Is the Democratic Party obsolete?
That’s the question that keeps nagging me as I watch President Obama and the Democratic leadership fumble away their opportunities to fight for meaningful reform of health care and the financial system.
The president and congressional leaders consistently shy away from fighting for reforms they themselves propose, such as the public option or the consumer financial protection agency.
They obsess over whether someone will accuse them of partisanship, or whether they will spook the markets if they crack down on reckless profligate bankers. They appear to find any excuse to avoid pushing the kinds of fundamental of changes that would challenge the health care and financial industry.
I don’t think you can blame the Republicans, whatever their own faults. They oppose reform. They’re fighting Obama and his policies as a way to regain power. They’re pursuing that opposition determinedly, and they’re betting it will pave their way back to a majority. It’s not the Republicans’ fault if they set traps for the Democrats and the Democrats continually fall for them.
Members of the Democratic leadership have shown profiles in cowardice when it comes to fighting for any reforms opposed by the insurance or financial industries. In the latest display, House and Senate leaders are furiously trying to blame the other for the death of the public option, even though it’s supported by a majority of Americans and even 40 members of the U.S. Senate.
But the insurance companies have fought the public option, which would provide those forced to buy health insurance under reform an alternative to private insurance. So the Democratic leadership has shown determination to find a way to eliminate the provision without leaving their fingerprints on the corpse.
The same with financial reform, where the Democrat leadership has zigged and zagged but hasn’t won the fight for strong independent consumer protection or meaningful regulation of the complex investments that blew up in the meltdown. Sen. Chris Dodd, the long-time friend of insurers and financial titans who serves as Senate Banking chair, flirted with a strong reform proposal when he was running in a tough reelection campaign. But he backed off after he decided to retire and now appears ready to resume his traditional role in service to the bankers’ lobby. As an industry publication recently noted, insurance companies will miss Chris Dodd.
The Democratic leadership don’t seem to stand for any strong principles.
The president and Democratic leaders pay only lip service to the deep anger in the country over the erosion of the middle class, and the bank bailout that pumped up Wall Street while leaving Main Street on life support. The Democrats fear that anger because they know that their own Wall Street-friendly policies have helped fuel the series of speculative bubbles that brought prosperity and then a crash that wiped out the financial security of millions of Americans.
The president and his party are banking that the economy will improve enough by later this year, and 2012, to blunt voters’ anger.
If it does, the Democrats will claim credit for setting the economy right without having unduly upset their contributors in the financial and insurance industries. Even better for the Democrats, they will be able to bolster their fundraising by showing how they hung tough against the call for stronger reforms.
The Democrats came into office promising not to “waste a crisis.” But their efforts to reform health care and the financial system and to put Americans back to work have shown a distinct lack of urgency.
Could there be another way?
Obama will face voters on the 100th anniversary of the last presidential election in which a third-party candidate beat a major party candidate. The third-party candidate was a former president, Teddy Roosevelt, running on the progressive Bull Moose ticket promising to bust up the powerful big corporations of the day, known as trusts. Roosevelt was angry that the president who followed him, Republican William Howard Taft, hadn’t followed in his activist political footsteps. The former president was not afraid to show his ire, calling on his followers to launch “a genuine and permanent moral awakening.”
Taft, for his part, favored a laissez-faire policy toward business and regulation that resonates with the era that we’ve been through. “A national government cannot create good times,” Taft said. “It cannot make the rain to fall, the sun to shine, or the crops to grow.” But by meddling, government could “prevent prosperity that might otherwise have taken place.”
Roosevelt lost the election to Woodrow Wilson, but he got more votes than hands-off Taft.
Today the tea party is rumbling on the right, threatening revolt against the Republicans. There’s already the beginnings of a coffee party. If the economy doesn’t cooperate with the Democrats, the tea party’s discontent could be just the beginning of the end of the two-party stranglehold on our government.