Will Rogers Was Right

[The following article appears in the February issue of the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Voice.]

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“I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

It’s close to a hundred years since legendary American humorist Will Rogers uttered his famous remark, but it has never been more true.

The shining pinnacle of the Democrats’ disorganization was the loss, last month, of the late, great Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts.  In terms of competence, losing a filibuster proof majority in the Senate in less than one year, and doing it in Massachusetts, one of the most liberal and consistently Democratic states in the union, is the political equivalent of not being able to hit the broad side of a barn with a basketball.

True to form, the Democratic leadership didn’t even see this one coming until a few weeks before the election, since their candidate at one point held a 30 point lead in the polls. How do you lose a 30 point lead? In Massachusetts??

Well, adding to the bitter irony was the fact that the loss was to a large degree the result of the Democratic party’s handling of health care, the issue nearest and dearest to Sen. Kennedy’s heart. Republican Scott Brown campaigned vigorously as the “the 41st vote” needed to successfully filibuster ( i.e.  – kill) any health care bill in the Senate.

Books will no doubt be written about the bungling of health care. Whether it was starting (as Democrats often do) with a compromise (even President Obama acknowledged single payer made the most sense), their inability to control the debate during months of “Tea Party” protests and town hall shouting fests, the string of broken promises (health care by August! public option! debate to be televised on C-SPAN!) or the  backroom deals with drug and insurance companies, the Democrats managed to take a wildly popular (and populist) issue and turn it into a 2,000 page political albatross.

This is nothing against the many, many Democrats out there in the Voice readership. I’ve voted for plenty of ’em as you have, and most of my friends are Democrats – more than a couple of them elected officials. But there is something about national level politics that turns Democrats into the Keystone Cops, just as it has turned the Republicans into a party of rabid anti-government global warming deniers who would rather see the country collapse than concede an inch of ground to the (supposedly) governing party. (Again, no offense to my Republican friends.)

Remarkably, George W. Bush never had the Congressional majorities that Democrats now hold during his 8 year reign of terror – er, I mean Presidency – but that didn’t stop him from getting virtually everything he wanted, whether it was wars, Supreme Court justices or tax cuts for the wealthy. Why is it that the Republicans can now thwart anything President Obama wants (or claims to want) with only 41 votes in the Senate?

Could it have anything to do with the fact that many national Democrats have more in common with Republicans than they let on? (Was health care reform really advanced by having Democratic committee chairmen who take millions from the insurance industry?) Or could it be that Republicans have spent years purging members who didn’t follow the party line, while Democrats have spent the same time diluting their platform by moving to a mythical center, running any candidate they thought could win regardless of what they believed? Indeed, many of them, including the President, are already toning down or shifting their legislative agenda in the face of this “national” referendum delivered in Massachusetts.

The President’s mild State of the Union urging notwithstanding, national health care reform is dead. Everyone understands that. If the Democrats couldn’t pass a heavily watered-down, thoroughly compromised health care bill with a filibuster proof majority in the Senate, what is the chance they will do it without one, and in the face of a highly disciplined Republican party that has made clear its intentions to scuttle any major Democratic initiative?

What are the chances now for a real jobs bill, or for any semblance of a bill to address climate change? Could it get any worse?

Well, actually, it could. And it did, when just a few days after the Massachusetts debacle the Supreme Court made its worst decision since the Dred Scott case. In Citizens United vs. FEC, the court summarily dismissed decades of precedent on campaign finance, not to mention all common sense, and followed the delirious fiction that corporations have the same rights as actual human beings in ruling as unconstitutional most restrictions on corporations’ ability to spend money on political campaigns.

This is great news for Goldman Sachs, Monsanto, the oil and coal companies, the health insurance industry, pharmaceuticals or any other wealthy corporations that wish to further bend federal policy for their profit. For the majority of Americans who believed wealthy corporate interests already had too much influence in our government, it’s an unmitigated disaster.

Personally, I had long since grown tired of being dunned by MoveOn each time a new issue came up and they wanted my money to do battle with corporate lobbyists. Apparently asking Democrats to pass a public financing bill for federal elections, or to simply stop inviting lobbyists into their offices, was too much.

Like everyone else, MoveOn and the Democrats understand this new court decision will open the floodgates of corporate money in the 2010 election, and most of that money will flow to Republicans. So only now,  a day late and quite a few dollars short, they  are ginning up some response to reign in corporate contributions. Ironically, the Democrats have put some of their own fundraisers in charge of the effort. Anyone want to bet this will turn out any different than health care?

It’s hard to know what to do with the reality of a massively dysfunctional national government. On some issues, at least, we can do for ourselves locally what the federal government will not.  For example, we can invest in local credit unions if Congress cannot control the Wall St. banks. We can grow much of our own food if there is no federal alternative to the health-and-environment-destroying practices of industrial agriculture. In fact, as “Small Mart Revolutionary” Michael Shuman noted in last month’s Voice, we could and should be producing many of our own commodities locally, including energy.

Which is all to the good, because when it comes to depending on our national government to solve our problems, well, it’s probably best to keep your sense of humor. To quote Will Rogers again, “There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.”  Let’s just hope we can all still laugh this time next year.

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