Congress' August recess is usually a chance for senators and representatives to get out of hot and stuffy Washington, D.C., spend some time back in their home states and maybe attend a few picnics. But not this year. Across the nation, those who represent us in Washington, from congressmen and women to President Obama, have found anxious, worried and oftentimes downright hostile audiences awaiting them instead of the usual fried chicken and potato salad.
It's no secret, with just a week left to go, that Congress and Obama are having more than a little trouble reconciling their campaign promises and lofty speeches with the actual legislation they've produced so far. Remember way back when the Democrats took back the House of Representatives and Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised amazing things would happen in her "first 100 days"? Far from a juggernaut of progressive legislation, we were basically treated to an endless list of excuses, including that long-time favorite, "We need 60 votes in the Senate to get anything passed."
Well, thanks to the highly energized campaign of Barack Obama, the horrific record of President George Bush and an Internet-savvy tidal wave of young voters, we gave them what they asked for—overwhelming Democrat majorities in both the House and Senate, including the magic "60 votes," and a Democrat in the White House. There seemed, at the time, no reason to believe that the campaign promises of "change and hope" wouldn't be kept.
The ousted Republicans had their eight-year chance to remake America in their vision, to be sure, but it didn't turn out so well and they left behind a minefield of pre-existing conditions, to use a term that's getting a lot of press these days. Those included two very expensive ongoing wars, neither of which were headed toward anything that could be called victory; the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression; the collapse of the nation's financial sector; the subsequent collapse of the auto industry and the housing market; and the loss of personal wealth at an astounding rate as home values, stock investments and interest rates plunged downward.
Instead of the massive and broad reform Democrats promised Americans, we were treated to an almost unbelievable amount of money being funneled to the very institutions that caused the financial collapse. Remember the bailout for AIG, the insurance giant that was dubbed "too big to fail"? And then there was Wall Street, where Goldman-Sachs continues to rake in the gold while the lesser pirates perish in the economic undertow. And American taxpayers paid for it all, adding trillions to the national debt.
In the meantime—and quite contrary to their campaign promises—the Democrats, led by President Obama, decided they needed to keep the country engaged in Bush's ill-advised, poorly executed and very expensive foreign wars. Rather than disengaging from these losing battles, Obama and Congress have raised the defense budget with $636 billion alotted to the military for one year, as well as tripled the number of American troops in Afghanistan where, as the saying goes, "empires go to die." Indeed, our troops are dying there every day while Obama, mimicking his discredited predecessor, continues to tell us that this faraway country is critical to the future of the United States. So critical, in fact, that we have now expanded the Afghanistan War into Pakistan, threatening to destabilize that nuclear-armed nation with unimaginable consequences.
Then, of course, there's the health care debacle. All the promises of having a swiftly completed, comprehensive overhaul of the nation's broken health care system have vanished in a swirling storm of controversy while the Democrats point fingers and wander aimlessly in the halls of Congress. Every media outlet across the nation has basically declared that Democrats have "lost control" of the debate as they continue to spew meaningless drivel to a public that would really, really like to have some straight answers and cost-benefit estimates.
While the Dems are staggering, their Republican counterparts have launched an amazing recovery from their near-knockout, jumping up from the mat, wiping the blood off their face and coming out swinging. They're off the charts with accusations, scare tactics and assault rifle-toting attendees at presidential appearances as teabaggers, birthers and gun nuts unite. By any rational measure, the Democrats should be able to counter such insanity with clear-cut explanations of what's going on, who is going to benefit, how much it's going to cost, and who will pay what.
But that's not happening, not by a long shot. Instead, as we shamefully witnessed in Montana, our two senators couldn't even bring themselves to face their own constituents in public meetings. How is it that Max Baucus, who is supposedly "spearheading" the Senate's health care proposals and Jon Tester, who has introduced a wilderness and logging bill, can't find the cajones to meet their fellow Montanans and explain what they've been up to for the last 8 months in D.C.? Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, meanwhile, finds time to hold 18 public meetings, but the combined total for Max and Jon remains at zero. It makes one wonder, what are they afraid of?
Well, the "vacation" is almost over, and Congress and the president are going back to work next week. If they plan on reversing this dismal trend, there are a couple things they might want to consider. First, dump the bipartisan schtick. Rest assured, those banks and insurance companies the Democrats bailed out are not out there supporting their health care reform plans. Second, dump the so-called "strategists" who have advised them to water down their message into unintelligible mumbling. If we're going to have universal health care, just call it that, okay? And finally, it's obviously time to dial back the war machine with its visions of global empire and invest all those hundreds of billions in America's interests—not the interests of foreign warlords and corrupt leaders.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org.