Why did Martha Coakley lose Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat? And why does health care reform appear to be going down in flames?
I don’t think that either one of those misfortunes for the Democrats has caused the other. Rather, they’re both symptoms of the same problem, and I don’t think it’s (just) “the economy, stupid”–that is, it’s nothing that can be explained just by economic statistics, and neither can it be blamed entirely on forces beyond the Democrats’ (human) control.
In Thursday’s front page story in the Washington Post, Michael Shear seems to nail it–not by his reference to the measurable “economic pain” of the middle class, but by the psychology he describes (emphasis added):
President Obama on Wednesday blamed the Democrats’ stunning loss of their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate on his administration’s failure to give voice to the economic frustrations of the middle class, a disconnect that White House aides vowed to quickly address as they continue to work to advance the president’s agenda.
Obama said the relentless pursuit of his domestic policies — and a failure to adequately explain their virtues — had left Americans with a “feeling of remoteness and detachment” from the flurry of government actions in Washington.
“We were so busy just getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises that were in front of us that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values,” he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.
I think there’s an important lesson here for the Administration, not about how to construct wise policies, but how to promote them to the American people. At first it was fine and good for Obama to be so inspirational and encouraging of great expectations, from the campaign trail all the way through the “honeymoon” period of his Administration (the first couple months?). But when it comes to the real work of really major policymaking (e.g., health care reform), it’s not enough to just inspire and then basically tell the American people to “leave the details up to us and don’t worry your pretty little heads about them.” In promoting their health reform agenda, the Administration’s lack of details on the hard choices left many people (those without “blind faith”) confused and feeling like something was surely being pulled over on them. (If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is…)
Policymakers, led by the Obama Administration, have been so busy trying to get fiscal stimulus done and then health reform done that they failed to keep real Americans “in the loop” in the process. They’ve been working on these huge public policy issues from a high altitude in a very academic manner from the top down, instead of at the grassroots level, in a plain talk manner from the bottom (the real people) up. I think the dispassionate, disengaged campaign and even demeanor of Coakley personifies the general problem of how the (mostly Democratic) policy leaders have approached health care reform and all other big economic policies they’ve tried to sell the American public on.
This should teach us a lesson on how to approach deficit reduction, successfully. It’s no longer going to be acceptable to the American public that the Administration and Congress “spare them” the ugly details. They won’t have faith in the good in the policies if they aren’t clearly explained the tradeoffs (the “bad”). And if they are “spared” the details of the tradeoffs, they are left to assume they have no say in which tradeoffs will be made. Ask the people what tradeoffs they’re willing to make, and hear them out and work with them (not above them) to smooth out the disagreements among them, and the people become much more committed to the cause and trusting of the process and the policymakers who ultimately write and pass the legislation. It seems to me there’s no better model for this than the Concord Coalition’s “fiscal stewardship project”–which involved diverse groups of concerned citizens from across the country. If the Obama Administration is serious about deficit reduction, they’ll need to listen and talk with groups like this throughout the process of trying to reduce the deficit. They can’t just go it alone, even with the help of some high-flying commission. (More on that issue tomorrow.)
Please don’t take this as political analysis, because I’m not a political analyst. It’s just that a fellow blogger friend of mine asked me today whether I thought the MA election was all about “jobs” (”the economy, stupid”)–and my first instinct was that no, I think it’s way beyond “the economy, stupid” and anything we could point to in the economic data. I think it’s all about how the politicians have handled the economy pretty well, but still left the people feeling left behind in the process.
[**UPDATE (Sat. am): here's the Politics Daily story by Joann Weiner (published on Friday) that got me thinking about this.]