04 July 2009

Safety in numbers

In the US Senate, the Democrats can claim sixty of that body's hundred members. In theory this enables them to votes as a bloc to introduce legislation, free of the threat of filibuster from the Republicans. In practice the conventional wisdom has it that this may be a bit more fraught, as this article demonstrates:
Keeping occasional mavericks like Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Evan Bayh of Indiana and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana in the fold could prove vexing. At the same time, senators at the more liberal end of the spectrum have been known to balk when they feel legislation has been too heavily tailored to appeal to more moderate and conservative Democrats ...

“Sixty is an important threshold, but we shouldn’t overstate it,” said Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Al Franken is going to put the wind at our back. But we are not a monolithic caucus.”

In the US, Senators tend to be self-made people and are more directly answerable to their home-state constituencies than Australian Senators are, as this piece illustrates. Of course they are going to assert their independence, particularly from people who played no part in helping them get there.

President Obama is not only popular, but his agenda addresses a number of key issues that have been unresolved in US politics: access to healthcare; the degree to which Iraq needs US forces to maintain public order and national integrity; and the regulation of the finance sector, the search for a system that will prevent a recurrence of the current situation without creating other problems down the track. He might not have all the answers and if his agenda is tweaked here and there, his record as a facilitator and a coalition-builder suggests he will accept these.

If Obama gets his agenda through, his popularity will be cemented: not just hope but achievement, on issues that count to people. The fact that polling shows huge majorities for healthcare reform, which always seem to be scuttled, watered down or filibustered out of existence by a Congress elected by those same people, is one of the conundrums of US politics. If Obama were to break and recast this debate in favour of service delivery that works for people who need healthcare, it would set him up with the greats who have not shied away from seemingly intractable issues, but tackled them head-on even at great cost.

If he fails then he's just like all the other Presidents, really. Clinton got re-elected despite failing at healthcare reform and Bush II was re-elected after dismissing its importance outright. Obama has recast politics in lots of ways, and it's a pity that The New York Times article fails to acknowledge that.

The wolfish glee from Republican commentators that the last President to enjoy a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate was Jimmy Carter in 1975-79 appears misplaced: in the late 1970s the Republicans recovered from the near-fatal blow of Watergate thanks to the leadership of Reagan and intellectual depth provided by Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and others.

There is no coherent opposition in the United States. It's a rabble, it is intellectually exhausted and leaderless. Republicans and their chattering-class supporters are in no position to telegraph, let alone land, any blows on Obama. Their adoration of Reagan has blinded them to the idea that the way that Democrats felt in the early-to-mid '80s is similar to that facing Republicans today.

Obama Administration figures seeking to persuade Senators Nelson, Bayh and Landrieu above could do worse than take them to listen to the howl of the void that lies beyond their position. Where are the votes for a Democrat against the best chance of healthcare reform in a generation? Where do you go, and how do you come back from there?

By the end of this year, if they haven't already, the thoughts of US politicians will turn to the elections of 2010. here are the Senators up for re-election. Let's look at their chances whether or not Obama gets his agenda through:

  • Boxer, Barbara - (D - CA), Inouye, Daniel K. - (D - HI), Mikulski, Barbara A. - (D - MD) and Murray, Patty - (D - WA) are among the more liberal Senators. They are unlikely to be anything but strong supporters of Obama on healthcare, the environment, economy and other issues, and have waited so long for a supportive President they are unlikely to block his initiatives for the sake of purity. Anyway, they have all been in politics longer than Obama has and have strong followings in their home states.

  • Bennett, Robert F. - (R - UT), Coburn, Tom - (R - OK), Crapo, Mike - (R - ID), DeMint, Jim - (R - SC), Grassley, Chuck - (R - IA), Shelby, Richard C. - (R - AL) are the incorrigibles. The reverse of the above, they're safe in their home states if they block Obama at every turn.

  • Bond, Christopher S. - (R - MO), Brownback, Sam - (R - KS), Bunning, Jim - (R - KY), Burr, Richard - (R - NC), Isakson, Johnny - (R - GA), Martinez, Mel - (R - FL), McCain, John - (R - AZ) and Murkowski, Lisa - (R - AK) - they all fancy themselves as part of the preceding group but are actually highly vulnerable if there's a swing on. All are from states where Obama did well last year, and it will count against them if they have nothing to show but having stonewalled Obama.

  • Gregg, Judd - (R - NH), Thune, John - (R - SD), Vitter, David - (R - LA), Voinovich, George V. - (R - OH) are all dead meat. These guys were all elected on the coat-tails of Bush in 2004. Gregg was offered a political lifeline by Obama and turned it down, and Vitter was caught paying a prostitute to roleplay with him wearing a nappy; he comes from the state that still hasn't recovered from Hurricane Katrina. If you think Obama has been bold by scraping together 60 Senators, wait until it gets to 64 or even 70.

  • Then there's the Democrats: Burris, Roland W. - (D - IL) and Specter, Arlen - (D - PA) are likely to be rolled by Democrats in their own states, who will owe President Obama - unless they throw themselves on the President's mercy. It is entirely possible that Reid, Harry - (D - NV) will also be devoured by a netroots campaign.

The rest of them are Democrats, who may have some amendments but are unlikely to spike key legislation altogether.
Senator Robert C. Byrd, the 91-year-old West Virginia Democrat, just finished a hospital stay of more than a month due to a staph infection. Aides could not predict whether Mr. Byrd would be voting regularly when the Senate returns from its Fourth of July break ... Mr. Byrd might be a tough sell on the global warming bill, given strong resistance in his coal-producing state.

Byrd was on the wrong side of history with the Civil Rights Act and may not wish to be so again - but then again, he might. This might be true of any Democrat who were to replace Byrd as well. The challenge is to put a major solar/wind/other new-power plant in West Virginia, not as a sop but to sow them what the future could look like, to include them and give them confidence in it.

Opposition from Byrd, even if present, need not mean a filibuster - many a time the two Republican Senators from Maine (neither of whom are up for election in 2010) have been prevailed upon to produce a result that hardliners on either side could not bully through.

The parallel is less with Carter than with FDR and Truman: when the Republicans lost office in 1932 for misjudging the Great Depression, they were gone for twenty years because at every election the Democrats were addressing the issues of their day. The Republicans may have been big men in the localities which elected them, stuck firmly to old ways, but they seemed to shy away from the big issues of their age - and so it is again now.

What does this mean for Australia? Not much. Any chance that the US might water down some of the peculiarly anti-Australian measures in the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement (honey?) are pretty much stuffed, as is the idea of Australian motor plants making key components for US vehicles. I hope it will mean a better deal for New Zealand than the freeze-out they've received since 1985, but somehow I doubt it.


  1. Interesting post but a few of those Senators won't be defeated, they're retiring leaving open seats - in the case of Gregg and Martinez you'd assume that leaves the Democrats well-poised to pick up open seats, which is an odd concept in a country where each state/party has at least 2 sitters at a time under most circumstances. Grassley is a prime example of how incumbency and being ensconced actually may mean more than ideology.

  2. Great analysis but think you are wrong on car components.

  3. Thanks Victor and I'd be delighted to be wrong about parts exports to the US. My suggestion is that the parts makers take a share in local manufacturing plants, but that's another post.

    Edward: I forgot about the open seats. Anything could happen in Cuba at the moment and Crist would be a formidable candidate in Florida. Murkowski's chances have firmed in recent days, you betcha!

  4. I can't help but wonder if.. er.. Crist might die by a thousand cuts in a whispering campaign.. about.. you know.. rumours of him being oseted-clay...

  5. Possibly, but if Idaho can elect one ... and what state did Mark Foley come from?