Dems making smart plays

Just over a month ago the general political consensus was that the Republican Party was rising supreme and President Barack Obama’s political legacy was collapsing. The political landscape looks a lot different now.

Several decades ago in Arizona a series of planned and unplanned events resulted in the state having three governors in as many months. Bruce Babbitt, who got the last empty seat in that game of musical chairs, hung onto it for two terms, ran for president and wound up in Bill Clinton’s Cabinet, made a wry and wise comment at the time — one that I’ve never forgotten. “You play the hand you’re dealt,” Babbitt said. He played his hand well. Obama has done the same this year, certainly making smarter choices than the Republican leadership.

ADVERTISEMENT
Obama winning the healthcare fight — with some heavy lifting from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and a few other Democrats in the leadership — was the first big shift in the political landscape. The GOP leadership played Obama’s victory wrong, sending a message to voters that isn’t doing them much good now and won’t help them in November. In fact, I’d argue it does exactly the opposite.

GOP strategists seemed to conclude they could turn the president’s victory into a loss. All the focus on the mechanics of the victory fell on deaf ears. Voters don’t care how messy the process was, they’re just glad something got done. Now the country is ready to move on, but some stubborn Republican spokesmen want to keep beating that broken drum. The message to America is that Republicans are driving the partisanship in Washington. The further we get from the vote, and the more people see that the most dire predictions aren’t actually going to happen, the more accepting voters will be with the plan. That’s why the “repeal and replace” argument is fast losing its juice (except among votes the GOP has already).

The president has, and I’m sure will continue, to explain and promote his healthcare plan. But his best-executed play has been his pivot to financial-services reform. The GOP, especially Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), initially tried to portray this as another “bailout” for big banks. But that argument didn’t travel well with voters, especially when Democrats said they’d be happy to come up with a substitute for the $50 billion piece of the bill that supposedly promised a safety net for banks. The Republican leadership soon figured out they were in a box — they were either for the people or for the banks. Being for the people meant slapping around the big bankers and putting tougher controls on Wall Street. Americans are so angry at big financial institutions that any proposal to control them looks good. Even bank-friendly Democrats like Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) suddenly tumbled to the fact that they had to look tough. Dodd, in fact, was so tarnished by his long association with Wall Street that he was forced to fold a long political career rather than face a drubbing at the ballot box. Republican banking expert Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.) signaled that it was all over this week with his suggestion that a bipartisan deal was “close.”

The bankers, of course, did nothing to help their own cause or defend their traditional support base in the Republican Party. Their inept campaign has never offered a reason for Americans to support them — in fact, their traditional lobbying effort became the story as they hired any lobbyist with a shine on his Guccis to swarm Capitol Hill. Goldman Sachs’s record earnings report (they couldn’t lie about that, although they’d lied about plenty else) and huge political action committee donations contributed to the bad messaging as well.

And to reinforce an old image of Republicans as the party of wealth, we have Michael Steele’s seemingly self-serving behavior, strip clubs in Los Angeles, a $300,000 getaway to the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort and possible legal action over the misuse of party American Express cards in Florida. Oh yes, and Tea Party conservatives’ attacks on once-respected elected officials like Florida’s Gov. Charlie Crist.

The game is not over by a long shot, but the GOP has played a couple of lousy hands recently. History and math dictate that there will be Republican gains in November — but the message many moderate and independent voters are getting is “If they can’t play a better game than this, do we trust them to run the country?” 

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com