By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
As the great debate raged on Capitol Hill over the weekend, I happened to run into Norm Ornstein, the American Enterprise Institute scholar. It was a happy encounter, since I needed an expert to validate a notion that was rattling around in my brain, about the political winners and losers in the healthcare debate.
Ornstein confirmed something I had read, or been told, once upon a time: that in predicting the outcome of an off-year election, no indicator is more reliable than a president's popularity.
Voters may be upset about the lagging economy, or generally disgusted with Congress and its ways, but if Barack Obama has a relatively healthy approval rating in November, the Democrats won't lose as many seats as the GOP prognosticators say.
Here is a chart, compiled by a Republican political consulting group, that Reuters has used to illustrate the trend.
A midyear election is generally a referendum on the president. And I have to think, with my friend Rob, that Obama is going to get beaucoup credit from American voters for shepherding the healthcare bill through Congress. In doing so, he proved himself what we hire presidents to be: leaders with conviction, resolve, and skill.
Here is Farrell's first rule of politics, as regards the American presidency: Americans want lions more than foxes or owls.
A lot of Americans didn't agree with Ronald Reagan but admired his commitment to his principles. And while many Americans were disappointed in Bill Clinton, he won a second term because, the voters decided, he had so little quit. And no one needs to be reminded of George W. Bush's greatest asset--sticking to his guns, in good times and in bad.
We are little more than a year into the Obama presidency and, whether you agree or disagree with his policies, you have to admire the man's conviction. He is making the tough choices--on the economy, on Afghanistan, on healthcare--and not wavering under fire. And fire there is. They didn't get as much ink as the tea party louts who shouted insults at black and gay members of Congress, but there were other sizable protests in Washington this weekend--an anti-war march by liberals who want us out of Afghanistan, and another big rally on Sunday in which tens of thousands of folks demanded immigration reform.
Surely Nancy Pelosi, as the stories say, did her part. I won't forget her simple declaration, on the afternoon of the healthcare summit, that her party was not going to go home and tell hard-pressed Americans who had trusted the Democrats that the party could not deliver because the process was just too hard. No way. Not on her watch. A rock.
But speakers don't lead America. Presidents do. And from the instant Scott Brown took Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in January, Americans started watching more than just the debate; they tuned in to see how Obama would handle the first great political crisis of his term. Could he steady the crew? Maintain the course? Would he flee from adversity, or persevere, and prevail?
The new president responded with courage. As Hemingway would say, he showed grace under pressure. He walked into the Republican caucus and took it on. He gave the Republicans a few weeks to recover from that bruising, and whipped them again at the White House summit. He went out on the trail and showed fire and fight, rallying Democrats to the cause.
This afternoon, the landscape for November is transformed. The Democratic base is joyous and fired up. Independents are wary, but impressed. And the Republicans must deal, as David Frum points out, with a grave political problem.
I noted this morning how conservatives and mainstream business and healthcare interests were huge winners in this healthcare debate, which ended--not with anything close to a government takeover--but with a historic reaffirmation of America's faith in a private insurance system.
Yet Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and other right-wing media greedheads refused to let Republican elected officials participate or take credit for this very real victory. Instead, they whipped the GOP base into an ever-more-frenzied, unsatisfiable, state of paranoia. As Frum notes:
Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination.
When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say--but what is equally true--is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed--if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office--Rush's listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.
So today's defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry. Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio. For them, it's mission accomplished. For the cause they purport to represent, it's Waterloo all right: ours.
Frum is right to warn his fellow Republicans. Fox News is no longer being seen as a wing of the Republican Party. The Republican Party is in danger of becoming just a wing of Fox News.
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- See our photo gallery of the last week of the healthcare debate.