Thursday 10 September 2009

Obama on the attack, Republicans in retreat

The speech

Polls and reactions to the speech showed that, as a number of observers commented, it was a “game changer” and a “home run”. Obama found his voice, gave his best speech since the big one in 2004, defended the role of government and liberal ideas, conveyed the moral imperative of the issue, and increased the odds on passing real reform. He received dozens of standing ovations, and a focus group loved the speech and increased their support for his plan by 20 points. By offering a centrist, bipartisan vision including Republican ideas like tort reform, individual mandates, and a trigger requiring spending cuts if deficits are threatened, Obama showed that he was the grownup reaching out to the other side, while the Republicans were indulging in shrill lies and tantrums. He tried to split the conservatives who claim they want to work with him, from the wingnuts who want to kill any reform.

The Republican boors

The last time Obama did a major health-reform event, it was swallowed up by the Gates-police controversy. This time the media’s obsession with trivia worked hugely in Obama’s favor: the next day the story was all Wilson, Wilson, Wilson. The Democrats had been struggling to find a way to show what a bunch of dishonest thugs the Republicans were, and the Republicans proved their point for them, with Wilson’s outburst, and with the other Republicans booing during the speech, shouting, laughing, waving signs, Eric Cantor ignoring Obama in favor of his Blackberry, and generally acting like frat-house buffoons. The contrast was striking: Obama the Grownup versus The Boneheads – and how did these yokels get elected in the first place? A Carolina Democrat said Wilson made the state look even worse than Mark Sanford had; Barney Frank said that the GOP outbursts betrayed their desperation; a focus group was appalled by the GOP heckling and the lies; one blogger bragged that Wilson’s antics persuaded his conservative father to join the Democrats. Pelosi wisely shot down a Democratic effort to sanction Wilson – let the people and the media crucify him instead.

And by the way, Wilson was dead wrong in the first place.

The Republicans are reeling. As it was, they had reached the point of diminishing returns with their lie/smear/attack strategy, and they were essentially out of rhetorical weapons of attack. But Wilson made things even worse: now, instead of spending the next 3-4 news cycles spewing lies and attacks at Obama, they will be forced to defend Wilson and the rest of the Wednesday-night buffoons. Most Republicans realize it was a bad night: the conservative Politico site admitted that Wilson’s boorishness could be a turning point for the Democrats, and even Bob Dole, the chief architect of the effort to kill Hillarycare in 1994, said that after a while people will start wondering – what are Republicans for? Some Republicans, of course, are clueless: Michael Steele insisted that it was Obama who brought the partisanship to the event, some Republican operatives were actually trying to exploit the Wilson’s “standing up to Obama” to raise money, and Eric Cantor, cornered by a reporter who wanted to know what compromises the GOP would put on the table, evaded the question and insisted that the public option must be killed. Meanwhile it was learned that Capitol Police arrested an armed wingnut who was trying to get onto the Capitol grounds during the speech, which only makes the wingnuts look even scarier.

The Fighter

Obama also showed that he’s a fighter who will call a liar a liar. EJ Dionne said that Obama stopped channeling Adlai Stevenson and came out like Truman. One by one he called them out on their lies: we won’t take away your favorite doctor, or blow up the deficit, or take away your Medicare. Four GOP Senators (Snowe, Collins, Bennett (Utah) and Gregg) actually applauded when Obama shot down the death-panel nonsense – wow! Sometime soon, expect the White House to rebut the lies spewed by Dr. Boustany in the GOP response to the speech.

Uniting the Democrats

Barbara Boxer met Obama after the speech, kissed him on the cheek and told him he hit it out of the park; Obama replied, loudly, “now let’s get it done”, with a look of determination on his face. He is in no mood for nonsense from the wingnuts – or from the Blue Dogs or liberals in his own party. The morning after the speech, Obama summoned 17 Senate Democrats to the White House woodshed for a talking-to. Most of the “invitees” have resisted the more polite appeals from Obama: Pryor, Lincoln, Warner, Shaheen, Landrieu, Bayh, McCaskill, Carper, Specter, Begich, Udall, Bennet, both Nelsons, Hagan, Kohl and Lieberman. Lincoln, incidentally, just nabbed a new chairmanship: did she have to make any commitments to Obama to get it?

Some of these Blue Dogs are already sounding more conciliatory: Nelson sounded more like a supporter of Obama’s plan than he had before the speech; Conrad liked the speech and said failure is not an option; McCaskill floated the idea of a “handcuffed” public option, to prevent it from turning into a full-blown “government plan”, whatever that means.

Meanwhile Nate Silver has new analysis showing that in most of those Blue Dog districts, the public option actually has plurality support. Also in Louisiana, Arkansas, New Mexico, Montana, Colorado, Iowa….And who are the Senators from those states?? All of which suggests that Obama should be able to nail these guys down.

Obama has also been signaling to the liberal wing of the party that maybe it’s time for them to stop giving him public ultimatums: Maxine Waters, leader of the liberals, said the liberals can’t just ignore the president, who’s showing his toughness; some people will back down. However, notice that it is the Blue Dogs, not the liberals, who are getting spanked today.

What’s next?

Obama will hold a health reform rally Saturday in Minneapolis; in his hand he will have a copy of the latest census report which shows that the number of uninsured is now 46.3 million. Obama’s popularity spike won’t last forever, which may be why Biden said he expects a bill by Thanksgiving, driven by an LBJ-like effort by Obama to get it passed; Plouffe, echoing Obama, said it must happen this year, or else the cause of reform could be delayed for years. So expect heavy volumes of footdragging activity by McConnell and the Republicans.

Obama, at the very least, insists that everyone must have access to affordable care; Axelrod believes the final bill will have some sort of public option, possibly with a trigger, and Joe Klein thinks Obama will get a bill this year, pretty close to what he proposed. The New York Times suggested that it’s too soon to abandon the public option, and it should only be traded away for significant vote support, and with a trigger. The White House told liberals that the climate for the public option might be better later in the process, rather than earlier.

Then again, Schumer is talking publicly about simply shoving the public option through the reconciliation process, and that may be what Obama is talking to those 17 Senators about.

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