Thursday, December 29, 2011

This is Senator Ben Nelson's Fault

(I started writing this post before Nelson announced he is planning on retiring. As you can guess, I'm not sad to see him go.)

In terms of electoral politics, Barak Obama's 2008 platform was among one of the most popular in recent memory. Not only did he secure 54% of the vote, but the Democrats gained seats in both the House and the Senate, and, until the special election of Scott Brown, had a near super majority in the Senate. And yet almost none of that platform was enacted, and, somehow, so many Americans were convinced they didn't actually want what they voted for the first time around, that the Democrats lost the House entirely and many seats in the Senate. I've talked about the madness of this whole process before (I mean, Republicans held health care benefits for 9/11 first responders or “heroes” as they are occasionally called, hostage to extending the Bush tax cuts on the top 1% of Americans) but I think it is important to place blame where it really belongs. On Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson.

By the time the debate over health care reform started, the Obama administration had already stabilized the economy (not in the way I would have, but we didn't have a second Great Depression so I guess that's something) and saved the American auto industry. Rightly concluding that any recovery and subsequent economic growth would be hampered by the cost of health care on Americans and small businesses, they decided to pursue health care reform. Not wanting to repeat the mistake of Bill Clinton's attempt to reform health care, for better or for worse, Obama left the work of crafting the policy in the hands of the legislature. (It being their job and all.) Really, who could blame him given the make up of Congress at the time. And, honestly, the results weren't that bad, even after all of the compromises. If the rolling reforms are allowed to happen, we'll have taken a few steps towards a humane health care system. They weren't what I wanted, but they were reasonable given the state of American mainstream politics, and, when asked about specific aspects of the legislation, most Americans support most of the reforms.

Enter Ben Nelson, Democrat Senator from Nebraska. I think of Nelson as a Regional Democrat, meaning his party affiliation has a lot more to do with where he lives than what he believes. He's only a Democrat because Nebraska Republicans are so conservative. It's the same with Scott Brown and old Mitt Romney. The only reason they run on the Republican ticket is because Massachusetts Democrats are more liberal. Brown in Nebraska is a Blue Dog Democrat. Nelson in Massachusetts is a moderate Republican.

However, this isn't Nelson's fault because he disagreed with the content of the health care reform bill. It is legislators' responsibility to vote with their conscience, no matter what the party whip says. This wouldn't be his fault if he had argued against the bill on the floor of the Senate, if he had sought to change the legislation in committee or through other influence, and it wouldn't be his fault if, even after changes made to deal with his concerns, he still voted against the legislation. It's his fault because he joined the Republican filibuster.

By joining the filibuster, Nelson single-handedly turned what should have been a three month process into a ten month process, one in which all sorts of absolute insanity was spewed by opponents. At one point, in an effort to do anything to get the bill through, Reid tried to tack on what became known as the Cornhusker-Kickback, but that vote-purchasing was too overt even for Washington.

Of course, there were Blue Dog Democrats in the House who railed against the bill, some of whom even going so far as to essentially campaign on their opposition to it. (Just a side note; many of these “Blue Dogs” were elected on Obama's coattails and to thank him for creating a political climate in which they get jobs in Congress, they shat all over his most ambitious legislative goal. Thanks guys.) However, there was really nothing they could do about it, because there isn't a filibuster procedure in the House that allows for the minority party to dictate legislation.

The perpetual filibuster over health care reform sucked all of the policy momentum out of the Obama administration, making it almost impossible to take any additional steps in fixing the economy. Furthermore, by joining the filibuster, Ben Nelson changed the narrative of governance from “The Obama Administration Doing  Stuff” to “Congressional Republicans Making Sure Stuff Doesn't Get Done.” Our national political discussion was as much about what the Republicans were preventing as it was about what the Obama administration was doing. (For example, how many people are talking about the Obama administration's foreign policy successes in the last four years; ending the war in Iraq, assassinating Osama bin Laden, leading from behind in Libya, while navigating two inherited wars, radical changes in an already unstable Middle East...) And, along with all the stuff in the committees and the anonymous holds on legislation and nominations, the filibuster became the primary technique of Congressional Republicans until they took back the house.

And that brings us to now. Obviously, a lot of other factors went into that mysterious process in which “then” inexorably becomes “now,” but I believe a lot of those wouldn't have been possible without Ben Nelson's filibuster. The radical optimist in me assumes he truly believed that the policy was so bad for this country that he stood in the way of a vast majority of legislators to prevent it from being adopted, but I'm pretty sure he just assumed his constituents wouldn't vote for him if someone accused him of supporting something somewhat somehow connected to socialism.

With his retirement, most pundits believe the seat will be filled by a Republican, and frankly that's fine with me. The Democrats might be begging Nelson to say, but from my perspective, it should be the other way around. It's the Republicans who should be begging him to stay, because he was one of the most successful Republican legislators of the last four years.

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