Sunday, January 24, 2010

David Plouffe in fantasyland

Today's New York Times reports that the White House, in an attempt to centralize Democratic strategy for the November elections, is assigning a lead role to David Plouffe:
President Obama is reconstituting the team that helped him win the White House to counter Republican challenges in the midterm elections and recalibrate after political setbacks that have narrowed his legislative ambitions.

Mr. Obama has asked his former campaign manager, David Plouffe, to oversee House, Senate and governor’s races to stave off a hemorrhage of seats in the fall. The president ordered a review of the Democratic political operation — from the White House to party committees — after last week’s Republican victory in the Massachusetts Senate race, aides said.
The strategy and messaging that Plouffe will employ as part of this effort is little mystery, as he has helpfully provided an outline for Democrats in a new opinion piece. It strikes me as a deluded misreading of public sentiment that should comfort his Republican counterparts if it is, in fact, the strategy he elects to pursue. Among the highlights:
Pass a meaningful health insurance reform package without delay. Americans' health and our nation's long-term fiscal health depend on it. I know that the short-term politics are bad. It's a good plan that's become a demonized caricature. But politically speaking, if we do not pass it, the GOP will continue attacking the plan as if we did anyway, and voters will have no ability to measure its upside. If we do pass it, dozens of protections and benefits take effect this year. Parents won't have to worry their children will be denied coverage just because they have a preexisting condition. Workers won't have to worry that their coverage will be dropped because they get sick. Seniors will feel relief from prescription costs. Only if the plan becomes law will the American people see that all the scary things Sarah Palin and others have predicted -- such as the so-called death panels -- were baseless. We own the bill and the health-care votes. We need to get some of the upside. (P.S.: Health care is a jobs creator.)
Plouffe is correct that passing the bill this year will bring some benefits. But it will also bring many costs, among them an increase in the Medicare payroll tax, a 40 percent tax on "Cadillac" plans worth more than $8,500 for individuals and $23,000 for families, a tax on cosmetic surgery and medical devices, and fees on insurers and pharmaceutical manufacturers. In addition, individuals are required to purchase health insurance, with fines for noncompliance.

For the sake of argument, however, let's assume this is a wash (although I don't think that will prove the case), with every voter upset over health care offset by a new one happy over new benefits they are enjoying. That's fine, but the legislation will also bring with it some new burdens on business at a time when the economy is sputtering. Indeed, there is reason to think health care legislation is already damaging businesses even before it has been passed. If voters are upset over the economy, how will passing such a bill help matters?

More practically, how will such a bill even be passed? With emboldened Republicans enjoying filibuster power -- which they are unlikely to relinquish -- how will any of the current legislation make it through Congress? Plouffe does not say, and the answers are not obvious.

Lastly, citing health care as a jobs creator is a vivid demonstration of economic ignorance. Yes, spending more money on the health care will result in more jobs there, but it will also divert resources from elsewhere in the economy. Just think about this: if a magic pill were developed at minimal cost that cured every ailment known to man, it would put huge numbers of medical professionals out of work. It would, however, also be a massive economic boon which would free up resources normally spent on health care to be used elsewhere.
We need to show that we not just are focused on jobs but also create them. Even without a difficult fiscal situation, the government can have only so much direct impact on job creation, on top of the millions of jobs created by the president's early efforts to restart the economy. There are some terrific ideas that we can implement, from tax credits for small businesses to more incentives for green jobs, but full recovery will happen only when the private sector begins hiring in earnest. That's why Democrats must create a strong foundation for long-term growth by addressing health care, energy and education reform. We must also show real leadership by passing some politically difficult measures to help stabilize the economy in the short term. Voters are always smarter than they are given credit for. We need to make our case on the economy and jobs -- and yes, we can remind voters where Republican policies led us -- and if we do, without apology and with force, it will have impact.
This is more economic naïveté. Does Plouffe really believe a one-time tax credit will substantially alter the hiring decisions of a company, when the cost of the employee will last many years? Is he not aware that public sector promotion of green jobs has a terrible record of success? While health care reform is badly needed, expanding insurance promises to simply drive up costs. Energy measures could prove some benefit but "green" energy sources Plouffe and the Democrats would like to see adopted will raise costs, something that is unlikely to produce economic growth. Democratic action on education, meanwhile, is perhaps highlighted by their decision to kill vouchers for inner city children -- is that a conversation they really want to have?
Make sure voters understand what the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act did for the economy. Rarely does a congressional vote or issue lend itself to this kind of powerful localization. If GOP challengers want to run ads criticizing the recovery act as wasteful, Democratic candidates should lift up the police officers, teachers and construction workers in their state or district, those who are protecting our communities, teaching our children and repairing our roads thanks to the Democrats' leadership. Highlight the small-business owners who have kept their doors open through projects funded by the act.

The recovery act has been stigmatized. We need to paint the real picture, in human terms, of what it meant in 2010. In future elections, it will be clear to all that instead of another Great Depression, Democrats broke the back of the recession with not a single Republican vote in the House. In the long run, this will haunt Republicans, especially since they made the mess.
Again, is this a conversation Democrats are really interested in? The Obama Administration promised the stimulus package would prevent unemployment from rising any higher than 8 percent and would reach 9 percent without it. It's currently at 10 percent -- 2.4 percent higher than when Obama took office. Under what definition does that count as "[breaking] the back of the recession"?

The stimulus package produced a lot of waste, drove us deeper into debt, and didn't accomplish its goal according to its own proponents -- are Republicans really going to be haunted by a vote against such legislation? Are Democrats really going to brag about this on the campaign trail?
Don't accept any lectures on spending. The GOP took us from a $236 billion surplus when President Bush took office to a $1.3 trillion deficit, with unpaid-for tax cuts for the wealthy, two wars and the Medicare prescription drug program. Republicans' fiscal irresponsibility has never been matched in our country's history. We have potent talking points on health care, honest budgeting and cuts in previously sacrosanct programs. Republicans will try to win disingenuously by running as outsiders. We must make them own their record of disastrous economic policies, exploding deficits, and a failure to even attempt to solve our health care and energy challenges.

During the campaign, who will be whispering in Republican ears? Watching GOP leaders talking about health care the past few days, it was easy to imagine lobbyists and big health insurance executives leaning over their shoulders, urging death to health insurance reform. When it comes to cracking down on the banks and passing tough financial regulatory reform, GOP leaders will be dancing to the tune of Wall Street lobbyists and opposing tougher oversight, as if the financial crisis never happened. We need to lay it out plainly: If you put the GOP back in charge, lobbyists and huge corporate special interests will be back in the driver's seat. Workers and families will get run over, just like they did in the past decade.
Let's assume that Plouffe is correct that voters will associate Republicans with fiscal recklessness. The problem, however, is that voters will not be choosing between generic Republican and Democrat candidates (although that would be to the advantage of the GOP), they will be voting for actual people with actual records. Voters in Massachusetts, for example, did not vote for "Republicans", they voted for Scott Brown. When an incumbent Democrat who voted for the stimulus package runs against, for example, a small business owner running for office as a Republican, who will really be associated with fiscal responsibility? Are voters going to associate that candidate with George W. Bush? Maybe David Plouffe will, but I have my doubts the average voter makes that connection.

Furthermore, given how much money Wall Street has contributed to Democrats and the role played by corporate lobbyists in shaping health care reform, is that another conversation Democrats want to have? Who was really in bed with the high-powered lobbyists and who was opposing their legislation?
"Change" is not just about policies. In 2006, Democrats promised to drain the swamp and won back Congress largely because the American people soured on corrupt Republican leadership. Many ethics reforms were put in place by the Democrats. But a recent Gallup poll showed that a record 55 percent of Americans think members of Congress have low ethics, up from only 21 percent in 2000. In particular, we have to make sure the freshman and sophomore members of the House who won in part on transparency and reform issues can show they are delivering. The Republicans will suggest they have changed their spots, but the GOP cannot hold a candle to us on reform issues. Let's make sure we own this space.
This is just laughable. For all of the talk about ethics reforms by Democrats, USA Today notes that not one single member of Congress has been punished for violations in the last three years. And transparency? Really?

Other points raised by Plouffe are the need to "run great campaign" -- ya think? -- and "no bed-wetting," whatever that means.

Plouffe seems to desire a campaign based on the economy, health care, spending, ethics and which party is more closely aligned with lobbyists. He should be careful what he wishes for.

Update: Similar thoughts from Jim Geraghty.

Update: Democrats intend to get serious about the deficit -- after the November elections.

Update: Most Americans oppose the stimulus package. I really don't see the Republican incumbents as being forced to run and hide on any no votes.

Update: Politico says the Democrats' Bush-bashing strategy has been a bust. And yet reminding voters of GOP shortcomings from past years is a key element of Plouffe's strategy.

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