What a week. Call it the Shock Doctrine in reverse: The Massachusetts election and yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling may force the Democrats to move to the left to ensure their political survival. They’re now faced with a choice they clearly didn’t want: forcefully reject the corporate agenda in health and financial reform, or risk losing to opponents who can attract an unlimited flow of corporate dollars.
Many of us who supported the Democrats last year knew they’d disappoint us at times, but Barack Obama’s mid-course corrections during the campaign showed that he had an innate teachability in the face of events that challenged his tactics or his beliefs. We need that teachability now, and it must extend to the rest of his party. WIthout it we may find ourselves in a nation where democracy is a commodity and real reform is an unreachable goal.
First came Massachusetts. Voters in a liberal state – one with a health reform initiative already in place – rejected the Democratic candidate in favor of a handsome cipher. Good-looking strangers are a sure sign that a marriage is in trouble, so when Northeastern voters went for a retread of Fred Thompson’s phony “old pickup truck” routine from Tennessee … well, it showed they’re pretty unhappy with what they’re getting at “home.”
And, as analyses and next-day polling made clear, these pro-health-reform voters rejected the Senate bill’s more right-wing remix of their own law. Most Obama voters who switched to Brown felt the Obama/Senate proposal “didn’t go far enough,” and polls now confirm that hostility toward the anti-middle-class “Cadillac tax” played a part in their disaffection, too. Democrats love to mock the tea-partiers, but it turns out they understood the nation’s middle class rage better than the White House did.
The Democrats are pivoting somewhat in response to the Massachusetts vote. As Simon Johnson explains, the President’s move to institute what he calls the “Volcker rule” limiting banks is clearly a response to Massachusetts. Pictures of the announcement showed Volcker standing behind Obama while Geithner, perhaps symbolically, stood well off to the side – the right side – of the President.
There was an immediate reaction in the Senate. The momentum shifted away from confirming Ben Bernanke, whose re-appointment marked the latest in a series of Presidential moves to endorse the Wall Street-friendly people who got us into this mess.
And that was just the first part of the week. The bigger shock was yet to come, with the Supreme Court’s ruling that corporate campaign contributions could not be limited because corporations are “persons.” Don’t try to understand the tortured logic, since this decision was clearly as cravenly political as Bush v. Gore. “Persons”? Here’s my test for “personhood”: Every person I know has had their heart broken at least once, then spent the night listening to sentimental songs. The only tune that moves corporations is that Motown classic, “Money.”
The Supreme Court ruling leaves Obama and the Democrats with another choice: Push aggressively for genuine campaign reform, or watch their careers get swept away by corporate-friendly (some would say more corporate-friendly) candidates awash in name-brand funding.
(Corporate sponsorship in sports has given us American Airlines Arena and the Staples Center; are we about to see the Wal-Mart White House and the Halliburton Hall of Congress?)
So a confluence of events struck the Democratic Party this week: A clear rejection of their Wall Street and health reform strategies, and a Supreme Court decision – perhaps “brought to you by Philip Morris” – that forces them to choose between genuine electoral reform or tacking right to compete with Republicans for corporate sponsors.
It was encouraging to see the President shift dramatically on both topics this week, with his articulation of the “Volcker rule” and his forceful statement in response to the Supreme Court ruling. But it’s in his nature to seek consensus, and consensus will be hard to find without confronting some difficult decisions first.
The window of opportunity is closing fast: We may have already seen the last American election where individual donors even matter. But if the President and his party rise to the occasion, this week may be remembered as the moment that meaningful change began.