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OPINION: Time wasn't on the Democrats' side

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of American Prospect. This is from The Washington Post.


It's there in "Hamlet," in Shakespeare's most famous soliloquy. Item, under reasons "not to be": "the law's delay."

Shakespeare meant court proceedings, but there are times in a nation's life when this could just as well refer to lawmaking. To take forever to pass one law - to take the entire first year of Barack Obama's presidency - might be permissible if all else were well, or if other needed legislation were not held up until that one law, the reform of American health care, were enacted.

But all else is not well. One in 10 American workers is unemployed. Add to that the number of underemployed and discouraged, and the figure rises to 17 percent. As manufacturing and construction continue to dwindle, and states lay off teachers and consider laying off police, what does Washington do? Just what it has done since Obama became president: haggle over health care.

There are myriad reasons behind the Democratic meltdown in Massachusetts. Some are peculiar to the race itself, including the cosmic ineptness of the Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley. But surely if Obama's approval ratings were in the 60s rather than the 40s, Coakley would have had no worries.

What the Obama administration and Senate Democrats have neglected is the element of time. When Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in a landslide in 1964, he told aides that they needed to act quickly if Congress were to act at all. Johnson was right: Almost every piece of Great Society legislation, including Medicare and the Voting Rights Act, was passed in the first six months of his term.

But speed, or even stately progress, is not in the Senate's lexicon. Even with Republicans determined to defeat every Obama domestic initiative, the 60 Senate Democrats still could act - if they could stick together. But they couldn't. Max Baucus spent months wooing un-wooable Republicans; Joe Lieberman didn't like this, and Kent Conrad that, and Ben Nelson a whole raft of this-and-thats. Like Rodin's Thinker, the Senate sat there and pondered.

A president with an activist agenda met a Senate all but incapable of action. In the House - whose members, up for election every two years, are far more cognizant of time - bills were passed to provide aid to states, repair schools and roads, and arrest global warming.

In the Senate, the members pondered health care.

It was clear even before the polls closed in Massachusetts Tuesday that the options before Obama and congressional Democrats must become radically more focused. Unless they no longer believe they have a raison d'être as a party, congressional Democrats must pass health care reform - the Senate version - while at the same time enacting through the budget reconciliation process (which requires a simple majority in the Senate, not the 60 votes needed to protect the bill from filibuster) the House-Senate compromises on how to fund the project.

They then must focus on aligning themselves with their populist principles and the public's anger, passing legislation that genuinely curtails the big banks' ability to wreck the economy. The Senate has passed no such legislation, and in the House, conservative Democrats in the banks' sway insisted on leaving half of the derivatives market unregulated.

Only by drawing a line between themselves and the Republicans on the issues of bank regulation and job creation do the Democrats have a chance of surviving in November.

The two things the Democrats forgot in 2009 were their populism and the element of time. Most of their agenda may now be dead. If not quick, they failed to realize, then dead.


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