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Belmont Club

Double Down

January 18th, 2010 - 8:46 pm

The Politico reports its sources indicate that President Obama will up the ante if Scott Brown wins the Massachusetts Senate seat. There will be no retreat, no watering down of the agenda.

President Barack Obama plans a combative response if, as White House aides fear, Democrats lose Tuesday’s special Senate election in Massachusetts, close advisers say.

“This is not a moment that causes the president or anybody who works for him to express any doubt,” a senior administration official said. “It more reinforces the conviction to fight hard.” …

“The response will not be to do incremental things and try to salvage a few seats in the fall,” a presidential adviser said. “The best political route also happens to be the boldest rhetorical route, which is to go out and fight and let the chips fall where they may. We can say, ‘At least we fought for these things, and the Republicans said no.’”

Whatever words Obama chooses, however, will have trouble masking the substantive reality: A Massachusetts embarrassment would strongly increase the pressure Obama was already facing to retreat or slow down the “big bang” agenda he laid out a year ago.

The strategy will be a militant campaign to blame all future problems on the past administration by casting the Republicans as the architects of disaster and the protectors of the banking industry: wreckers and saboteurs standing in the way of Hope.

White House senior adviser David Axelrod told reporters that Democrats will not allow the midterm elections to become “a referendum on this administration” but, instead, will force Republicans to defend the role they have played in the economic crisis.

And press secretary Robert Gibbs said a key theme of 2010 will be asking voters “whether the people they have in Washington are on the side of protecting the big banks, whether they’re on the side of protecting the big oil companies, whether they’re on the side of protecting insurance companies or whether they’re on the people’s side.”

Democrats looking for shards of hope in a grim week say they take some consolation in having their political straits exposed early in the midterm election year, in contrast to their much later wake-up call before the Republican revolution of 1994.

A couple of days ago I wrote that the President had a tendency to raise the stakes whenever he was losing. It was always all or nothing. And now if nothing, then his tendency will be to put the blame on the opposition.

But the Politico’s sources also suggested that Obama’s true intent was to begin a defense-in-depth by bogging the Republicans down in “bipartisanship” maneuvers.

The narrower majority will force more White House engagement with Republicans, which could actually help restore a bit of the post-partisan image that was a fundamental ingredient of his appeal to voters.

“Now everything that gets done in the Senate will have the imprimatur of bipartisanship,” another administration official said. “The benefits of that will accrue to the president and the Democratic Senate. It adds to the pressure on Republicans to participate in the process in a meaningful way, which so far they have refused to do.”

Governance will probably be a low priority in the coming year. The fundamental theme of 2010 will be a struggle for power. If it is already evident that unemployment numbers are not going to decrease and that the New Year will be more challenging than 2009 then the strategy of pushing the Promised Land into a future where Republicans have been eliminated from the scene is a viable one. It is also a semi-revolutionary one.

Both political camps are predicating progress on the demise of their opposition. The polarization which began in early 2009 has increased rather than diminished with time and has reached the point where two rival and possibly mutually exclusive political agendas are emerging. If so Massachusetts is not the last, but the first in a series of meeting engagements between two rival factions.

My own sense is that fundamental issues are now at stake. I wrote two days ago that:

What’s really interesting is whether the current political crisis will lead to a recovery of the center or whether it simply presages wilder maneuvers. One thing to watch, I think, is what happens internally to both political parties. I think both parties are carrying dysfunctional mindsets which came into existence in eras long gone by. Can the Democratic party “reform” itself? The shadow of 1968 is still like a monkey on its back. Can the Republican party do likewise in its own way, and thus can politics realign itself in such a way that a new stability based on sensible and productive policies can emerge?

One thing I am convinced of is that Barack Obama is not the man to do it. His ideas are old in the worst of ways; not as in validated by long weathering but as in repeatedly rejected by history. But they are all he has. And the really scary thing about his aloofness and indifference is that he may really live in a place that you can’t go.

So my guess is that while he has no money and no prospect of getting any, the President knows only one move: double down again.

It will be interesting.


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