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Fault Lines

The president’s apologists look for scapegoats

Oct 25, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 06 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Obama was elected in 2008 because independents, who had gone back and forth between him and John McCain for most of the summer (and swung to McCain after his convention), came back to Obama in mid-September in the course of the massive financial implosion, and gave him their votes by eight points. Two years later, he had lost the support of most of these voters. This was not the Republicans’ fault. It was not the fault of the Republicans that Obama’s approval ratings were under water in all the swing states—Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina among them—that he wrested from George W. Bush in 2008, as well as in states such as Pennsylvania that had been Democratic for many years. This August, Time magazine sent reporters into states that Obama had carried, and found “a sense of disappointment, bordering on betrayal,” with the fear most often mentioned being “that Obama is taking the country somewhere they don’t want to go.” Time found that “roughly 1 in 3 of the president’s 2008 supporters had serious questions about government spending solutions,” that in Nevada, a state he carried with 55 percent of the vote, only 29 percent of likely voters thought that his actions had “helped the economy.” “He’s trying to Europeanize us, and the Europeans are going the other way. The entire American spirit is being broken,” said an Obama voter and donor in South Bend, Indiana. In Elkhart, Indiana, Time found a Republican candidate who said she was “often approached by Obama voters who want[ed] to vent.” “Betrayed by the health care vote,” “What are they thinking when it comes to spending?” and “He’s not what I voted for,” were among the many complaints. These are not Republicans, and Republicans did not make them say this. Oddly enough, these details and these stories do not appear often in your tales of events.


If not the GOP, then it’s the Senate that did it, that “sclerotic, wasteful, unhappy body” in the words of George Packer of the New Yorker; that “profoundly undemocratic” institution, according to E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post; or, according to New York magazine’s John Heilemann, “a tiny band of verbose old folks” standing in the way of 300 million, who presumably clamor for left-wing ideas. The Senate, you claim, was trying to thwart the passage of health care legislation thanks to its “absurd” rules, which tip power in favor of the big, square, empty red states, and away from the smaller, more oddly shaped ones that are teeming with Democrats. “Senators representing 63 percent of the public vote for [Obama-care], those representing 37 percent vote against it. The bill fails,” said James Fallows in the Atlantic, and he does have a point, but the problem with health care reform had nothing to do with Senate rules. The Senate did end up thwarting the will of the people, but not in the way that you imagined. The problem with the Senate in this instance was that most of the Democrats who voted for health care were thwarting the will of their own voters. 

The split Fallows evoked to show the system’s unfairness was 63-37. This is close, in reverse, to the 60-40 split by which the public at large opposed Obamacare by the time it passed, and by which they oppose it to this day. Democrats spent millions of dollars buying the votes of Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Ben Nelson (D-Nebr.), whose states hated Obamacare all the more when they found out about it. The Democratic leadership applied immense pressure to Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who is losing her race for reelection by 20-plus points. Virginia (which voted for Obama) gave Bob McDonnell an 18-point win in the 2009 governor’s race, which was understood to be in part a referendum on the president’s health care plan; Virginia’s two Democrats in the Senate nonetheless voted to pass it. That same day, New Jersey swung 12 points away from Obama to elect Chris Christie as governor. Six weeks later, its two Democrats in the Senate voted to pass Obamacare. Massachusetts (which voted for Obama) elected Scott Brown on his explicit pledge to stop health care; the state’s two Democratic senators voted to pass it. The only problem with the Senate here was not structural, but a slipped timing gear: Sentiments changed in 2009 so quickly that those Democrats elected in the “wave” years of 2006 and 2008 no longer spoke for what their voters wished done. In 2009-2010, the Republican caucus, outnumbered by three-to-two in the Senate, nonetheless spoke for the majority of the country. The Senate did, in this instance, throttle democracy. But not in the way that you claimed.


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