Twelve Months of Fizzle

Barack Obama's first year in office may well be marked by an epic political disaster: an upset Senate victory for Republicans. The Massachusetts seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy may be won tomorrow by Scott Brown, a state legislator who has campaigned on a promise to halt Obama's health plans. That promise has bite, too. Under Senate rules, 60 affirmatives are needed to end debate and force a vote. Today, the Democrats have just exactly 60. If Brown wins, they will drop to 59.

Such an outcome in Massachusetts would confront Democrats with two ugly alternatives.

1) Democrats could adopt the version of health-care reform already enacted by the Senate as the final version. The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives could adopt the Senate version as its own, enact that, and send the Senate bill to the President to sign.

Democratic voters look dispirited: Low turnout among young people and minorities doomed Democratic hopes in November's elections in Virginia and New Jersey, and it's projected that Democratic turnout in Massachusetts tomorrow will be lower still.

In that case, the Senate need not vote on health-care again through its regular processes. (Although it could tinker a little with the bill through a budget process called "reconciliation" that operates by simple majority). The loss of the 60th senatorial vote would not matter.

But also in that case (and here's the ugly part for Democrats) the House would have to surrender almost all hope of asserting its own more liberal vision of health-care reform.

2) Or the Democrats could play dirty. Ted Kennedy's former seat is temporarily occupied by an appointee, Paul Kirk. If Brown is elected, state officials in Massachusetts might go slow on certifying his election--leaving Kirk in place for two or three additional weeks. That could be time enough to finish negotiations with the House and reenact a combined bill through both Houses.

Such a manoeuvre on so huge and controversial a piece of legislation would convulse the Senate and impose big political risks on Democrats elected from more conservative states. Still: Health care reform would have been irreversibly crammed through.

And on this first anniversary, President Obama desperately needs a win, really almost any win. One out of five working-age men is without work, 10% of the entire labour force. The average unemployed worker has been out of work for more than six months, the worst number since record keeping began in the 1940s. From the point of these unemployed, the President's stimulus plan must look an utter failure.

Obama's economic team warned a year ago that without the stimulus plan, unemployment might soar as high as 10%. With the US$800 -billion stimulus, they hoped to hold unemployment to 8%. The stimulus was adopted. Most of the money has been deployed. And what is there to show for it?

The big bold projects talked of a year ago--high speed rail! A new smarter national electrical grid! Hundreds of modern school buildings!--remain on the drawing boards. The money has helped states avoid laying off government workers. It has repaved some roads. But travel through the United States and it is very hard to detect evidence of the expenditure of three quarters of a trillion dollars.

The news that banks have been restored to profitability--and are again paying massive bonuses--must come as even colder comfort still. For all the talk of hope and change, this still looks very much a status-quo presidency, and a very bad "quo" it is, too.

Democratic voters look dispirited: Low turnout among young people and minorities doomed Democratic hopes in November's elections in Virginia and New Jersey, and it's projected that Democratic turnout in Massachusetts tomorrow will be lower still.

President Obama still has many assets. A majority of Americans continue to blame George W. Bush, not him, for the recession, according to a recent poll. His popularity still hovers north of 40%, better at 10% unemployment than George W. Bush had when unemployment was at 4%. His party still has a long way to sink before loss of Congress threatens as a serious possibility.

He is blessed in his opponents, too: The most visible conservatives in the country--the Fox News lineup, talk radio hosts, and Sarah Palin--continue to poll very badly. Republicans who might do better, including potential future national nominees such as Tim Pawlenty and Mitt

Romey, have not yet gained the fame or credibility of their more controversial counterparts.

But the trend is against Obama. He bet his Presidency on economic remedies, and 12 months into that Presidenc y, those remedies have not yielded perceptible positive results. A verdict will be delivered tomorrow. And beyond . . . comes the Democratic panic.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Larry Cole

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About the Author


  • David Frum is the author of six books, most recently, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2007). While at AEI, he studied recent political, generational, and demographic trends. In 2007, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph named him one of America's fifty most influential conservatives. Mr. Frum is a regular commentator on public radio's Marketplace and a columnist for The Week and Canada's National Post.

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