Tea Party, Health Reform, Dream Act Good for Democrats in 2010

'Don't ask, don't tell' repel and the New START treaty were also good.

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When my editor suggested I write about the best things to happen to Democrats in 2010, the first answer that came to mind was: It ends in just a few days. It's mordant, but it's true. Consider the midterm "shellacking," the BP oil spill, and President Obama's problematic poll numbers.

But while Democrats will be happy to see the end of 2010, a longer view will show that the year was kinder to the president and his party than it now seems. Here are my picks of the seven best things for Democrats that happened in 2010: [See slide show of 7 reasons 2010 was good for Democrats.]

Healthcare reform. The president achieved what Democrats since Franklin Roosevelt couldn't: an overhaul that will close the country's uninsured gap. And he did so as the number of uninsured Americans hit a record high--50.7 million, or 16.7 percent of the population, according to Census data released in September. That's up by 7.2 million people in just two years. The law remains stubbornly unpopular, with 52 percent disapproving according to the Real Clear Politics poll average (though some portion of that comes from progressives who feel the law under-reaches). But many of the law's individual components--parents' ability to keep children on their insurance, for example--remain highly popular. The law may have been poor short-term politics, but it's the right policy, and over time poll numbers will reflect that. [Read more about healthcare reform.]

The Tea Party. The Tea Party movement gave the GOP an enthusiasm boost in 2010, helping propel them to a House majority. But its propensity for backing fringe candidates and purging pragmatists was a boon to Democrats. Go ask Sens. Harry Reid, Michael Bennet, and Chris Coons what they would be doing next year if the Tea Party hadn't helped nominate polarizing figures like Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, and Christine O'Donnell. 

But the kind of inflexible adherence to principle demanded by the Tea Party crowd is often at cross-purposes with the sort of give-and-take required in governing (see, for example, the president's tax deal). All the new Tea Partyers in the House could give incoming Speaker John Boehner some gray hairs to go with his famous tan (and, for that matter, something to cry about). 

And looking ahead to 2012, activists are already talking about primary challenges to Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar (who opposed the recent earmark ban and supported the DREAM Act), as well as traditional moderates like Maine's Olympia Snowe and one-time Tea Party cult hero Scott Brown of Massachusetts. GOP presidential wannabes will have to pay their respects to the movement, thanks in part to CNN which recently announced it would sponsor a GOP debate with the Tea Party Express next fall. Democrats can only hope the coalition's magic won't have waned by then. [Check out our editorial cartoons on the Tea Party.]

Wall Street reform. The financial regulatory reform bill that Obama signed over the summer is another example of good policy that didn't translate into immediate political gains, though unlike healthcare reform it didn't become an instant albatross. In 2012, assuming the economy is showing the signs of life necessary for a credible Obama re-election run, the law will be a major item on the president's list of first-term accomplishments. The law also created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Obama immediately appointed progressive hero Elizabeth Warren to oversee its actual establishment. Not only was this a good choice on the merits, but it was an olive branch to the left at a time when frustration with the administration was reaching crisis levels.

Obama's tax deal.  The tax deal that the president brokered was not only a rare meeting of good politics and good (on balance) policy, but it helped clear the way for a string of victories to close out the year. While extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich isn't so much damaging as simply wasteful, it is outweighed by the stimulative effects of extending unemployment benefits and cutting the payroll tax. Obama signaled a renewed sense of bipartisanship. And as one Democratic strategist pointed out to me, the deal puts the lie to GOP claims of fiscal responsibility. At a time when the GOP was holding the line for millionaires and billionaires, the Democrats were fretting about finding money for unemployment benefits and healthcare for 9/11 first responders.