Monday, March 22, 2010

Dems in Denial or Profiles in Courage?

Dems in Denial or Profiles in Courage?

         In the first few days after Scott Brown’s stunning election to the United States Senate from Massachusetts, President Obama, his press secretary Robert Gibbs, and his adviser David Axelrod, appeared in various venues and said essentially the same thing: “The people are angry and frustrated and the same forces that brought this Administration into office elected Senator Brown.” They had a second key message, which was that “We haven’t communicated what we are doing effectively enough.”
            Since I’m a communications consultant, I wasn’t too surprised to hear this refrain. Any good communications adviser would tell a client to focus on a few key messages and be sure that everyone sings from the same songbook.
            However, the advice would also include the following: “Don’t say anything that doesn’t reflect reality.” That was what stumped me. Anyone who followed the Massachusetts Senatorial race would know that there was a major difference between the reasons behind Scott Brown’s election and Barack Obama’s election.
 In fact, Chris Wallace put it pretty clearly to Robert Gibbs shortly after the election when he said something like, “The people of Massachusetts said they didn’t want to keep increasing the national debt, they didn’t want the President’s healthcare plan, and they didn’t want to provide lawyers for terrorists.” Gibbs then asserted that people might have said that, but it wasn’t why they voted for Brown. Somehow, he managed to read the exit polling so that it seemed as if a vote for Brown were really a vote for President Obama!
The key voters, the Independents, clearly voted for Obama because the Bush Administration had been so incompetent in its management of foreign policy and the
economy, and they feared McCain would mean more of the same. In Massachusetts, however, once the Independents saw the alternative, especially in relation to big government and healthcare reform, they fled to the Brown camp in droves.
Another flaw in the argument of the Administration was the notion they had not communicated what they were trying to do effectively enough. Again, anyone who listened closely to the talk shows and other media outlets could tell you that people really did understand what the president wanted to do, and they simply didn’t like it. So they sent a message. They felt that the president and his team were in fact getting their ideas out very well, but they weren’t listening to the response from the country.
It now seems just as clear that the Administration is still not listening to what the majority of the citizens are telling them. They decided to pass the healthcare reform bill, no matter what, and by any means necessary. In the aftermath of the Brown victory, almost no one thought they would try to use reconciliaton (an odd word in this context) to push through a bill that the majority of the people did not want. However, they did so, regardless of the political cost.
The idea that a vote for Brown was really a vote for Obama morphed into the idea that “Sometimes, it takes courage to be in politics. You have to vote for what’s right, even if you lose the next election.”  That was Nancy Pelosi’s line as the final vote approached, and the Democrats again stayed on message, with President Obama repeating it as he traveled the country trying to seal the healthcare deal. The new approach echoes the late President John F. Kennedy’s book, Profiles in Courage, which features the stories of political figures who voted their consciences, often against the will of the people.
            History is full of examples of presidents who went against the majority opinion. Sometimes, history judged that they were right, sometimes that they were wrong. President Roosevelt certainly wanted the United States to be more actively involved in World War II at a time when most of the country was committed to neutrality. Most historians look favorably on his efforts to draw the nation into the war. On the other hand, President Nixon invaded Cambodia in 1970 at a time when people wanted to end our intervention in Southeast Asia, not widen it. Not only did Nixon’s action set off a storm of protest but he has also been found wanting by those who write the history books and blogs.
            So, will President Obama and the Democrats be seen as “Dems in Denial” or “Profiles in Courage” when it comes to healthcare? What do you think? What will history say?

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