Monday, March 29, 2010

Seven days of the Democrats

“A week is a year in politics,” some political physicist once observed. By that highly compressed metric, the year between March 23 and today went as well — as perfectly, insanely great — as it ever has for the Democrats. To judge from the succession of Democratic initiatives advanced on Capitol Hill and from the White House, and the rhetorical and strategic energy that preceded them, there’s a fresh chutzpah, a swagger in the step of the Dems that’s at least momentarily got Republicans on the defensive.

It started Tuesday with President Obama signing into law what may be the landmark of his domestic agenda, a sweeping health-care bill intended to cover another 32 million Americans with health insurance — a gambit that brings the United States as close to universal health care as we’ve ever come.

On Friday the president and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a breakthrough deal on a replacement for the START agreement, a proposed landmark treaty that would update the Cold War-era pact, and cut U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles by 30 percent. Pending ratification by the Senate, Obama will sign the formal treaty on April 8 in Prague.

"I'm pleased to announce that after a year of intense negotiations, the United States and Russia have agreed to the most comprehensive arms control agreement in nearly two decades," Obama told reporters.

"With this agreement, the United States and Russia -— the two largest nuclear powers in the world — also send a clear signal that we intend to lead," the president said.

The domestic triumph of health-care reform, followed in dizzyingly short order by a sweeping proposal to reduce the world’s biggest nuclear arsenals … Is there Red Bull in the water supply at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

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Magic is generally defined as the art of misdirection; on Saturday, the president proved himself to be something of a master of the art. First came the news that, one day into the spring congressional recess (lawmakers lulled into thinking a quiet March Madness weekend was in store), the White House announced it had made 15 recess appointments, vital additions to agencies and boards that Obama made without the Senate’s approval.

It’s hardly unprecedented; recess appointments are a presidential perk that’s been used routinely (President Reagan did it hundreds of times). It’s one the Obama administration has been reluctant to use, a nod to its bipartisan inclination. That was then, this is now; no doubt invigorated by the big health-care win, Team Obama’s clutch of recess appointments was the week’s last slap upside the Republicans’ heads.

It was thought that Obama issued the appointments while safely ensconced at Camp David on Saturday. The news broke a while later that, no, the commander-in-chief was on the ground in frickin’ Afghanistan! President Obama arrived that day, making a surprise visit to U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base, and calling on Afghan President Hamid Karzai for a face-to-face. After six hours or so on the ground, the multitasker-in-chief hotfooted it home, back to the White House. Next mission: a Passover Seder with family, friends and close staff members, on Monday.

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This sense of the wind at the back of the Democrats is contagious. We’ve seen it on the Hill in recent weeks and months, as Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida and Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York spoke truth to power on the House floor during the vituperative health-care debate, with rhetorical flourishes that had more to do with the street than with Roberts’ Rules of Order.

Sen. Al Franken got the badass bug over the weekend. Frankel (who I saw occasionally back in the day at the New York Sports Club on 80th and Broadway in Manhattan, not far enough from Zabar’s, the gourmet-food emporium) was the subject of a media ambush orchestrated by Jason Mattera, a conservative mediaite and wannabe hit-man reporter in the mold of the producers from Fox News.

Nico Pitney of The Huffington Post writes:
“A conservative media activist named Jason Mattera confronted Sen. Al Franken last weekend and has posted video of the incident on YouTube.

“In the video, Mattera introduces himself warmly to Franken and then asks him, "Which portions of the health care bill lower costs? Is it the provision giving $7 billion to fund jungle gyms or the provision mandating that employers provide time off for breastfeeding?"

“Franken asks him to show him the portion of the legislation that gives "$7 billion to fund jungle gyms." Mattera points to a section of the bill he was carrying with him, but when Franken begins to respond, Mattera interjects: "Why is that the job of the federal create an army of monkey bars? Go ahead, answer it."

“At this point, Franken seems to have had enough. "You have to shut up right now and listen to me instead of interrupting me." Mattera says, "I'm sorry, go ahead." The two continue their back-and-forth as Franken heads up a flight of stairs. …
Franken, of course, has been no freshman shrinking violet on Capitol Hill. From the beginning the prickly Minnesota senator has left no ideologue unchallenged, in recent months happily bitch-slapping Sens. Joe Lieberman and John Thune, and getting in the face of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts. Ambush-boy Mattera would be no exception.

Franken isn’t just an odd case. What’s striking is the way in which the Democrats, collectively buoyed by one success, have used its momentum to bolster their own self-confidence. And there’s no success quite like a Historic one.

William Galston, a former Clinton White House aide and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told the Associated Press on Sunday that the Obama White House "had a political near-death experience over health care the past few months. It turned out OK in the end, but it was a close call. So I think they have to ask themselves: Do they think Democratic elected officials and the electorate have the stomach for a lot more controversy?"

That misses the point of the White House’s recent assertiveness. It’s never really been about deliberately courting controversy; it’s been a matter of getting things done. Of intending to lead. And over the last seven days, that’s exactly what’s happened: a series of achievements, crowded with ceremony and substance.

All in all, it seems, a helluva good time to be a Democrat in Washington. For as long as it lasts.

Image credits: Obama top: Pool. Red Bull: Red Bull GmBH. Obama in Afghanistan: Pete Souza/The White House.

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