It's been a bad week to be a liberal. The body count is high, the prospects grim, the defeats humiliating. Let's look at the damage.
On Tuesday, a Republican, Scott Brown, who once modeled nude in Cosmo wins Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat, de-fanging the liberal lion's legacy and threatening to turn 2010 into a Democratic Bull Run. How bad was it? Brown is already "denying" that he's measuring for new drapes at the White House and Massachusetts Dems are kicking themselves that they didn't run Michael Dukakis, that's how bad. All states, some Dem's now admitted, are "in play."
On Wednesday, the Democrats having lost their tenuous (see Lieberman) 60-seat majority, the future of meaningful healthcare reform was in critical condition. Not only was Ted Kennedy's deathbed legacy derailed at its penultimate moment, but the most liberal state in the country, a pioneer of health reform much like what is proposed in the national bill, gave a no-confidence vote to both reform and the party that passed it. Worse, it proved Sarah Palin right: there is such a thing as a death panel and it's the voters of Massachusetts! The Democrats' signature work of the last six months is resting uncomfortably in a hospice.
The avalanche continued on Thursday. Hoping not to be noticed, the onetime lefty populist heir (or is it hair?) to being Bobby Kennedy, John Edwards, slipped in the news that yes, he in fact did father an child by his mistress during the presidential campaign, behind the back of his wife who is suffering from incurable cancer. This revelation confirms that the best newspaper in America (and the only one not having an identity crisis) is the National Enquirer. But you probably knew that.
President Obama is now echoing the populism Edwards once preached (the "two Americas" now are Main Street and Wall Street), but the reprehensible behavior of a man who, as John Kerry's running mate, was almost a heart beat away from the presidency, proves that he has no heart, having knowingly and repeatedly lied about being the child's father. This isn't stain-on-the-dress stupid, it's abusing-your-own-baby sadism. Who else wants their 2004 vote back?
Weep, but the week got worse.
The great hope of liberal talk radio, the answer to Rush and Glenn, Air America, went belly up, off the air and filed for bankruptcy as surely as if it had been blown up by a successful underwear bomber. The right still rules the radio airwaves, even if everyone (including Rush) looks a bit diminished these days. Liberals still have their NPR, but conservatives won the hot-talk wars.
The Supreme Court saved the best for last, ruling that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money in political campaigns. The court, in a 5-4 decision dominated won by "conservative" justices, gutted bipartisan campaign finance reform (McCain-Feingold). They overturned court precedents and 100 years of lawmaking with a sweeping decision that rules that money is speech, and Americans can spend as much of it as they want. Obama said that it is "a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics," and lobbyists are smiling.
Okay, are there any signs of hope amid the ruins of January?
One is that the Democrats might be re-engergized and forewarned before a potentially disastrous fall. Much as Republicans would like to see a repeat of 1994, they've lost the element of surprise. Believe me, I was with Republicans on election night in '94, and even they didn't see it coming. The Democrats have months to get organized and get it right and keep the damage to a minimum. In addition, perhaps they can suck it up and realize they still control both houses of Congress and have a 59-41 majority in the Senate. The early signs of panic, however, are concerning.
Another silver lining: the conservative Supreme Court majority has now demonstrated the "big lie" that got them appointed, namely that they were not "activist judges" making law, but cautious, narrow interpreters of the Constitution. The liberal activists can now fight fire with fire guiltlessly. One more vacancy and liberal appointment, and the court ideological pendulum could swing. One target for new court activists: corporate personhood, a ridiculous notion based on Gilded Age court decisions. The newest justice, Sonia Sotomayor, has already expressed skepticism about the concept and hinted at a willingness to revisit. If the right can be active, so could a new, more liberal majority. Conservatives can no longer keep up the pretense of judicial conservatism.
The loss of Air America is more a blow to the ego than the body politic. Obama's adoption of populist rhetoric seems as natural to him as Rush Limbaugh sporting a Nehru jacket, but at least the president is on the right track policy-wise, reclaiming a sense of confidence and justice in the financial system on behalf of average Americans. But the justice people really want is jobs.
As to healthcare, it's as if the Democrats are looking for an excuse to bring down the love-child their own ugly sausage-making hath wrought — abandoning their child like John Edwards in ass-cover mode. It's not reform enough to please diehard liberals, it's bold enough to anger Republicans, and annoying enough with mandates, taxes, and little immediate relief to average folks to make most people skeptical. The usual bromide, that if everyone's unhappy, the legislation must be good, might not be true. It might just be lousy in this incarnation, a legislative platypus. If the Democrats themselves have doubts about passing it now, maybe it's better abandoned. Could it be that Scott Brown just did them a huge favor, saving the Democrats from themselves?
Lastly, the Democrats are clearly outclassed by the Republicans in terms of maximizing their advantages. The GOP is great at being insurgents who can rewrite the rules, tie the conventional warriors in knots, and fight as guerillas, albeit ones with massive corporate funding and loyalty the Taliban would envy. Democrats need to fight with an anti-insurgency strategy and be more effective at winning American hearts and minds, especially of independents and people that actually vote every election. Bill Clinton governed better with Congress in the hands of Republicans. Could it be that Obama will too?
A few more weeks like this and we'll find out.