The progressive movement had a few hiccups this past week, to put it charitably. On the heels of Senator-Elect Brown's improbable victory in Massachusetts, Democrats and progressive interest groups everywhere received another body blow on Thursday morning with the news of the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Citizens United.
Brown's victory gives Republicans the numbers in the Senate to filibuster most Democratic legislation, while the recent Supreme Court ruling eliminates many restrictions on how corporations are allowed to use their treasuries to influence political races--and it's no secret that corporate money is seldom friendly to the progressive agenda. And while these events may seem like devastating setbacks, they also provide a rich opportunity for President Obama to reshape the negative political narrative that has been haunting him for many months--if he's bold enough to seize it.
At the outset of his presidency, Mr. Obama promised to the nation a bold agenda with sweeping reforms on health care, climate change policy, financial sector reform, and just about every single major issue on the radar screen of the American voter. But he made one other promise: to accomplish it all in a collegial, bipartisan atmosphere.
Despite his best efforts, this last promise was not his to keep. This should have been clear during the heated debate about Mr. Obama's first stimulus bill. That bill included several hundred billion dollars of tax cuts that were included not because he viewed it as the best policy, but so that he could mollify the expected Republican opposition to the measure. What did the President get in response? Accusations of being a socialist, a communist and the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler, all rolled up into one self-contradictory ball of inscrutable evil.
The Republican Party, aided by the astroturf groups inspired by its cable propaganda network, became a constant voice of strident opposition that pushed and often exceeded the limits of civilized political discourse. This might not have been as problematic if GOP support had mattered for passing a bill. But ever since the seating of Al Franken as the "60th Democratic Senator," the media narrative was entirely different.
Because Democrats supposedly had 60 votes and the Republicans were no longer numerically able to prevent a unified Democratic front from passing its agenda, the majority was held responsible for the year-long failure to produce tangible results on the issue. Meanwhile, Republicans used their access to the airwaves to slam any version of reform in either chamber. The result was a perfect storm of anger: Democrats were unmotivated, Republicans were furious, and independents were distrustful--creating the only environment that could lead to a Republican winning Ted Kennedy's seat in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
But the election of that 41st Republican Senator offers the opportunity for change. By now, every prominent politician in America not named Evan Bayh must recognize that bipartisan compromise is a bygone dream--and even those named Evan Bayh can see that the party that taps into populist anger will be the one that wins at the ballot box.
The media narrative has transformed. The fact that Republicans have the ability to filibuster obviates Obama and the Democrats from the sole responsibility to pass reform and allows the administration and Congressional Democrats to strike a decidedly partisan tone by blaming Republican obstructionism for anything that doesn't get passed. This will force Republicans like Scott Brown to either face the anger of the voters for blocking reform, or face the anger and disinterest of their base if they accede to it.
But taking advantage of this opportunity will require the daring to propose and advocate for popular and populist reforms that Republicans are likely to vehemently oppose. The silver lining of the abhorrent Citizens United ruling is the opportunity to do exactly that. If Americans were already queasy about the influence of corporate dollars on our government, this ruling might just be an emetic.
No matter what happens on health care reform over the next few weeks, the 2010 election will be decided by the state of the economy, and whether the Democrats and President Obama can establish a decisive contrast between themselves and the GOP regarding financial sector reform and reining in corporate influence on government. Mr. Obama is already off to a good start with his banking tax proposals and his tough talk. And should the Democrats in Congress attempt to carry such legislation, a Republican filibuster would shift the narrative and turn voters against the GOP for being too close to the banks. And in that sense, that 41st vote may actually be a liability.
But a more aggressive approach could change the narrative even more dramatically. The only way to reverse the Citizens United ruling is a Constitutional amendment. While this may seem drastic and unwieldy, there is perhaps no better time than now: President Bush discussed an amendment to ban marriage equality--despite it having no chance of succeeding--just to send a signal to his social conservative base that he was still paying attention.
Because a Constitutional amendment requires ratification by two-thirds of the states, passing one would require the creation and activation of a nationwide base. Fortunately for Mr. Obama, he has one: Organizing For America. OFA is rumored to have an email list of more than 13 million people, with volunteers in every Congressional District. During the recent Senate election in Massachusetts, OFA volunteers made over 2.3 million calls on behalf of Coakley's campaign. Imagine the influence that these millions of volunteers could have if they were put to work lobbying locally for a Constitutional amendment to limit corporate money in politics.
Such a move would activate and motivate the progressive base, would likely be relatively popular, and would make the Republicans who opposed it look like the pawns of corporate America that they so often are. The only question is: Does the President have the courage to do what's right?