President Obama and the late Democratic Congress had a terrific valedictory week. Obama reminded us of the leader whom we elected. His December 22 press conference was one of his best performances as president.
Democratic senators rose to rare heights of leadership.
Obama seems to rally mainly when his back is against the wall, after much damage has already been done. But unlike his 2008 election victory, the prior damage cannot be undone this time by one heroic come-from-behind sprint. Next week, Republicans will formally take over the House thanks to the 2010 midterm election debacle, and they will make their 2009-2010 brand of obstruction seem tame.
What's astonishing is that the several unlikely legislative wins were accomplished in the waning days of the lame-duck session, when Republicans had every possible motivation to obstruct. Yet somehow, more difficult legislating was done by the Senate in the final week of the session than was done in the whole prior year, when Democrats had a much more secure majority. How do we explain that?
For the apostles of bipartisan cooperation, the successes on New START, and Don't Ask Don't Tell, health care for 9/11 first responders, food safety legislation, temporary funding of the government pending the next budget, as well as the near miss on immigration reform (the DREAM Act) were all achieved by the splendidly constructive tone set by the president earlier in the month by his embrace of a mostly Republican tax deal. As the story goes, this put the Republicans in a more collaborative frame of mind.
I don't buy that fable, and neither should you. The evidence just doesn't support such a conclusion, even though this is the Beltway pundit storyline. (See Broder, Krauthammer, Brooks, et al.)
Take the bills where Democrats prevailed, one at a time, and you'll see why.
New START. The Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, never wavered in his opposition. It was the reality-based wing of the Republican Party in the Senate that came around, thanks to a very effective campaign by the White House, the military joint chiefs of staff, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry and his traditionalist GOP collaborator Richard Lugar of Indiana. Just enough Republicans put aside the plum of one more partisan bloody nose for Democrats and voted for the national interest. They also recognized that rejecting an arms control deal that is needed to prevent nuclear proliferation would have reflected very badly on their party. The rosy glow of the tax deal had nothing to do with it. Democrats led, pursued sensible policy, played hardball, and won.
Don't Ask Don't Tell. Here again, the Republican leadership did everything it could to kill the bill, and were simply out-played. There were no further compromises intended to appease GOP hard-liners. Democrats displayed the kind of partisan hardball that has eluded them all year. Republicans outside the Bible Belt realized that they were on the wrong side of public opinion, and that acceptance of gays in the military and elsewhere will only increase over time, to their disadvantage if they are identified as the party of bigotry. Even Joe Lieberman emerged as a progressive leader on this one.
Health Care for First Responders. This really infuriated and ultimately stymied the Republicans. It's hard to imagine a more patriotically resonant issue not to be on the wrong side of. Stories of the GOP defeating a bill to help those are now suffering for having risked their lives to save others in the iconic attack on America was an escalating P.R. disaster for the right. Senators Schumer, Gillibrand and others showed real leadership in fighting for this. Even worse than the main story was the fine print. Democrats proposed to pay for the cost of this program by repealing a tax preference that rewards corporations for sheltering foreign dividend income. So Republicans were not just blocking aid to first responders but doing so in order to preserve a tax giveaway. Even so, the Republican leadership did force a cut in the amount of the aid and a change in how it was paid for.
Food Safety. Republicans also found themselves on the wrong side of the Food Safety Modernization Act, after widely publicized deaths and illnesses from E. coli and other outbreaks. Democrats hung tough, and the Senate passed the measure by voice vote December 19.
The point is that all of these votes were victories for Democratic principle and tenacity, not for Democratic conciliation and capitulation.
Temporary Funding of the Government. Despite the supposed goodwill engendered by Obama's tax-deal compromise, incoming House Speaker John Boehner tried to demand a general $100 billion spending cut as the Republicans' price for allowing government to be funded into the new year. Ultimately, they supported a "continuing resolution" -- a spending freeze at 2010 levels -- but only for now, realizing that they will have the votes to slash discretionary spending in March or April, via the budget resolution and the mandatory vote to raise the national debt ceiling.
The DREAM Act. Democrats narrowly lost this one, because immigration is a hot-button pocketbook issue for native born voters in a deep recession. It's hard to gin up compassion for immigrants, even for the innocent and hard working children of undocumented immigrants, when unemployment is ten percent in the general population. That's why most Senate Republicans (and five faithless Democrats) felt there was not much risk in voting against this bill and even a little peril in voting for it. If there was a victory to be denied Democrats who were otherwise on a Christmas roll, this was the vote. President Obama put it beautifully at that year-end press conference:
I get letters from kids all across the country -- came here when they were five, came here when they were eight; their parents were undocumented. The kids didn't know -- kids are going to school like any other American kid, they're growing up, they're playing football, they're going to class, they're dreaming about college. And suddenly they come to 18, 19 years old and they realize even though I feel American, I am an American, the law doesn't recognize me as an American. I'm willing to serve my country, I'm willing to fight for this country, I want to go to college and better myself -- and I'm at risk of deportation.
And it is heartbreaking. That can't be who we are, to have kids -- our kids, classmates of our children -- who are suddenly under this shadow of fear through no fault of their own. They didn't break a law -- they were kids....
I am determined and this administration is determined to get immigration reform done.
But as well as Obama and the lame-duck Democrats did on the several recent issues that were not pocketbook issues, his success or failure as president will depend on whether he can get a real recovery going. And sadly, there is not much linkage between his success and enhanced stature on issues like New Start and Don't Ask Don't Tell and the pressing issues of jobs and economic security.
The new, more heavily Republican Congress will be promoting policies to cut public spending, in the teeth of a recession. The more they succeed, the slower will be the recovery and the more Obama will look like an economic failure. Even if Obama and the Democrats now lack the votes to put the economy on a radically different course, at the very least they can display the resolve that they showed in the closing days of the last Congress, and show the contrasts between the parties rather than their convergence.
Robert Kuttner's most recent book is A Presidency in Peril. He is co-editor of the American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos .
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