Representatives of organized labor met in the White House last week and cut a deal exempting union members from paying higher taxes as part of health care reform. It was a tawdry affair in many ways. But the meeting seems to have had an unintended consequence: Massachusetts has just elected a Republican senator.
Never mind the horse-trading wasn’t broadcast on C-SPAN, as candidate Obama promised in 2008, or that it contradicted the president’s pledges of a new kind of politics in Washington. For many Americans – particularly those who had the chance to cast a ballot on Tuesday – the labor deal was the latest tangible sign that the president didn’t really mean what he said during the 2008 campaign. As a result, it helped put Scott Brown over the top in the Massachusetts senate race.
For some Americans, it smacked of the same old double standards that repel people away from Washington. What if George W. Bush and Republican leaders in Congress summoned the Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable, or some other group of corporate CEOs to hammer out the final details of a major legislative initiative? Outrage meters at The Washington Post and MSNBC would go haywire. Didn’t candidate Obama say he’d end all that?
It’s a clear sign that interests with Democratic links, such as organized labor, now get the special deals, access, and accommodation. It demonstrates that the party controlling all the levers of power in Washington has moved beyond its rhetoric of just a few years ago.
President Obama clearly has. In 2006 he warned, “The corruption of Washington has done far more damage than sending politicians on golf junkets or showering them with gifts. It has shaken the faith of the American people in a government that looks out for their interests and upholds their values. The hired guns on K Street who’ve been allowed to help write our laws have gotten exactly what they paid for…” Mr. Obama further sermonized: “Hardworking Americans across the country who can’t afford their own lobbyist wonder when someone in Washington will help them send their kids to college or pay their medical bills or guarantee their pension. It’s time we answered their call.”
Four years later the White House has “answered that call” alright, and he now gives labor union lobbyists exactly what they paid for – a significant role in writing our laws and an exemption from taxes levied on other Americans.
For many, the reports of the labor deal provided a key insight into the operation of the Obama White House and the Democrats in Washington. It reinforced what makes so many people mad about the current ruling party. Apparently, special interests are only “special” or “corrupt” if they oppose the president or the majority in Congress. Supporters aren’t really lobbyists; they are critical “stakeholders,” not wicked special interests. They deserve a seat at the table and meetings at the White House. And it’s necessary and legitimate to answer their call. It wasn’t supposed to work this way.
Mr. Obama and the Democrats have not drained the swamp; they just fish in a different pond, and now trawl with their political allies.
Today, inside the Beltway policymaking is a team sport. And organized labor’s squad has an enormous advantage by controlling the legislative and executive branches of government. That’s why elections matter.
Early in his administration, President Obama made this point very clear. In a private meeting with congressional leaders, the new president listened to Republican Senator Jon Kyl’s ideas for a few minutes before quickly responding. Instead of pledging to keep an open mind about the GOP lawmaker’s ideas, Mr. Obama abruptly ended the conversation. Keep in mind, the president pointedly told Senator Kyl, “I won.”
Scott Brown did not win because of one White House or Democratic congressional action. But the reports about the special labor exemption came at a critical and symbolic moment and encapsulated a host of concerns. Cutting deals with organized labor inside the White House shattered a lot of people’s hopes about this president. Given all of his rhetoric about a new politics in Washington, the labor deal last week, on the eve of the Massachusetts senate election, accomplished the unthinkable in the Bay State.