by Ken Feltman
All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection.
– William Faulkner
Advertising maven David Ogilvy is credited with the tale of the dog food manufacturer who hired a prestigious ad agency to promote his brand. The agency did extensive research. Agency artists redesigned the cans’ labels. The new campaign and the new labels won awards. Sales soared. Then sales stalled and soon fell back to the original level. The dog food manufacturer was furious and demanded that the head of the agency explain the problem. Armed with fresh research, the ad man said simply: “The dogs don’t like the dog food.”
Sometimes, that’s all there is to it. The dogs won’t eat the stuff. The White House and the Democratic leadership in Congress are resisting that conclusion. They come from the left wing of the Democrat Party.
A generation of moderate Democrats – called “Blue Dogs” to distinguish them from liberal “Yellow Dog” Democrats – lost and will be gone from Congress, leaving the strident and liberal fringe to battle the new Republican majority. And battle is what those Democrats seem to promise. In the wake of the election results, President Obama spoke about cooperation. Almost immediately, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seemed to define cooperation as not resisting Democratic legislative efforts. White House staff echoed that, saying that now that Republicans control the House, they must stop saying no to Obama’s proposals.
Agree with us or you are the cause of gridlock. Is that what the voters had in mind? The voters hired a new sheriff, John Boehner. He heads a posse of over 60 new members of Congress.
Other recent presidents have squandered their political capital and been humbled by the voters. Presidents Clinton and Bush 43 preceded President Obama in taking the voters’ drubbing. They tended to moderate. But Washington insiders are murmuring that this White House is doing things and sending signals that confirm that they don’t get it – still. The Obama apologists insist that the dogs will come to savor the dog food. It’s just the packaging, the communication, that is faulty. These mutts are just too unsophisticated to appreciate truly tasty food.
Bad at politics, good at campaigning
Meantime, the primary reason for Obama’s drubbing was soon evident at home and abroad. While the media concentrated on the fireworks predicted as the GOP newcomers, most with Tea Party credentials, battled the Republican Old Bulls, Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to go. That touched off a fight for the number two Democratic House position. As the minority party, Democrats will have only two senior leadership positions, not three as in recent years. Both the current number two (Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland) and number three (Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina) wanted the second spot. Hoyer is one of the few Democratic moderates left. Clyburn is the highest ranking African American in Congress and had the endorsement of the Congressional Black Caucus.
According to sources within the White House, Obama pressured Pelosi to stay on as the Democratic leader of the House. He did not want the more moderate Hoyer taking over as Democratic leader and compromising with the Republicans. But he did not think through the game of musical chairs that would be triggered if Pelosi stayed. Obama knows he can depend on Pelosi for bare knuckles politics. He seemed to forget about Clyburn’s ambitions.
The president set off for Asia, leaving the bitter struggle behind. In Asia, he was soon criticized for being unprepared – his aides had not done their homework, especially with South Korea – and the media judged the trip harshly.
At home, lesser men than Clyburn would have counted votes and taken on Hoyer. But Clyburn accepted a new office in the interest of keeping peace. Clyburn has risen in esteem but the dust-up leaves a simmering resentment among African Americans in Congress. The Republican leaders, meantime, turned aside the ambitions of Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, the founder of the Tea Party Caucus in the House, stirring resentment among several newly elected GOP members. The Republicans were not as creative as the Democrats: They could not come up with a face-saving office for Bachmann.
Is moderation the enemy of reelection?
The differing agendas will continue to snarl the bitter relationship between the parties. The Democrats – led by the White House – have shown that they will pay lip service to compromise and cooperation. But the White House will be fixated on reelection. Decisions will be made for political, not policy reasons. Obama’s best chance is to run against a reactionary Republican Congress that can’t get anything done. This has worked before. The White House believes that Pelosi’s strident liberalism will lead to gridlock. Hoyer’s moderate pragmatism could have given Republicans a few key accomplishments. Clyburn was not considered till too late to avoid bruised feelings.
Obama will not want to veto bills. He will want to have legislation that he opposes stall in Congress. His lobbyists will work with the Democrats to tie up the Republican agenda. This makes Boehner’s task nearly impossible – unless he can trim down the GOP agenda.
That may not be easy. Many of the returning Republicans have pent-up dreams of passing legislation and forcing Obama to sign or veto. They believe that if he signs, the GOP wins a legislative victory. If Obama vetoes, the GOP achieves a political victory. But many of these pent-up and frustrated dreams are over the wrong issues: Social issues such as repeal of Roe v. Wade. Will those Republicans try to peddle their own brand of foul dog food?
The new members of Congress who have Tea Party ties will not want to spend time on social issues. Not now. They are convinced that the clock is ticking and the United States has only a short time to get its financial and budget house in order. They will want to focus on jobs and the economy, the deficit and the national debt. If Boehner is not adroit, the Republicans will tangle and the public – already short on patience – will sour even more on the GOP and its leaders.
Dogs without taste buds
Despite the number of times wave elections have swept over Congress, we find Boehner in uncharted waters because Obama does not seem to want to follow the traditional script. No wave leader has navigated as expertly as Boehner must now navigate. Several presidents have been in Obama’s position. Look at how successful President Clinton was after the 1994 wave. But Obama will not follow Clinton’s example and come to the middle. Obama will talk the talk, not walk the walk.
As he demonstrated with his inept intervention in the House Democratic leadership fight, and again with the muffed opportunities in Asia, Obama is not very good at politics. Even when he wins, as with healthcare, he creates a mess to be cleaned up by others. He is very good at campaigning and he intends to begin the campaign by trying to create gridlock with the new GOP House majority. That is the leadership style that disenchanted independent voters and caused those voters to abandon the Democratic Party.
Alienating the Democratic moderates or the Black Caucus is a political expense that Obama seems willing to pay, just as his leadership style led to the sacrifice of dozens of House Democrats on November 2. Day by day, week by week, he will find fewer allies to sacrifice. His coalition may dwindle till only dogs without taste buds are left.