By John Herr
It’s State of the Union season in Washington. Outside, the streets are empty, dark, and cold. Inside, the Democrats’ hearts are suffering an across-the-board freeze. A brutal nor’easter from Massachusetts has buried their hopes for change (“A Republican will win Teddy’s seat when they play haw-key in Fenway Pawk!”)
Democrats should remember that the State of the Union Address is a beginning, not an end. President Clinton proved it when, with Speaker Newt Gingrich looming behind him, he declared that the era of big government was over. Nine months later, so was the era of Bob Dole.
The SOTU is like a giant wedding rehearsal dinner. Dressed to the nines, everyone steps into their pre-arranged places, going through the ceremonial motions. (Applaud! Now look sullen!) The two feuding families are on their best behavior, with a few exceptions. (“Love, honor, and obey? You LIE!!” -- Uncle Joe Wilson).
The actual wedding isn’t until November. Voters have all year to watch ceremony give way to acrimony. Tonight, President Obama will preview the Democrats’ wedding day strategy. It consists of something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.
SOMETHING OLD. Who would have thought President George H.W. Bush -- the father -- would inspire President Obama’s economic agenda? In 1988, Bush proposed the oxymoronically named “flexible freeze.” And now, so has Obama. “It’s not an across-the-board freeze,” said Vice President Biden’s economic adviser Jared Bernstein. “We’re talking about boosting the spending that helps the middle class [and] pushing back on the special interests.” Good luck with that.
Obama’s proposal has disheartened the Left and puzzled the Right. Pollster Nate Silver called it the “White House’s Brain Freeze.” Obama opposed Sen. John McCain’s call for a spending freeze during the 2008 campaign. Now he’s winning McCain’s praise. Could the famous “O” logo be morphing into a triangle?
SOMETHING NEW. Liberals hated to see Massachusetts turn Republican. But they despised the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, which turned corporations into people. “I can’t think of anything more devastating to the public interest,” said President Obama, speaking from a grain silo in Nebraska filled with bribed Medicaid dollars.
Of course, things cannot change into people -- except for the Jersey Shore hot tub, which had so much human DNA in it by summer’s end that it could walk across the deck. But the decision is not unprecedented. In the late 19th century, which historians call the “ZZ-Top Beard Era,” the Supreme Court ruled that corporations were protected under the Fourteenth Amendment.
In his address, President Obama will offer red meat to angry Democrats in the form of corporate governance legislation. Republicans will then remind him that if he wants to stop treating corporations like citizens, he could simply stop taxing the crap out of them.
SOMETHING BORROWED. Some Democrats claimed that Scott Brown’s win was a referendum on the economy, not on health care reform. Uh, hello? Brown didn’t promise to be the 41st vote to lower unemployment rates.
The Democrats have blown it on health care. Pundit E.J. Dionne telegraphed their arrogance before Brown’s win, urging them to quickly pass the bill so they could then “sell the contents of their reform to a skeptical public.” Yeah, pass it and THEN let us know what’s in it.
President Obama has an opportunity to help his party by borrowing the most popular features of the bill (there aren’t many) and daring Republicans to vote them down. In her debate with Brown, Martha Coakley cited three of them: closing the “donut hole” in Medicare, prohibiting denial of coverage for preexisting conditions, and allowing insurance to be sold across state lines. If Obama added medical malpractice reform to the mix, he could pick off 15-20 GOP senators. That’s the true definition of bipartisanship: choosing an issue your opponents are afraid to oppose.
SOMETHING BLUE. Democrats were cheered by former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe’s recent move to the White House. Plouffe’s first piece of advice for them? “No bed-wetting.” (Hey, is that a preexisting condition?)
Blue Staters needed something to cheer about. They aren’t getting another stimulus bill -- heck, Obama’s economic team can’t even agree on how many jobs have been created or (bogus term alert) “saved” by the first one. Health care reform as they knew it is dead. And they probably aren’t getting cap and trade.
But they will be getting a promise from Obama to “fight” for change. And he might win. For all their recent successes, the GOP has not yet closed the sale. While campaigning, Scott Brown rarely spoke the word “Republican,” preferring “independent” instead. He modeled himself after JFK while avoiding comparisons to the Bush Administration. Republicans in Congress have no reason to be complacent.
In his second year as President, Ronald Reagan asked Americans to “stay the course” through the worst economy since FDR. It worked. Two years later, Americans gave him the biggest reelection victory since LBJ. Tonight, Americans will learn President Obama’s new course. If he gets behind a more popular and populist agenda, and the economy recovers quickly, he may be able to renew his vows with the voters -- and save his party from annihilation.
Herr served as speechwriter at the Department of Education and the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush
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