Ari Berman | The Nation

Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Forget Gibbs. Bring Back Dean as DNC Chair

Over the weekend, “senior officials” in Democratic circles told Politico that President Obama is thinking of putting current White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs in charge of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) going into the 2012 campaign. The White House quickly shot down the rumor and it’s highly unlikely that would happen, as current DNC chair Tim Kaine’s term lasts until after 2012. Yet it’s indicative of the mindset inside Obamaworld that Gibbs is even being considered or floated for the job.

Moving Gibbs to the DNC is a terrible idea. He’s a communications honcho; not an inspirational party leader. The last thing President Obama needs is to elevate yet another inside-the-Beltway operative, let alone one who recently needlessly insulted the “professional left.” Gibbs has no relationships with the local leaders and activists who form the base of the party and the DNC.

In fact, Obama should be looking for just the opposite, someone with credibility and stature among the party’s rank-and-file base, which has often been stifled by the White House political operation. Someone like previous DNC Chair Howard Dean, who was beloved by grassroots activists but left the job after Obama’s election and was excluded from a top job in the administration by Rahm Emanuel. Dean left the DNC voluntarily—believing Obama needed his own man for the job after his term expired—and there’s no indication he’d want the job back.

Kaine has been an adequate DNC chair and, based on my reporting, seems to be well-liked by the state party chairs. The DNC is raising a good amount of money under his tenure and Obama’s post-campaign arm, Organizing for America, is starting to integrate better with existing Democratic Party institutions, though rough spots remain.

Yet the Obama inner circle is in need of a shakeup that goes beyond replacing Rahm. Installing Dean or someone like him at the DNC would signal that Obama is serious about recommitting himself to the kind of grassroots politics that defined his presidential campaign. Too often, the DNC and OFA have simply carried out whatever the White House wanted, to the chagrin of local activists who’d like to have more of a say in how Washington is run. That is, after all, what Obama promised when he ran for president. As I noted in a recent Nation excerpt from my new book, Herding Donkeys

"I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am president of the United States," Obama said while campaigning in Colorado Springs in July 2008. "This won't be a call issued in one speech or one program; I want this to be a central cause of my presidency." Only Obama entered the White House with millions of supporters who could theoretically be activated with the click of a mouse; they expected him, however naïvely, to follow through on his promise. "Our signs didn't say, Status Quo '08," remarked former top Obama adviser Paul Tewes.

Unfortunately, that White House dialogue has too often been one-sided: Here's the policy. Go support it. "The White House began to believe that they could mobilize their supporters without hearing what their supporters really wanted in terms of specific change," Dean says. "The principal problem with OFA is the same one the president's having. You can't dictate to your base what's going to happen. It's got to be a two-way deal, and it hasn't been."

As it stands, the Democratic base is restless, local party leaders are anxious and Democratic candidates are facing major losses in November. Bringing back Dean, an independent voice who can fight for the grassroots, wouldn’t right all of that, but it would show that Obama is serious about empowering a true team of rivals, not just a bunch of Washington insiders.  

Red Guns, Blue Crime

Conservative gun proponents love to argue that the more guns in a society, the safer we’ll be. That’s even the title of John Lott’s More Guns, Less Crime, which has become a bible of sorts for NRA types. (Last week, on the day Lott was due to speak to the University of Texas’s chapter of Students for Freedom, a gunman opened fire in the campus library before committing suicide.)

The argument goes like this: red states are safer becomes they have a well-armed populace while depraved blue state cities with tough gun laws, like Detroit, Chicago and Oakland, are plagued by crime. But this argument doesn’t account for the fact that the guns used in blue crimes may actually originate in red states. According to a new report produced by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, “just ten states supplied nearly half—49 percent—of the guns that crossed state lines before being recovered in crimes.” They are, in order, Mississippi, West Virginia, Kentucky, Alaska, Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, Nevada and Georgia. Not surprisingly, these states have the laxest guns laws, and are thus easily exploited by violent criminals. The states with the lowest gun export rates—DC, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, California, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Illinois and Michigan—have significantly tougher gun laws. All voted for President Obama.

Rahm’s Departure Will Help Reset Obama White House

What has been rumored for weeks is now official: Rahm Emanuel is stepping down as White House chief of staff to explore a bid for mayor of Chicago. He'll soon embark on a Chicago-wide "listening tour," which will require a remarkable amount of restraint for the foul-mouthed pol.

As I wrote in a Nation blog earlier this month, Rahm's exit is a good thing for Obama and a necessary first step in the much-needed shakeup of his White House. Rahm alone wasn't solely responsible for diluting Obama's unique outsider brand, but he was a major contributing factor. After all, throughout his career in politics, Rahm has been at odds with the very grassroots activists who propelled Obama to the White House and made his campaign so unique. That pattern continued when Rahm became chief of staff and purposely demobilized and insulted Obama's ground troops.

I explain this in a new Nation excerpt of my new book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics:

The White House doesn't want its activists to disrupt the backroom deals its aides cut with lobbyists and legislators, nor does it want them putting too much pressure on obstructionist Democrats, lest it alienate key swing votes in Congress. When MoveOn.org ran ads targeting conservative Democrats who were blocking healthcare reform, Rahm Emanuel memorably called the ads "fucking retarded." And, indeed, the White House has expended considerable political capital denouncing the "professional left" and defending apostate Democrats like Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas from insurgent primary challengers, which has further undermined Obama's reformist brand.

"I'm not looking to pick another fight with Rahm Emanuel, but the contempt with which he held the progressive wing of the party was devastating and incredibly demoralizing," Howard Dean says. "That's basically saying to your own people, You got us here, now F-you." The progressive voices Emanuel excluded from Obama's inner circle included Dean himself, who famously clashed with the chief of staff over how and where Democrats should spend their limited resources in 2006. Emanuel's elevation—and Dean's snub—has come to signify a broader abandonment of the party's grassroots base, especially as Obama packed his White House with well-worn veterans of previous administrations, quite an irony given his critique of Hillary during the primary as a washed-up Washington insider. The top-down structure of Obama's administration is the virtual opposite of his campaign.

Slate's Dave Weigel recently wrote about how Rahm's reputation as a master strategist, mostly owing to the Democratic takeover of the House in '06, has always been overblown.

Nor has Rahm's other alleged biggest asset—his ties to Capitol Hill and intricate knowledge of Beltway politics—been of much help to Obama. Much of the legislative agenda Obama passed—from healthcare to the stimulus to financial reform—has either been less substantive than his supporters and the general public wanted or the process by which the legislation got passed, particularly on healthcare form, turned popular pieces of legislation into unpopular ones. It's hard for Rahm to duck the blame on that front; he's done little to curb the dysfunction of the Democratic Congress, particularly in the Senate, where Obama's legislative agenda has hit a brick wall of obstructionism.

Maybe Rahm's replacement, White House senior adviser Pete Rouse, will have better luck. After all, Rouse served as a top aide to former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and understands the unique customs of the Senate better than anyone. Rahm's turbulent tenure in Washington has proven that traditional inside-the-Beltway experience can be overrated, particularly when your boss was supposed to personify the dawn of a new political era. Now is the time for Obama to focus on reinspiring his grassroots base outside-the-Beltway. But if he's is going to play the Washington game, he might as well play it well.


First Look: 'Herding Donkeys' Book Trailer

The publishing industry is rapidly changing and responding to the evolving Internet and new media landscape. Hence the sudden proliferation of book trailers, which authors are now using to preview and promote their books. There’s even an award for best trailer!

In that spirit, I’m premiering the trailer for my debut book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, on TheNation.com today. The trailer chronicles the rise and (possible) fall of Obama’s grassroots political movement, which is a major focus of the book, and a hot topic with the midterms around the corner. The video was produced by Sam Graham-Felsen, ex-Nation writer and former new media impresario on the Obama campaign. The stirring score is by Matt Abeysekera.

Here’s the script:

Barack Obama, Election Night, Chicago: “It’s been a long time coming. But tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”

Ari Berman: “The people still by and large I think still support the president, but he has not been the transformative figure yet that a lot of his supporters expected.

“My name is Ari Berman. I’m the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics.

“All the other Obama books were very much focused on insider politics. They took a narrow view of Obama and his inner circle, and I wanted to tell a much broader story of the grassroots movement that propelled him into the White House.

“I think there’s very much the insider vision of the party and of politics, which is pretty much personified by the Clintons. It’s a small group of people in their inner circle, it’s very reliant on big corporate money, there’s not a lot of room for grassroots participation.

“The other vision was Howard Dean’s vision, which was a bottom-up, people-powered vision of how you could get ordinary people back involved in the political process. Obama tried to build on that model to create a broader-based participation that would propel him eventually to the presidency.”

Obama: “You proved them wrong, when we built a grassroots movement that could forever change the face of American politics.”

Berman: “But if you look at Obama’s White House, it’s very much now a top-down, insider White House, following a very conventional Washington playbook. And the whole spirit of grassroots organizing and energy that really defined the Obama campaign has been largely absent. So on the left now there’s a lot of dissonance.”

Healthcare protest: “What do we want? Public option. When do we want it? Now!”

Obama organizer: “We have a generation of the best political activists ever assembled. Don’t demobilize the troops before the big fight with the health insurance industry.”

Berman: “I think they want him to fight. I think they want him to fight for what he believes in and I think they want him to do it in a way that’s consistent with the values of his own campaign.

“Every day we’re witnessing the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party and American politics, and that’s the story I tell in this book.”

Check back for more news about the book very soon.

Checking Corporate Power in Washington and Wall Street

Yesterday was a strange one on Capitol Hill. In a positive step for reformers, the House Administration Committee passed the Fair Elections Now Act, which gives candidates the incentive to seek small donations and helps break the corporate stranglehold on our democracy. Campaign-finance reformers are now urging Nancy Pelosi to schedule a vote in the House before the November election. 

At the same time, the DISCLOSE Act—which, following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, requires a wide array of political groups to list their donors and identify themselves in ads before the election—once again failed to clear an increasingly dysfunctional Senate. Fifty-nine senators voted for it, which in a normal democracy would assure passage, but in the Senate, where sixty votes are now necessary to pass anything, this counts as yet another defeat.

Meanwhile, the Senate Budget Committee voted 22–1 to confirm Jack Lew as President Obama’s replacement for Peter Orszag as head of the Office of Management and Budget. The lone dissenter was Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who expressed concern with Lew’s statement that deregulation in the nineties did not contribute to the financial crisis. Lew also received a $1 million bonus last year as an executive at Citigroup, which could provide even more bad optics for Obama’s financial team. “It is my strong belief that President Obama needs an OMB director who is willing to stand up to corporate America and the wealthy, say enough is enough, and fight for policies that protect the working class in this country,” Sanders said. “Unfortunately, I do not believe Mr. Lew is the right man at this time for this important job.” (In yet another sign of Senate dysfunction, Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana vowed to block Lew’s nomination until the Obama administration lifts its moratorium on deepwater oil drilling. She’s evidently already forgotten the massive BP spill in her home state.)

Speaking of standing up to corporate America and getting the short end of the stick, I recently had a book recommended to me called Confidence Game, by Bloomberg News reporter Christine Richard. It tells the story of hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, who for half a dozen years warned anyone who would listen that the $2.5 trillion bond insurance market was overly leveraged (a 40:1 ratio of debt to dollars at insurer MBIA) and bound to come crashing down, triple AAA ratings notwithstanding. Instead of heeding his advice, the Wall Street Journal attacked him while the SEC investigated him. The book reads like a surreal spy novel. To prevent a parade of future crises, we need to understand what went wrong in the first place—and figure out how to do something about it now.

Summers's Over. What's Next for Obama's Economic Team?

First Rahm Emanuel, now Larry Summers. If Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner follows them out the door, Barack Obama may be on the verge of successfully shaking up his administration and rebooting his presidency.

Or maybe not. First the good news about Summers’s exit: the chair of the National Economic Council (NEC) may be an economic policy genius but he was a terrible public face for Obama’s economic agenda and could never convey how those policies would help Americans struggling to weather the recession. Plus, his background somehow managed to combine the worst of smug elite academia with the deregulation excesses of the nineties and the hedge fund bubble. He was not exactly the sort of fellow Americans could relate to at a time of economic calamity.

That said, his replacement could be worse. Names being floated include Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy and former Young & Rubicam Brands CEO Ann Fudge, based on the belief propagated by the business community that Obama needs a CEO inside his White House. But Derek Thompson of The Atlantic wrote a good column about why that’s not such a hot idea: CEOs care about making money for their own companies, while a top economic adviser should be concerned with pursuing the economic policies that will benefit as many Americans as possible. Those two poles aren’t always compatible.

Other contenders include Summers’ deputies Jason Furman and Diana Farrell. Farrell used to work at Goldman Sachs, hardly a bonus in this economy nor a rarity inside Obama world, while Furman directed the Hamilton Project, the centrist think tank co-founded by Clinton deregulation czar Bob Rubin. Tim Fernholz of The American Prospect says the top contender is UC-Berkeley professor Laura Tyson, who held the job under Clinton. That’s a safe pick, though not very inspired.

So who might shake up Obama’s team for the better and bring a Main Street perspective that is currently lacking? The Progressive Campaign Change Committee yesterday suggested someone like new Treasury adviser and consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, outgoing North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Nobel Prize-–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman or FDIC chair Sheila Bair. I’d add to that list Jared Bernstein, who is currently Vice President Joe Biden’s chief economic adviser and often the lone progressive economist in the room during policy discussions. He’d play well with others, bring a fresh perspective to our stagnant economic debate and perhaps even energize Obama’s dispirited base—promising a renewed focus on jobs, jobs, jobs—with the election just round the corner.

Ari Berman's new book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, will be published on October 5 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The Professional Left Isn’t Dead Yet

Last night belonged to the Tea Party and Palinites, who celebrated, ever so briefly, Christine O’Donnell’s upset victory in Delaware. But the professional left, so lovingly characterized by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, isn’t dead yet, either. In an open Democratic primary for New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional district, progressive candidate Ann McLane Kuster handily defeated self-styled Blue Dog Katrina Swett, who co-chaired Joe Lieberman’s 2004 presidential campaign. Kuster, a lawyer, community activist and women’s health expert, had the support of progressive groups like MoveOn, Democracy for America, Progressive Campaign Change Committee and EMILY’s List. Swett ran hard to Kuster’s right and tried to paint Kuster’s progressive supporters as an electoral liability.

"Annie, you have cast yourself as the very, very progressive candidate and have been warmly supported by the far-left progressive movement," Swett, the daughter of Congressman Tom Lantos and wife of former Congressman Dick Swett, said in the last debate. "In a year when everyone understands that the country is moving back toward the center and away from the more left, progressive point of view, if you were to become the nominee, would you try to distance yourself from your own positions?"

"Actually Katrina, I think it's your views that are out-of-step with the voters of the 2nd Congressional District," replied Kuster, pointing to Swett’s support for the Bush tax cuts, war in Iraq and escalation in Afghanistan, not to mention her vociferous support of Lieberman in 2004 and 2006. (See Howie Klein for much more on Swett's background.)

Kuster easily got the best of that argument, defeating Swett by a whopping 42 points last night. She’ll now face GOP nominee Charlie Bass, who held the seat for six terms before losing in ’06 to Paul Hodes, who’s now running for the Senate. Kuster’s big win proves that much of the progressive coalition that unsuccessfully backed Bill Halter in Arkansas still has some juice left. The PCCC lent Kuster staff, donated over $100,000 to her campaign (the average PCCC member donation was $10) and developed her online strategy. EMILY’s List dispatched volunteers to New Hampshire and made thousands of calls on her behalf. DFA and others blasted out emails urging their members to back Kuster. As a result, she’s outraised Bass three to one and is in a much stronger position to win the general election. Kuster, unlike O’Donnell in Delaware, is a polished, capable candidate, not a flaky, scandal-plagued insurgent. (Progressives didn't fare as well in Massachussets, where incumbent Rep. Stephen Lynch, who inexplicably voted against the healthcare bill despite representing a reliability Democratic seat in Boston, beat back a challenge from labor organizer Mac D'Alessandro.)

NH-02 is still an uphill battle for Democrats, but the seat becomes a whole lot more winnable now that the Democrats’ grassroots base is engaged.

The Sooner Rahm Leaves, the Better for Obama

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s announcement that he will not seek a seventh term has prompted widespread speculation that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel will run as Daley’s successor. "I'd be shocked if he doesn't run," a senior administration official told the Washington Post.

The sooner Rahm leaves Washington, the better for Barack Obama. His White House is desperately in need of a serious shakeup, especially with Democrats facing a tidal wave of losses in the midterms. Replacing Rahm is the best place to start.

I’ll never quite understand why a transformational candidate who ran under the banner of a new style of politics chose the ultimate old-school inside operator to control his administration. Rahm isn’t solely to blame for diluting Obama’s unique outsider brand, but he’s a major reason why. After all, in the Clinton White House and in Congress, Rahm was often at odds with the very grassroots activists who powered Obama’s presidential campaign. As head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in ‘06, he famously clashed with party chair Howard Dean and recruited conservative Blue Dog candidates at the expense of legitimate progressive challengers. Rahm brought his corporate centrism to the White House, pushing for a smaller-than-needed stimulus bill, urging Obama not to pursue healthcare reform, watering down the bill when he did and calling progressive activists who wanted to pressure obstructionist Democrats “fucking retarded.” He later apologized to Sarah Palin but not to the Democratic activists he insulted.

Rahm’s alleged biggest asset—his ties to Capitol Hill and intricate knowledge of Beltway politics—paid few dividends for Obama. The president’s legislative agenda has hit a brick wall in the Senate and the dysfunction of the Democratic Congress, which Emanuel has done little to tame, helps explain why voters are set to punish the party in power this November. “If picking the leading practitioner of the dark arts of the capital was a Faustian bargain for Obama in the name of getting things done, why haven’t things got done?” asked Peter Baker of the New York Times in a profile titled “The Limits of Rahmism.” In other words, if you sell your soul, you better get something good for it in return. Instead, Obama is facing the prospect of a Republican Congress and an uphill re-election bid. No wonder Rahm is so eager to get out of town.  

In a series of articles last spring, Emanuel or those close to him sought to blame others in the Obama White House for the president’s problems. That was cowardly, irresponsible and beside the point. If Emanuel really is the most powerful chief of staff in modern history, then obviously he deserves his share of the blame when things don’t go according to plan. Especially since he devised the plan. 

In just a few years, Rahm’s gone from the architect of the Democratic takeover of the House to a major political liability. So what, exactly, qualifies him to run America’s third largest city? That’s what the Progressive Campaign Change Committee and other critics of Emanuel are asking. “ I will not support Rahm Emanuel in any future election for Congress, Mayor of Chicago, Governor, or other office,” says a petition drafted yesterday by the PCCC. “He sold us out on the public option and is a weak Democrat who caves instead of fighting conservatives and corporate power.”

It’s not too late for Obama to turn his presidency around, reconnect with the supporters who propelled him to the White House, attack the gridlock in Washington and reclaim his ambitious legislative agenda. But to do so, he’ll need fewer Rahms in the building.

Ari Berman's new book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, will be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Vulture Capitalist Funding GOP

Over the weekend the New York Times profiled conservative hedge fund tycoon Paul Singer, who's generously bankrolled the GOP and is sometimes referred to as a Republican George Soros. The article spotlighted the $500,000 Singer contributed in April to the Republican Governors Association and his attempts to thwart meaningful regulation of Wall Street. Left unmentioned in the article was how Singer amassed his fortune, in part by capitalizing on the subprime housing crisis and exploiting the debt of impoverished African nations. During the presidential campaign, as part of a feature article on the "dirty money" behind Rudy Giuliani's campaign, I wrote a separate article about Singer's controversial involvement with so-called "vulture funds." Since Singer's in the news again, I'm reposting the relevant sections below. It's not surprising that someone like him is so committed to bankrolling today's GOP.

In the 1990s Singer's hedge fund pioneered a shadowy, lucrative and often ruthless form of investing whose practitioners earned the not-so-generous moniker "vulture funds." Vulture funds—or "sovereign debt investors," as they prefer to call themselves—buy old defaulted debts, usually from the poorest countries in the world, and then drag the debtors into court, seeking a settlement far above what the funds originally paid for the debt. These are debts that are usually forgiven when the countries are granted relief by wealthy nations like the United States and multilateral institutions like the World Bank. An official at the Bank likens vulture fund activities to giving up your seat on a bus for an old lady, only to see a young college jock swipe it.

Large hedge funds like Singer's Elliott Associates often operate in secret, through shell companies in tax shelters like the Cayman Islands. Since the end of 2005, more than a third of the countries receiving debt relief have been targeted by at least thirty-eight hedge funds, which have gotten judgments in excess of $1 billion. This reverse Robin Hood scheme has drawn criticism around the globe, including from Nelson Mandela and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

It all started in 1996, when Elliott paid $11 million for $20 million of debt, dating back to 1983, theoretically owed by the government of Peru. In 1989, then-US Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady had urged rich countries to forgive the debts of poor ones in order to spur economic growth and global development. Instead of settling with Peru, as its 180 other creditors did, Elliott took the government to court. "Pay us in full or be sued," Singer threatened.

A federal district court in New York initially ruled against Elliott, finding that the fund had purchased the debt "with the intent and purpose to sue" and "rejected each and every opportunity to participate in Peru's restructuring." Elliott appealed and won. Then the fund began working the political system in New York. With the help of a lobbying firm in Albany, Elliott, through a subsidiary, persuaded the New York legislature to change an obscure law governing compound interest, increasing Elliott's payout by $16 million, for a total, including interest, of $58 million. It was done so quietly that Peru's lawyers didn't find out until after the fact. A few years later the New York State Assembly eliminated another law that Peru had used to defend itself. Three months after the bill became law, Singer gave the lead sponsor, State Assembly Member Susan John, a $2,500 campaign donation.

Elliott's most recent target is the oil-rich but desperately poor West African nation of Congo, home to three civil wars since 1993, with 70 percent of the population below the poverty line. In the late 1990s Elliott, through a variety of shadowy subsidiaries, bought $100 million of defaulted Congolese debt for roughly 7 to 10 cents on the dollar, according to a legal brief filed by the Congolese government. A Cayman Islands-based entity called Kensington International went to court in London and received favorable judgments, ordering repayment of the debt plus interest. Then Kensington returned to court in London and sought to prevent Congo from repaying any other creditors until Kensington was paid. This time the judge balked, saying he didn't even know what Kensington International was and how much it had paid for the debts.

Only when Kensington sued Congo in New York under a RICO statute (which would triple a final judgment to $375 million), was it revealed that Kensington was a subsidiary of Singer's fund. Since then, Elliott/Kensington has pulled out all the stops. The fund retained as counsel Ted Olson, George W. Bush's initial choice to replace Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General. Kensington has filed at least fifteen separate lawsuits against Congo and its business partners, in places ranging from the British Virgin Islands to Hong Kong to the United States.

After members of the Congolese government amassed large hotel bills at a UN summit in New York, Kensington lobbied the World Bank to block scheduled debt relief for the country, according to two sources close to the Congolese government. The fund placed op-eds in influential newspapers, produced letters of support from members of Congress and even filed a lawsuit in Brussels against the Belgian government to confiscate a 10 million euro foreign aid payment from Belgium to Congo. (In a separate case against Argentina, Elliott has enlisted former top Clinton Administration officials to persuade the country to pay debts that the firm acquired for as little as 15 cents on the dollar.) "They're completely amoral," says David Skeel, a professor of corporate law at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's almost a matter of pride to them."

Do Democrats Deserve to Lose in November?

“The Democrats may deserve to lose in November,” Timothy Egan wrote provocatively on the New York Times’ Opinionator blog yesterday. “They have been terrible at trying to explain who they stand for and the larger goal of their governance.”

He’s right.

Case in point: the manufactured debate over whether to build an Islamic community/cultural center in lower Manhattan, which has already been approved for construction and has the vociferous support of the mayor of New York. According to Talking Points Memo (h/t MJ Rosenberg), only fourteen Democratic members of Congress have come out in favor of Park 51. The rest have denounced the project, called for a useless compromise or sought to avoid the topic altogether. That’s not leadership. Such cheap demagoguery is to be expected of today’s xenophobic GOP, but the party that sent the first African-American president to the White House will—and should—be held to a higher standard.

The Park 51 frenzy is only one window into how the much-ballyhooed Democratic majority has gone awry. The House of Representatives has passed a good chunk of the ambitious legislative agenda Barack Obama unveiled upon assuming the presidency, yet much of it has been stalled, derailed or gutted in the Senate. As a result, the Congress appears supremely dysfunctional—which it is. In the face of Republican intransigence, Democrats are acting like a bunch of passive crybabies, with no clear plan for how to get out of this legislative morass.

Republicans have a clear slogan in 2010: elect us so that we can stop Obama's radical march to socialism. What's the Democrats’ slogan? Re-elect us so that we can kinda/sorta/try to pass Obama's agenda? And what exactly is that agenda nowadays? No wonder the Democrats are in trouble. Voters like simplicity; in '06 and '08 Democrats were for “change,” no matter how nebulous that slogan was. Now we don't know what Democrats would even do if they had another two, four or six years in office.

Obama hasn't helped his party much either of late. His relentless attachment to pragmatism and post-partisanship has muddled the Democrats’ message. Even when he does something courageous—initially supporting Park 51, for example, he or his aides always seem to walk it back. Frustrated Democrats are urging Obama to present a theory of the case—a vision of what Democrats are for and how they'll fight to get there—before it’s too late. Republicans certainly don’t deserve to win in 2010 but that doesn’t mean Democrats don’t deserve to lose.

Ari Berman's new book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, will be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  

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