by Jeff Strabone
The more I read about the so-called enthusiasm gap among Democrats—the idea that they have so lost their enthusiasm for President Obama that they somehow won't be able to vote in next month's Congressional and local elections—the more I wonder about the lack of public skepticism about its existence. True, one hears a lot of bellyaching on the left these days, but when does one not hear bellyaching on the left? Come Election Day, the enthusiasm gap may turn out to be true, and it may not. Given the talent gap in the Republican Party and its surfeit of certifiable psychos, a.k.a. the Tea Party, there could just as likely be something stronger brewing among the center-right: a revulsion gap, i.e. Republican voters unable to vote for kooks like Rand Paul in Kentucky, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Sarah Palin's uncanny double, Christine O'Donnell of Delaware.
Predictions are fun, and I've issued my share of them publicly and privately. But the conversation that Democrats ought to be having is whether we should be feeling an enthusiasm gap at all or rather, as I believe, an enthusiasm spike.
Democrats generally complain about their elected leaders. That's what we do. It is a style that distinguishes us from many Republicans. Republican presidents can run the country into the ground, as in the last decade, yet Republican voters will stand by their man, à la Tammy Wynette. And if anyone complains about a Republican president, many in the GOP will turn around and question that person's patriotism.
Notwithstanding the customary litany of complaint that often characterizes patriotism from the left, let's consider whether there is any particular merit in the Great Enthusiasm Gap of 2010. Are there extraordinary reasons to be disappointed in President Obama, and what did people think would happen when they voted for him in 2008?
Absolutely, I wish all of the following legislative accomplishments of 2009–2010 were further-reaching:
• the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the federal stimulus);
• Obama's announcement of national investment in high-speed rail;
• the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act;
• the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act (health care reform); and
• the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
All of those reforms should have been deeper and more efficacious, and they should have made their way through Congress faster than they did. I wish Congress had passed many other reforms by now as well: climate and energy legislation, immigration reform, the repeal of the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' statute, and so on.
Before continuing with my wish list, let's pause for a moment and consider the scale of the reforms mentioned above. Yes, imperfections abound, but can anyone name a president since Franklin Roosevelt who took on so much with such far-reaching effects in so little time? And in the face of demonstrably unprecedented opposition?
Compared to Obama, Roosevelt had it easy. The 73rd Congress, of 1933–1934, had overwhelming Democratic majorities in both houses:
Senate: 60 Democrats (63%), 35 Republicans, 1 Farmer-Labor.
House: 312 Democrats (72%), 115 Republicans, 5 Farmer-Labor.
The Democrats in the 111th Congress, the current one, hold impressive 59% majorities in both houses, but, thanks to the procedural device in the Senate known as the filibuster, they cannot be said to enjoy impressive majorities. The use of the filibuster in the Senate during Obama's presidency knows no precedent in history. According to George Packer in the August 9, 2010 issue of the New Yorker:
For decades, the rule was rarely used; between 1919 and 1971, there were only forty-nine cloture votes, fewer than one per year. In the seventies and eighties, the annual average rose to about a dozen. (Frustration with this increase led the Senate, in 1975, to lower the threshold for cloture to sixty votes.) In the nineties and early aughts, the average went up to twenty-five or thirty a year, as both parties escalated their use of the filibuster when they found themselves in the minority. After the Republicans lost their majority in 2006, filibusters became everyday events: there were a hundred and twelve cloture votes in 2007 and 2008, and this session Republicans are on target to break their own filibuster record.
The tally of cloture votes reflects only a small fraction of senatorial obstruction. Three hundred and forty-five bills passed by the House have been prevented from even coming up for debate in the Senate.
It's all the more difficult to gather the sixty votes needed to overcome a filibuster when the Democrats' ranks in the Senate include conservative Democratic finks like Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who is currently holding up Obama's nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget because she opposes the president's moratorium on new permits for deep-sea petrol drilling.
While the Supreme Court of the 1930s did thwart elements of Roosevelt's agenda in the early years of his presidency, the current Court has handed the army of right-wing, billionaire-backed astroturf organizations a blank check. In the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 50 (2010), the Court ruled that corporate funding of such groups cannot be restricted. In the place of the invisible hand of the market, we now have the invisible wallets of the Koch brothers.
These are the obstacles that President Obama and the Democrats in Congress have overcome in order to pass the above list of reforms. What else have they achieved? you ask. Here are a few more major accomplishments that you may have forgotten or entirely overlooked while you were busy feeling dispirited.
1. Equal pay for women
The first bill signed into law by President Obama was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. It overturned a very bad 2007 Supreme Court decision which made it impossible for many plaintiffs to show pay discrimination.
2. Nuclear security
Earlier this year, President Obama may have earned his Nobel Peace Prize belatedly by taking several steps to reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe. On April 8, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a historic new strategic arms reduction treaty. On April 12 and 13, Obama convened the first Nuclear Security Summit, attended by delegations from 47 countries. On day one of this event, Obama and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych announced that the U.S. would assist Ukraine in removing all of its highly-enriched uranium. On day two, the U.S., Canada, and Mexico announced an agreement to eliminate all highly-enriched uranium in Mexico. Fanfare aside, reducing the potential amount of weaponizable 'loose nukes' in the world is far more valuable to global security than the series of actions formerly known as 'the war on terror'.
3. Student loan reform
The final piece of the health care reform bills, signed by Obama on March 30, 2010, includes a major reform of student loan practices. Among its provisions: from now on, loans will be administered directly by the Department of Education, rather than by private banks subsidized by the government; and, beginning in 2014, new borrowers will be able to cap the amounts of their repayment installments. When it comes to student loans, no longer will the banks enjoy privatization of profits cushioned by nationalization of risk.
4. Fuel efficiency
Bypassing the gridlock in the Senate, the Obama administration has quietly used federal regulations and executive orders to raise fuel-efficiency standards for motor vehicles. On April 1, 2010, the Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency set new fuel-efficiency rules for motor vehicles of model years 2012–2016. Among the goals, according to Talking Points Memo: 'by 2016 the equivalent of 35.5 miles per gallon combined for cars and trucks, an increase of nearly 10 mpg over current standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration'. Then on May 20, Obama signed an executive order to require still higher standards for vehicles made in 2017 and later. These are ecologically invaluable steps to take while broader energy reforms awaits Congressional action.
5. Coal mining and mountain-top removal
In June 2010, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers erected possibly insurmountable obstacles against the issuance of new mountain-top removal permits in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia. (Click here for a more detailed account than I am qualified to give.) Then on July 6, the EPA issued a new rule, called the Clean Air Interstate Rule , that will, beginning in 2012, 'require significant reductions in sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions that cross state lines'. According to the EPA's online presentation, 'the annual benefits from the proposed rule range between $120-$290 billion (2006 $) in 2014'. The health benefits: 14,000 to 36,000 fewer premature deaths avoided, 23,000 fewer non-fatal heart attacks, 1.9 million fewer missed days of school or work, and 11 million fewer days when people must restrict their activities.
6. Same-sex rights
Although repeal of the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell statute failed to reach a filibuster-proof majority last month, President Obama has used other tools to advance same-sex rights in other ways. On April 15, 2010, he directed the Department of Health and Human Services to require that all hospitals that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding—presumably all hospitals in the U.S.—to grant visitation rights to same-sex partners. Then on June 7, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that
For the first time in its history, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will require grant applicants seeking HUD funding to comply with state and local anti-discrimination laws that protect lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals.
That is an impressive record of achievement and as progressive a record as any president since at least Lyndon Johnson. Yet who on the left gives President Obama the credit he is due? I am all for pulling Obama further to our side, but right now it is time to win elections again.
I do hear and read liberal sorts saying that they are disappointed that change has not happened fast enough, and I agree. Surely, the big banks and the insurance companies have lost little of their power to run roughshod over the rest of us. But I also hear a deeper disappointment—that, to borrow a phrase from Sarah Palin, that 'hopey-changey thing' is not working out so well for us.
Many of the people who voted for Obama seem to have wanted some kind of unspecified but broader and deeper transformation, although no one can say quite what it would be. Their inability to articulate what it is, particularly when faced with Obama's record of achievement, gives it an air of the utopian. Did people really indulge the naive hope that the struggle would suddenly be over?
Politics is struggle—and it never stops. Yes, 59 Democratic seats in the Senate should have been enough to advance a progressive agenda. That it was not is no reason to pick up our toys and go home. Should we play into the hands of the forces that want us to suffer a vote-depressing enthusiasm gap for real? Should we throw our hands in the air because change is hard? Or should we exercise the right to vote that was given to us by the sacrifices of our predecessors and use it to fight for what we believe in? Surely, it was harder to keep up one's enthusiasm when political violence against the left was the norm. Reader, if you are one of the Democrats who are genuinely unethusiastic about the results so far, then my advice to you is to fight more, not less.
One thing that makes George Eliot's Middlemarch a great novel is that, unlike so many novels before it that end with a marriage, it begins with one. A presidential election is less Jane Austen than George Eliot. It is not the end of the story: it is only the beginning. As others have noted, that is one of the enduring problems with Democrats: we practice electoral politics, not movement politics.
Democrats look at winning presidential elections the way that Republicans imagine the consequences of war. Bush and Cheney really believed that the Iraqis would welcome us in Baghdad with open arms. As we have seen, they did not, nor should anyone have thought they would. Likewise, no intelligent person should have expected the Republican Party to roll over and play dead, despite the fact that it was and still is dying.
The Democrats are not the party with the big problem. The elections of 2006 and 2008 showed the GOP rushing headlong into oblivion as a regional Southern party permanently out of power. What have they done to change that? Nothing. They have only grown more fanatical, more anti-intellectual, and more hostile to allowing the government to fulfill its Constitutional mandate to promote the general welfare. Of course, they look more enthusiastic: they are desperate.
President Obama has achieved great things in two years despite many obstacles that we know only too well. Should we tie his hands further by reducing the number of Democrats in Congress? The solution is not to put more obstacles in Obama's path by handing control of Congress back to the Republicans. The answer is to give Obama's progressive agenda the fewest obstacles possible.
I say, vote on November 2 and vote enthusiastically. Be proud of the achievements of the last twenty months. Twist every arm, knock on every door, make every phone call. Do whatever you did in 2008, but do it harder this time. Show the entire country that Democrats are not pushovers and crybabies, and certainly not people who roll over and play dead every time the conservative machine roars. For if we are not sufficiently enthusiastic to hold on to our majorities in Congress next month, the years to come will cost us more than our enthusiasm: they may cost us the last best hope we had to undo the madness ushered in by the Reagan counter-revolution and to restore the fight for justice, dignity, and opportunity for all people that is this country's true foundation.