2009 was a year of political battles in America. It is a very safe bet that 2010 will be one as well. In fact, almost every year of my life was a year of political battles in America.
The funny thing is that almost all those battles—at their core—have been about the role of Government in American life. When I was a young man almost everybody agreed that Government was important and that it could and should be involved in the solution. In fact on issue after issue Republicans and Democrats competed to be the party offering the voters the best ideas for how Government could help.
That started to change with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Nixon’s Southern Strategy and Ronald Reagan created a new meme/frame to flip the debate on its head when he argues that Government was never the solution and instead that it was always the problem. That transformation took root thirty years ago and today it is taken as common wisdom in American Politics that Government is the problem. In the 1990s and most of the Zeros it was common to find both Parties offering voters ideas on how to keep Government in check and new ways to free the magical Markets from any oversight and/or regulation. As I recall, we were all going to get unicorns, stardust and free money out of the deal, but somehow it didn’t work out that way. (I’m told that some folks even are beginning to think that Markets are not actually magic. Who knew!)
In 2009 this battle about the value of Government went into overdrive for two reasons. One was the fact that the financial meltdown was a direct result of the Government-is-Bad-and-Markets-are-Magic school of thought. That crisis made a lot of folks suddenly turn to the Government for help and Wing-nuts were (and are) very worried about what might happen if Government proves that it can actually be part of the solution.
Wing-nut fears were compounded by the election of President Obama. He was the first Democrat elected in decades who might be able to flip conventional wisdom back to a pro-Government footing and away from Reagan’s myth.
It was war from day one. And the Republicans and the wing-nuts have been focused on this battle 100% ever since it was clear that Barack Obama would beat John McCain. They know this is the only battle that matters and so they are throwing everything they’ve got at blocking the idea that Government can be part of the solution from taking root.
As I’ve observed President Obama over the last year, it is clear that he is focused on this battle as well. I think it is the core battle of his Presidency and that he knows it. Just as he was focused in 2007 and 2008 on getting elected, he is now focused on winning this fight. He can see past the daily clutter and keeps his eyes on the actual fight at hand and the prize of victory. That is why he has my full support.
It is also why I’ve been having some concerns with Democrats and folks who have traditionally been my allies in this long political battle over the role of Government. Far too many on my side have lost sight of the larger battle and now spend their time and energy on fights, that while they have important aspects, are just not worth the focus, energy and effort they pull away from the larger battle.
Politics in America has always been about the layering of battles and victory in any era usually goes to the side that keeps their eyes on the prize. From 1932 through 1976 Democrats were pretty good at keeping focused on the larger fight. Since 1976, it has been the Conservatives, wing-nuts and the GOP who have had the discipline to keep their eyes on the prize. That began to change in 2006 and 2008, but the 2010 cycle will tell us a lot about which side is paying attention to the core battle these days.
The fact that all their policies have led to ruin does not matter for these wing-nuts, if they can unite to win on the big fight they’re pretty sure that they will be able to defeat Obama and the Democrats (yet again).
And it looks like they are on to something. While President Obama tried to keep the focus on this larger fight over the role of Government, folks in his coalition (left, right and center) quickly decided to choose this moment as an opportunity to engage in other battles. As a result, the HCR debate quickly devolved into a series of these smaller battles. And in just a few months many folks had elevated these smaller battles above everything else, including the larger fight about changing the way folks think about the role of Government.
And so in the HCR debate, the public option was morphed into a MacGuffin to catalyze a long simmering fight between progressives, moderates and conservative Democrats over power in Democratic Party and Obama’s Washington.
Of course, this quickly became a pissing match and the most important thing ever for those folks who had invested themselves in that pissing match. For progressives, defeating the BlueDogs and the Conservadems became the most important political battle of 2009. For the BlueDogs defeating the progressives became the most important thing. And as the fight heated up, both sides began to do whatever was necessary to win the battle in any given news cycle regardless of the long-term impact on passing HCR, a larger Democratic agenda and the big fight over the role of Government.
Oddly, the folks most involved in the pissing match were always the ones who were most surprised when President Obama did not seem to care about which faction could pee the farthest in this fight. Instead, he was focused on moving the legislation to passage and counting votes in the House and Senate. And when Obama and his team suggested that these smaller battles were not that important, the folks invested in these fights decided that he needed to be attack to force him to care about the pissing match.
And so they did. And to do so, they embraced core wing-nut frames and meme like “Your can not trust Government”, “Government is the problem”, “taxes are always eeevviil” and so on. And after a year of this accidental capitulation to the GOP, these folks are surprise that the Republican Party won a Senate seat in MA and are doing well in the polls for November.
So now we start another year and folks on the Democratic side of the aisle will have to decide quickly which battle is the most important one to fight this year.
For me, it is still the fight over the role of Government. That trumps, defines and informs all the other battles (IMHO). If we unify I think things will work out. If we don’t, the wing-nuts will exploit our divisions as they have most of my life. Each of us has a choice to make.
It is time to get past the inflated battles of 2009. It is time to focus on the main event: the role of Government in American life. The wing-nuts are focused 100% on winning this battle and so is the President. I think we should join him.
Did you make your calls today? The Senate switchboard: 202-224-3121. That would be a great place to start.