting, the pushing and shoving, and the too frequent fighting and arrests. Taxpayers benefited indirectly through reduced police overtime costs.

Missouri law enforcement officials forced the cancellation of a townhall meeting after bloodshed at an earlier meeting. Who knows how many noses were not bloodied because the local congressman was in Mumbai and not Massachusetts or Oslo and not Oklahoma?

The fact found most often in August was that Obama and the Democratic leadership have lost control of the healthcare reform debate. Provoked by hostile meeting participants, many legislators lost control. They responded in kind, fueling the fire. A Maryland congresswoman shouted that her constituents are fascists. A Michigan congressman labeled protesters as being affiliated with the “Ku Klux Klan.” Several lawmakers accused their constituents of a variety of nefarious motives. Some lawmakers used the word “Nazi” to describe people who disagreed that healthcare reform was necessary now. The speaker of the House claimed that people protesting over healthcare were “un-American.”

These devils ARE in somebody’s details

Democratic and White House spokespersons claimed that most of the concerns that constituents were shouting about were not part of the legislation being considered. Wrong: Almost all of the supposedly extreme provisions were in some healthcare reform plan, somewhere, still floating around and supported by at least a few fringe lawmakers. One provision that Democrats denied even existed was found on a cabinet department’s web site and booklets describing the policy were soon discovered.

Because the Democrats have not agreed to a single bill – and the House bill is largely a product of the left-leaning House leadership – these noxious provisions hung on and grabbed the attention of the extremists on the other side. The debate broke down into charges, counter-charges and recriminations between the loony left and the wacko right. As White House denials confronted substantiation of some of the charges, the embattled administration tried to move toward the middle.

When that happened, the Democratic leaders and their constituents broke apart. The constituents (who suddenly become known as voters in election years) decided to hold off, to let things cool down, to wait to see exactly which claims are valid. The Democratic leaders decided to push ahead, to get this issue behind, to force a vote through parliamentary procedure if the opposition and the doubters will not yield.

Bush presidency parallels?

After Hurricane Katrina, I wrote that the myth of President George Bush’s management skills – which underpinned the public’s tentative support for the war in Iraq – had been washed away with the flooding of New Orleans: “Where was President Bush in the critical first hours? Does anyone believe that President Clinton would have been silent? President Reagan? In the end, far fewer may have died than originally feared. The federal rescue effort may have been faster and better than in previous hurricanes. State and local authorities may have caused most of the problems. But we all saw helpless people and we did not see Bush leading. The momentum of the Bush presidency has been slowed to a stop by the flooding of New Orleans.”

The momentum of the Obama presidency has been slowed to a stop by the townhall meetings during the August recess.

Whether the Obama presidency suffers the slow, agonizing, downward spiral of the Bush presidency is still to be determined. A soaring presidency has been brought down with a thud. Unless Obama can pull off a remarkable political reinvention, he is headed into a frustrating period of declining influence. People will still admire him. He will still personify hope and retain the ability to inspire. But he has been unmasked as a president unable to control his own agenda and his own party. He will become known for failing to adjust, for failing to reinvent his strategy.

This is Obama’s moment of truth. The gap between campaign rhetoric and governing is growing wider, with voters asking questions, raising concerns and wanting Obama to be more cautious. People are asking whether the massive spending plans are necessary or, perhaps, simply ideological.

Denial will be the first reaction. What will follow?

Like Bush, Obama will not believe it. He will push ahead. And as they did with Bush, people – in their role as voters – will give Obama less leeway. The president will encounter resistance to his efforts sooner than he did just a few months ago. When that happened to Bush, the White House just pushed harder and sought ways to accomplish Bush’s goals without public scrutiny and pushback. That worked in Texas, but not in Washington.

Obama may adopt Chicago methods and try to bludgeon things through. Deputy White House Chief of Staff Jim Messina told Democratic senators: “If you get hit, we will punch back twice as hard.” What was acceptable intimidation a few months ago will become less and less successful. In Washington, the threat of a beating that is never meted out is more powerful than the beating itself. When you threaten a political beating to a guy in Cook County, you included his family and their payroll jobs and their friends’ jobs, too. The guy almost always gets back in line. Once you threaten a guy in Washington, he starts consolidating his power back home. There are just not enough congressmen from Chicago to have enough votes to make the bludgeoning work.

Like water from a leaky bucket, the public’s tolerance for intimidation as a tactic will drip away. The administration will use up resources that could have been stored for later battles.

The change of heart among the voters back home will be realized too slowly by the rabbit-punching people in the White House and even more slowly by the men and women on Capital Hill, who must hold the world record for delayed reactions to changes in the political winds.

The time for derring-do is over. This is the time for damage control.

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About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Feltman founded the U.S. and European Conflict Indexes in 1988. The indexes have predicted the winner of every U.S. presidential election beginning in 1988, plus the outcome of several European elections. In May of 2010, the Conflict Index was used by university students in Egypt. The Index predicted the fall of the Mubarak government within the next year.
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