Sunday, November 9, 2014

How Sibelius Lost the Election

Election results are influenced by so many factors that interpretation is always necessary, often contentious, and mostly unprovable. While truth might be elusive, opinions most certainly are not. This is a fortunate circumstance for those who opine for a living, and for those conversationalists and bloggers who opine for a hobby, both of whom can be disbelieved, but neither of whom can be disproved. Or, to put it another way, competing for cleverness in interpreting elections can yield profits for some and lots of fun for others.

Thus it is with some humility but little fear of disproval that I offer my simplification as explanation for the November 2014 election. I believe that the Democrats lost the election more than a year prior to the actual voting, specifically on October 1, 2013 and the ensuing week, when the Obamacare .gov website failed. We can't even say “crashed,” because it didn't get that far. Instead, it just pathetically sputtered in anguish for weeks, and thus confirmed the public's worst fears about government and about Democrats – which is, that for all the reliance that Democrats put onto government, it just doesn't work.

It was the Republican mantra – largely and shamefully unopposed by the Obama Administration and Democrats in general – that Obamacare wouldn't work, that it was poorly designed, but also that government itself just can't be relied on. So here was the test – rollout! Places, Action, Camera! If it worked the way it should have, the Democrats would have been able to trot around the track in splendid victory, and their abdication of verbal defense would have been excused by the actual demonstration of competence. There would still have been the publicized failures in individual cases (many false), but they would have fallen by the wayside as cascading numbers of signups rolled in. Glory and Triumph!

Instead, the failure was ignominious. Instead, the Democrats were covered with the excrement excreted by website. There were were promises, there were mutterings, there were statements, there were reports that Obama was “really pissed off.” But mostly we awaited the advent of the A-team and the 60 day fix, wondering why the A-team hadn't been there from the start. It was pathetic.

But actually, even then, with the lurid failure that was the rollout, Obama still could have saved the day. If he was as reported “livid” in private, he could have shown it in public and acted on it. Maybe he didn't want drama because it cuts across the grain of his personality; maybe through the years he has learned not to be an Angry Black Man. But whatever it was that inhibited his rising up to the occasion, it's a shame. If he had declared his lividity publicly; if he had fired Kathleen Sibelius by the end of the week; if he had taken the occasion to declare (as I urged at the time in these pages) that governmental cyber-incompetence was intolerable, and that the site would be up and functioning in 60 days no matter what!, and that he was launching a multiyear effort to make the government cyber-competent beyond all suspicion, and that he was asking Silicon Valley to help him in this the way that industry geared up for the World War II, albeit on a more limited scale – if he had raised the stakes that way, he could have triumphed in the end, and maybe even gotten his approval rating up over 50% by election time. I think it would have worked.

And actually, if he had done that, Sibelius could have come out OK. She could have announced her resignation, saying that it happened on her watch and “mistakes were made,” implying “not by me,” and that she was falling on her sword the way a good commander should. She would have been defended and showered with praise for taking the consequences the way a leader should, and she would not have been the dead meat she is now. She would have “taken responsibility.” Obama would have been “tough.” The government would be seen not to have failed, but to have learned and moved forward, and Obama would have made lemonade out of a lemon.

That's what they should have done. But they couldn't do it. Obama is a cool personality, self-protective and cautious, and truthfully, he lacks the necessary decades of experience to be able to pull it off. And Sibelius is just that good little Catholic schoolgirl who also can't rise up and connect and draw us in. So even though the website actually got fixed, and even though Sibelius actually left in a few months, the damage was done. They were fried, and the Democrats up in 2014 were fried along with them.

Damage happened because suspicions were confirmed. Doubts were sown by the super-aggressive Republicans, and government, truthfully, has failed all too often in recent years. Democrats depend on defending governmental action, and Republicans depend on attacking it as incompetent, and thus call for downsizing rather than strengthening. This background made the dramatic narrative of incompetence believable.

There are other features of the election to note. It seems ironic to me that many of the Republicans who won on Tuesday were businessmen, who, like Mitt Romney, trade on their reputations for being able to “do things.” On the one hand, they say that government can't work, but on the other hand they say that they can make it work. But to the extent that the election shows anything beyond turnout of the elderly white and non-turnout of youth and minorities, it is a rejection of the Democrats, who aside from the key failure of, ran such poor campaigns, just as they had not spoken up for several years now, even fatuously not stating that they had voted for Obama, or featuring how they could and would oppose Obama policies. Sorry, folks, you can't do that if you're in his party. You all have to hang together and sell the policies and push back at the banalities of the opposition. You were politically quite stupid. Stand up, be smart, be counted, and ooze empathy, and you will win your fair share. Retreat, and you will be enjoying private life. Lesson perhaps learned, let's hope.

So, that's my thesis. My hope is for a Democratic regrouping and rethinking not so much of policies, but of public stances. You just have to be forthright and sometimes dramatic. You have to show emotion and determination, and you have to be 'splainer-in-chief yourselves. Nobody is going to give it to you. Chickens do come home to roost.

Budd Shenkin