Live Together, Die Alone

For me, last night’s State of the Union address will forever be entwined with next week’s season premiere of Lost, and not just because of the much publicized scheduling conflict between the two television events. As strange as it sounds, ABC’s sci-fi inflected drama and the President’s moving oration share a common theme.

By imploring Congressional Republicans to cooperate with Democrats on confronting the many, critical concerns facing our nation, President Obama echoed the rallying cry of Lost ‘s motley crew of castaways: “live together, die alone.”

Following the crash of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815, the survivors find themselves marooned on a mysterious island in the South Pacific. Several days pass and cabin fever begins to set in. As tensions run high, a scuffle breaks out, prompting former trauma surgeon Jack Shepard to assert himself as the group’s leader.

After separating the two combatants, Shepard admonishes his newfound flock, “We can’t do this. Every man for himself is not going to work. It’s time to start organizing. We need to figure out how we’re going to survive here. If we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone.”

Likewise, speaking on behalf of all Americans last night, President Obama declared, “They are tired of the partisanship and the shouting and the pettiness. They know we can’t afford it. Not now…we face big and difficult challenges. And what the American people hope – what they deserve – is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics.”

A similar sentiment arises from both of these appeals. Each leader is beseeching his people to resolve their superficial or ideological differences in the interest of ensuring their mutual survival and shared prosperity. Like the American people, the Oceanic survivors came from diverse backgrounds and represented a wide-range of beliefs. And like us, they faced “big and difficult challenges.”

But, out of necessity, they banded together to divide labor, delegate responsibility and otherwise forge the bonds of a functioning society. Over two hundred years ago, a bold group of Americans from throughout the thirteen colonies made a similar pact: the Declaration of Independence. It’s time for us to renew those vows.

Retaining our position as global hegemon in this burgeoning century will require a massive investment in our future. We must fix our country’s crumbling infrastructure by repairing our dilapidated roads, bridges, dams and public transit systems. We must amend our unsustainable economic, environmental, energy and health care policies. And we must fight against the growing culture of distrust and cynicism that is suffocating our democracy.

Unless we unite to overcome these obstacles, our nation will collapse under “the numbing weight of our politics.” Live together, die alone. It’s that simple.

Waterloo or Dunkirk?

Last summer, Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) predicted that if Republicans were “able to stop” passage of a comprehensive health care reform bill, the defeat would be President Obama’s “Waterloo” (a reference to the French Emperor Napoleon’s final battle). In the months that followed, health care industry lobbyists and their GOP counterparts engaged in a shameful campaign of scare-tactics, disinformation and outright lies against reform.

This cynical crusade proved brutally effective, turning public opinion against the bill and helping to sweep Senator-elect Scott Brown (R-MA) into office. Consequently, Democratic leaders are considering scrapping the legislation and starting from scratch. Some even advocate walking away from the issue entirely. That would be a huge mistake. If Congressional Democrats abandon health care now, DeMint’s statement may very well come true.

On the contrary, by coming together and successfully salvaging some semblance of reform, this battle may prove to be President Obama’s Dunkirk rather than his Waterloo. For those who slept through history class, the “miracle of Dunkirk” occurred in 1940, prior to U.S. involvement in World War Two. Following a disastrous offensive against Nazi Germany in France, over 300,000 retreating British troops were rescued from the beaches around Dunkirk and ferried back across the English Channel to fight another day.

Ever since, the term “Dunkirk spirit” has been synonymous with Britain’s stoic resolve and tendency to band together when faced with tremendous adversity. Democrats can learn much from this quintessential “disaster turned to triumph.” If they answer the call of history and rally to pass comprehensive health care reform, it would provide a psychological boost to Democratic morale and build momentum heading into the 2010 midterm elections.

According to Politico.com, the most likely scenario for passage involves the House approving the Senate’s bill word-for-word, while House leaders make limited changes to appease certain, key constituencies. These revisions would then be passed by the Senate using a parliamentary maneuver known as reconciliation, generally reserved for budget measures, that requires only 51 votes.

Opponents of reform will inevitably argue that invoking reconciliation amounts to subverting the people’s will. However, that opinion fails to acknowledge the underhanded tactics employed by the GOP to influence public opinion. It also ignores the precedent set by the Bush Administration when they used reconciliation to push through their tax cuts for the wealthiest one-percent of Americans in 2001 and 2003.

As Democratic strategist David Plouffe noted in an op-ed piece for the Washington Post yesterday, “Americans’ health and our nation’s long-term fiscal health depend on” passing, “a meaningful health care reform package without delay.” The status quo, in regard health care and many other issues, is unsustainable. Congressional Democrats must approve the reform bill and let the American People judge it on its own merits instead of Republican propaganda.

The British experience at Dunkirk demonstrates how an inspiring moral victory, snatched from the jaws of demoralizing defeat, can quickly transform into an enduring, rallying cry. Although, as Prime Minister Winston Churchill cautioned after that epic rescue, “wars are not won by evacuations.” President Obama and his fellow Democrats must win major, decisive, legislative victories in the coming months and years. Passing a comprehensive health care reform bill by any means necessary is the first step towards achieving those goals.

What Happens Next

Tuesday’s Republican victory in Massachusetts proved only one thing: voters are angry. And when people are angry, they often make irrational decisions, like electing a former nude model to the United States Senate. Less than 48 hours after his unlikely win, senator-elect Scott Brown is already raising eyebrows across the nation.

In his victory speech, Brown offered up his daughters to “anyone who’s watching throughout the country.” Now, that’s family values. This bizarre incident even prompted conservative demagogue Glenn Beck to speculate that Brown’s career, “could end with a dead intern.”

The Senator-elect’s strange behavior isn’t my only reason for questioning voters’ judgment, however. Rather, The Bay State’s decision to send Brown to Washington is irrational because his statements clearly contradict the political values of those who elected him.

The sentiment I’ve heard expressed most often by disgruntled tea partiers is animosity directed at “too big to fail” financial institutions (for wrecking the economy) and the federal government (for bailing out those banks with taxpayer money). If that’s the case, they elected the wrong candidate to stick it to Wall Street’s fat cat financiers.

Martha Coakley, the defeated Democrat, enthusiastically endorsed a temporary tax on banking behemoths to recoup taxpayer losses from the TARP fund. Brown denounced this tax and vowed to vote against it in the Senate. So, I’m not sure what petulant populists gained by electing a man who openly opposes their expressed interests.

Perhaps, the reactionary wave sweeping across our country crested with Brown’s victory and the tide of hysteria is finally beginning to recede. Now that they’ve blown off some steam, maybe frustrated independent voters are ready to come back to their senses and get down to business.

Meanwhile, Democrats need to recalibrate their message. A recent NY Times article on the subject offered some useful advice. First, they need to aggressively confront Wall Street. Since the days of Andrew Jackson, Democrats have been the party of the people. They need take back this mantle by ensuring that taxpayers are made whole again.

Their strategy must also include stronger financial regulation of investment banks, especially those dealing in the exotic, derivatives market. Establishing a new Consumer Protection Agency to curb the worst abuses of the credit card industry is essential as well.

Finally, Democrats need to address our mounting national debt and budget deficit. The Bush Administration saddled us with a $482 billion deficit and the highest national debt in American history. It’s time to bring those numbers back under control and Democrats have a solid track record of doing so. After all, President Clinton left office with a $230 billion budget surplus.

What happens next will determine our nation’s future. The status quo is unsustainable, especially in regard to our economic, environmental, energy and health care policies. The American People elected President Obama with a strong mandate for change. We can’t afford to let the irrational decisions of an angry mob distract us from achieving our goals.

Buyer’s Remorse

As the saying goes, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Unfortunately, it appears that the people of Massachusetts have an extremely short memory. Little more than a year after Americans relegated the hapless Bush Administration to the dustbin of history, voters in The Bay State seem ready to make the same mistake that brought George W. Bush to power in 2000: choosing style over substance.

Riding a wave of misplaced, “populist outrage,” an obscure state senator and darling of the Tea Party set named Scott Brown stands poised to upset Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in today’s special election; a contest that will decide the Senate seat vacated by Democratic icon Ted Kennedy when he passed away last August.

The media’s preferred narrative for this campaign depicts Brown as an exciting, charismatic, crusader who understands the public’s dissatisfaction with President Obama and his “big government” agenda. Meanwhile, Coakley is characterized as a hopelessly bland, liberal, bureaucrat who’s lost touch with “regular folks.”

If this storyline sounds familiar that’s because it bares a striking resemblance to one that made the rounds during the 2000 Presidential Election. As some of us still remember, that contest quickly devolved into a referendum on which candidate voters would rather have a beer with, George W. Bush or Al Gore. The ensuing decade provided ample evidence that relatability isn’t always the best criterion for governing.

As far as I can tell, Brown’s most notable accomplishments include driving a pick-up truck with over 200,000 miles on it, posing nude in a 1982 issue of Cosmo and raising a daughter who once competed on American Idol. While these experiences have (for some reason) endeared him to the citizens of Massachusetts, they hardly qualify Brown for admission into our nation’s most exclusive governing body.

More troubling still are the remarks Brown made during the 2008 campaign, when he implied that then-candidate Obama was born out-of-wedlock and made disparaging remarks about his deceased mother (like most tea partiers, Brown is a real class act).

The most frustrating aspect of Brown’s rise, however, is that he’s ideologically bound to oppose the interests of the blue-collar and middle-class voters who comprise his base. Should he prevail, Congress can forget about passing essential legislation like health care reform, improved financial regulations, enhanced consumer protection laws, a cap-and-trade climate change bill and a second round of economic stimulus. The only policies Republicans like Brown are willing to say “yes” to these days are tax cuts that disproportionately favor the wealthy.

If the people of Massachusetts ignore history by electing Scott Brown to the Senate, I anticipate a serious case of buyer’s remorse setting in shortly thereafter. It won’t take long for citizens of that notoriously blue state to realize that they’re stuck with an obstructionist, GOP hack eager to repeat the tragic follies of the Bush-era. When that happens, we’ll see if anyone still wants to have a beer with him.

Filibusted

If you thought the hard-fought battle to reform our nation’s woefully inadequate health care system was already won, think again. Republican Scott Brown has vowed to cast the decisive, 41st vote against the Democratic health care bill in the Senate, should he upset Democrat Martha Coakley in a special election in Massachusetts next Tuesday. That this coup de grâce could come from a seat once held by the late Ted Kennedy, health care reform’s greatest champion over the last several decades, only adds insult to injury.

There is more to this story, however, than just the special election. As columnist Gail Collins pointed out in today’s NY Times, the way the Senate currently does business is fundamentally flawed.

As we all learned in civics class, every state has two senators, regardless of population size. Hence, there are 100 senators in all with 40 of them representing America’s 20 least-populated states. According to Collins, those states account for only 10.2 percent of our total population.

However, if the senators from those states stick together, they only need one more vote to invoke a tactic known as the filibuster. This strategy exploits a Senate procedural rule requiring 60 votes to end debate and bring legislation to a final vote. As long as 41 senators refuse, they can effectively kill any bill they don’t like by extending debate indefinitely.

For fellow film enthusiasts, this parliamentary maneuver probably brings to mind the principled stand taken by Jimmy Stewart’s character in the 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. These days, however, the mere threat of a filibuster is enough to get the job done. So, you won’t see Minority Leader Mitch McConnell collapsing from exhaustion on the Senate floor after delivering a moving oration about the evils of “socialized medicine” anytime soon (as amusing as that spectacle would certainly be).

There’s something inherently wrong with a system that allows senators representing little more than 10 percent of our population to subvert the will of an overwhelming majority of Americans. I implore the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration to put an end to this chicanery by amending Rule 22 regarding the Precedence of Motions. Revising this requirement is necessary to ensure that the American people’s voice is heard in Washington and would also help cure the legislative paralysis currently crippling Congress.

The Shape Of Things to Come?

Republicans are already salivating over their prospects for the 2010 midterm elections. According to the narrative they’ve concocted, patriotic, “real Americans” are fed up with the socialist policies imposed on them by liberal Democrats whose radical, Big Government agenda has cost millions of people their jobs. If this story sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard it parroted by conservative mouthpieces like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or any Fox News commentator.

Never mind the fact that the Great Recession we’re now experiencing was caused by the Bush Administration’s profligate spending along with their quixotic obsession with tax cuts and financial deregulation. Instead of allowing this inconvenient truth to impede their return to power, the GOP has cynically calculated that since most people don’t pay attention to the news, they can just make it up. And this strategy is proving to be extremely effective.

Now we’re stuck with the growing tea party movement, which began as a project of FreedomWorks, the conservative action committee founded by former House Republican leader Dick Armey. This loosely affiliated network of tea parties has no central leadership and seems to lack any coherent ideology other than “guns good, government bad.” So, it’s certainly cause for alarm that their group is threatening to make a significant impact on our political landscape.

NY Times columnist David Brooks predicted today that this movement will define the politics of our coming decade. According to Brooks, the tea party outperformed both Democrats and Republicans in a recent Rasumssen organization poll and right-wing members of Congress are scrambling for the chance to lead the burgeoning faction. If this trend continues and the tea party’s ultra-conservative fiscal policies are allowed to disrupt our fragile recovery, then we’re headed for a double-dip recession.

The fact is, in order to pull ourselves out of this economic downturn we need more government intervention (specifically a second stimulus package) not less. At least, that’s the conclusion reached by most economists, including Nobel Laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. I’m inclined to believe these experts over a group of loud-mouthed malcontents with no formal economic training and no ideas to offer other than vague rhetoric gleaned from an Ayn Rand novel.

From what I’ve gathered about their intentions, these tea party brigades want to take us backward to some idealized version of 1950’s Americana that never existed in the first place. Democrats want to take us forward toward a new era of prosperity built on a foundation of sound economic, social and foreign policies. If the tea party wins, we all lose.