Democrats in Disarray

Column: A good week for the good guys – finally

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March 30, 2012

Hoping to spend the week sliming Paul Ryan and screeching about the mythical Republican "war on women," the Democrats instead have been set back as the news cycle spun out of their control. Foreign policy, health care, and energy have forced them into a defensive crouch. No wonder I’m in such a good mood.

David Axelrod most likely is not. He must have wished he could go back to bed on the morning of Mar. 26, when news broke of President Obama’s "hot mic" moment at the security summit in South Korea. ABC News had caught the president telling Putin stooge Dmitri Medvedev that he needed the Russian dictator to give him "space" on issues such as missile defense until after "my last election," at which time he will have "more flexibility." Medvedev nodded sympathetically throughout the conversation and said, in his best General Orlov imitation, "I will transmit this information to Vladimir." All that was missing from the ridiculous exchange were fulminations over "moose and squirrel."

The president embarrassed himself. Not only did Obama give us a glimpse of his backwards statesmanship, in which "diplomacy" involves telling a corrupt strongman that electoral concerns prevent him from further accommodation. He also reminded Republicans and independents of the high stakes in 2012. What would be the results, not a few conservatives wonder, if the president had all the "flexibility" he desires?

As it happened, the hot microphone mess was the least of the president’s troubles. The gaffe was still in the news when oral arguments over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act began at the Supreme Court. The first day of proceedings concerned whether the Court could rule on the law at all since the individual mandate will not be enforced until 2014. But even those arguments went poorly for the administration and its hapless solicitor general, Donald Verrilli Jr., who was unable to explain how the mandate could be a "penalty" one day and a "tax" the next day.

Yet the liberal panic did not truly begin until Mar. 27, when the Court heard arguments over the mandate’s constitutionality and even the president’s most hardened supporters had to acknowledge his signature policy was in trouble. No sooner had the proceedings concluded than a hysterical Jeffrey Toobin fled the courtroom, screaming that Obamacare was in "grave, grave" condition. The flimsiness of the administration’s arguments had transformed Toobin into a Henny Penny in drag, running around Capitol Hill and warning his fellow liberals that the Court could overrule Obamacare in "one big package" and that at the very least the mandate is "doomed."

The administration and its friends in the media found themselves in a truly helpless position. If Toobin is proven right and the Court overrules Obamacare in part or in whole, Republicans will pounce, the president will look like a loser, and Democrats will be both demoralized and radicalized (not a winning combination). If Toobin is proven wrong, however, he will look like an idiot, Republicans and Tea Party activists will mobilize for the fall, and Democrats still will have to defend an unpopular law whose consequences grow worse with each passing minute.

The liberal reaction to this dilemma has been a predictable combination of spin and scapegoating. The noted legal mind Chuck Todd, who seems to have missed the class on Marbury v. Madison, asked guests on his show whether a Court decision against the health care overhaul might not be an unprecedented intrusion of one branch of government over the elected branches. Meanwhile, James Carville and Harry Reid lamely suggested an anti-Obamacare ruling would be good for the president and his party. The White House was reduced to using Newspeak, referring to the mandate as the "personal responsibility clause."

It was Verrilli, however, who bore the brunt of the blow. After transcripts and audio of the arguments revealed little difference between his platform and that of a former Miss Teen South Carolina, left-of-center talking heads likened the longtime attorney to Bill Buckner and a clueless actor in a fifth-grade play. Mike Barnicle suggested that the administration would have been better off sending in Vincent LaGuardia "Vinny" Gambini to argue the case.

None of the commentators who hurled these insults dared to ask whether they might have done any better. They probably could not have improved on Verrilli’s performance for the simple reason that the arguments for the constitutionality of the federal health insurance mandate are weak. So it goes: Whenever liberals are dealt a setback, as has happened repeatedly during the last three years, they blame their defeat on a lack of message. Once again, they have failed to realize that the marketing is not the problem. The problem is what they are selling.

As a possible anti-Obamacare majority was forming inside the Supreme Court chambers, the magnitude of this week’s Democratic rout was becoming apparent across First Street. Senate Democrats had hoped to spend the last few days before Easter Recess reminding Americans that Republicans are the protectors of those horrible, greedy oil companies. To that end Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, and Dick Durbin had Bob Menendez introduce a bill eliminating tax breaks for carbon energy producers and replacing them with tax breaks for green energy companies. The Democratic leadership had expected the Republican caucus to block debate on the Menendez proposal, handing liberals and the White House a tactical victory.

This is your Democratic-controlled Senate at work: No budget in three years but plenty of votes to score partisan points. What the oaf from Nevada had not anticipated, however, was that Republican leader Mitch McConnell would allow debate on the bill, thereby providing the Senate GOP an opening to blame Obama’s anti-drilling policies for high gas prices. The Menendez proposal went down in the end as expected, but not before Republicans turned the tables on Democrats.

The week ends, then, with the Democrats in disarray as a result of the president’s gaffe, unanticipated trouble at the Court, and shrewd maneuvering by McConnell. Having spent most of 2012 under fire for the mind-numbing Republican primary and for not properly appreciating Sandra Fluke’s unique contributions to society, this was the first good news cycle for conservatives in a long time. Might as well enjoy it while it lasts. Rarely do politics get better than this. Though they might on Nov. 6.

Published under: Obama Administration