Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Alas poor Camelot.

Fifty years ago today John F Kennedy stood before the Capitol, took
the oath of office and delivered his iconic inaugural address.  So it’s all the more poignant if not
ironic that the Kennedy era was put to rest in Massachusetts the day before.  Yes, Martha Coakley turned out to be a
dud of a candidate and yes Democrats got complacent when the stakes were
highest.  Misplaced or not, there is
some discontent with Obama’s first year.  But in the end I’d suggest Kennedy fatigue was also at play.  We may have seen the first signs of it in
New York when Caroline’s Senate ambitions misfired.  The family may have sensed it in opting not to put forward
one of their own.  Imagine how much
harsher a rebuke last night’s defeat might have seemed were there a Kennedy on
the ballot.  And remember the
Clinton win in 2008?  It wasn’t so
many months ago that the state’s primary voters thumbed their noses at Ted Kennedy

That his lifelong ambition to right our healthcare system may be the
primary casualty of this loss adds only to the pain of it.  I still believe the Democrats will
figure out some way to get a bill passed. 
It’s likely to be very messy, but in these days of sharp division and
vitriol how could it be otherwise? 

There is no way to put a positive spin on yesterday, and we shouldn’t
even try.  But the resulting
numbers should put into sharper focus the travesty that a nineteen-vote edge is
insufficient to pass any kind of meaningful legislation.  It’s time to do away that super
majority rule that essentially was kept in place to thwart civil rights legislation
— the most shameful legacy one could have.  That
60-vote nonsense only exacerbates what may have been the Founders’ biggest
blunder.   Perhaps their idea
of protecting small states worked in the 18th Century but in the 21st
it is an anachronistic.  The Senate is
already the most unrepresentative body in government.  The idea that those elected by a tiny fraction of the
population can hold the entire nation hostage boggles the mind.  There is next to zero chance of changing
the composition of the Senate, which requires a Constitutional Amendment, but
correcting the compounding imbalance of the big 60 is within our reach.  Democrats should move that to the top
of their agenda going forward.

Tuesday’s vote opens the window on something much more fundamental, and
the JFK anniversary is a perfect time to consider it.  My earlier posts have suggested that our government has
become dysfunctional.  Governments reflect
the people who elect them, and in a profound way, it is we who have become a dysfunctional
society.  It is a People Magazine
mentality and American Idol culture; fast rising and falling stars our principal preoccupation.  Even Headlines and picture captions seem
to tax our attention span.  We are
impatient demanding instant gratification.  We live in and for the moment disregarding the needs of a
lifetime.  Just as we strain to see
movie stars walk the red carpet, we look to the star power of our political
leaders.  That
began with Jack Kennedy, the first dashing President in our memory.  Clearly part of Barack Obama’s
attraction was that he embodies star power, especially in contrast to his
tongue tied, charisma-deficient predecessor.

How prescient Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame looks today, not
necessarily for what he meant, but for who we have become.  It seems that we scarcely allow even those few minutes before we through our heroes into the dustbin.  The truth is that we sell them too
short, most especially those with real star power.  Many of Hollywood’s beautiful people have much more
substance than the superficial images we attach to them would suggest.  In that regard, don’t discount this star
President because he had a bad day or more importantly because he hasn’t gotten
the absolutely impossible done in a 24-hour news cycle.  And don’t think he, or even those
dysfunctional bodies on the Hill are the problem.  They are we, and we carry most of the blame.  I heard an interview on NPR the other
day with a College kid who had turned out to vote for Obama in ’08.  The reporter asked him, “Will you vote
in 2010?”  His reply was chilling,
although sadly unsurprising.  With
a shrug he said, “Oh I’m not sure, maybe not.”  What was the difference between the two years?  No star, no hero running in his state
in ‘10.  But the larger story of
course is that all too few of us, regardless of age, vote.  Some democracy!  The Senate is not merely
unrepresentative because of its structure; it is so because only a minority of Americans
take the time to more than ogle at momentary stars or grouse and what some
sound bite convinced them is wrong.

Yes, Ms. Coakley lost the election…and she got a lot of help from us.  Democrats dare not read too little into
her defeat; Republicans shouldn’t read too much.