[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
Democrats in Congress could really use a lesson in the art of politics from President Obama.
Millions of Americans turned on their computers this morning and went to Yahoo!, only to find this headline:
Obama will sign spending bill despite earmarks
Instead of being a positive headline about President Obama's bold effort to try and address the myriad problems facing the nation, the news was about the Democrats in Congress doing something stupid. They have handed the Republicans a legitimate issue to complain about, and there isn't a single good reason for it.
On This Week yesterday, George Stephanopoulos's first question to Republican Whip Rep. Eric Cantor was a softball, asking him to comment on President Obama's refusal to veto the spending bill because of the presence of earmarks. The interview should have been a disaster for Cantor (and the rest of it was). Stephanopoulos showed him poll figures that demonstrated that Americans overwhelmingly supported President Obama and not the Republicans in Congress (Democrats in Congress got more support than Republicans, but far less than President Obama). And Cantor had nothing to add beyond the tired Republican lower-taxes-solve-all answer to the economic crisis. But instead of the interview being about the lack of solutions being offered by the Republicans, Cantor got to take the offensive on earmarks. The Democrats gave Cantor (and the rest of the Republicans in Congress) a lifeline, and there was no benefit to be gained in doing so. (You can watch the interview with Cantor here.)
Let's be clear here: When the Democrats stand up for something important, as President Obama is trying to do on the economy, health care, green energy, education and a more fair tax system, then combating the GOP talking point of "tax and spend Democrats" blowing up the debt is completely worth the fight. We know that the Republican policies of tax cuts for the wealthy, no regulation and corporate welfare led to the mess we are currently in, so standing for a change to these policies, and President Obama's hugely ambitious agenda of trying to tackle several major needs at once, is a worthwhile fight.
But why, why, why did the Democrats in Congress insist on including earmarks in the most recent spending bill? Especially since President Obama opposes them, and spoke out against them during the campaign? There is no political, moral or ideological basis for including them.
I have been a frequent critic of Senate majority leader Harry Reid and House speaker Nancy Pelosi since they came to power. I thought they were too weak in opposing the Republicans in Congress when the GOP was in the majority, and they were even weaker in opposing President Bush, especially on Iraq, after the American people handed both houses of Congress to the Democrats in 2006, largely because of Bush's mishandling of the war.
And now that President Obama is in the White House, it seems to me that Reid and Pelosi have made a large miscalculation: They seem to believe that the increased Democratic majorities in Congress were somehow an endorsement of their leadership and policies when, in fact, the Democratic surge was more a product of belief in the leadership of President Obama (and anger at the fecklessness of the Republicans that ran the country into the ground over the last eight years).
President Obama has demonstrated at every turn, from his campaign through the early days of his presidency, that he's pretty good at political strategy. Reid and Pelosi have demonstrated in the last four years that they are not. So why not take a page from the master?
There is no upside to being on the pro-earmarks side of the debate. In fact, including them paints the Democrats in Congress as being part of the same culture in Washington that the voters rejected in November. Again, like they were after the 2006 elections, Reid and Pelosi are demonstrating that they are tone deaf as to the demands of the electorate. They don't seem to understand why they were put into power. In 2006, it was to end the war in Iraq. And in 2008, it was to support President Obama's change agenda.
Now the president is forced to make a lose-lose decision: Does he veto the spending bill to show his displeasure on earmarks and risk not getting his ambitious agendas through Congress? Or does he swallow hard and accept the earmarks to keep his programs moving forward? He has apparently chosen the second option, and it's hard to argue with him, but it's easy to lament that his fellow Democrats in Congress have placed him in this no-win situation in the first place.
Here's the bottom line: I have always firmly believed in the principals that President Obama is trying to assert in the early days of his presidency. I am palpably relieved at the direction he is taking our nation after eight years of the Bush administration's embarrassing view of the U.S. and the world, and its total incompetence in operating the government. I know that the necessary reshaping of our national priorities that President Obama is attempting to undertake needs to move through Congress, so he needs Reid and Pelosi to wake up and get on board. Americans voted for Democrats in Congress to support President Obama, not to preserve earmarks, a piece of the broken political system the president railed against as a candidate.
President Obama's battle for change will be difficult enough, and the last thing he needs is for Reid and Pelosi to give ammunition to the enemy by advocating something as indefensible as earmarks. Obama has earned the right to lead, far more than Reid and Pelosi. They need to wake up and realize this fact, sooner rather than later.