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D.Wysham and D.J. Weiss debate the reasons for the Republican victory in Massachusetts

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. With the victory of the Republican Party in the Massachusetts senatorial race, what does that mean for the Obama administration’s social agenda, climate agenda, and the future of the Democratic Party? Joining us now to help answer these questions are Daphne Wysham. She’s a fellow and board member of the Institute for Policy Studies; she’s a founder and codirector of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network. And Daniel J. Weiss, he’s a senior fellow and the director of the climate strategy at the Center for American Progress. So let’s start at the beginning. Daniel, why don’t you kick us off? Why do you think that Scott Brown won in Massachusetts?

DANIEL J. WEISS, DIR. CLIMATE STRATEGY, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Well, not having been up there, I can only guess, but from what I understand it’s primarily because his opponent ran a terrible campaign. After she won the primary, instead of going out and continuing to meet Massachusetts residents and continuing to campaign, she coasted on her success, thinking that she was going to be a shoo-in for the general election.

DAPHNE WYSHAM, BOARD MEMBER, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: It also has some bearing on the way that Obama has handled his first year in office, and that he hasn’t been as inspiring to a lot of people that really were inspired when they got out the vote. I mean, Massachusetts voters, overall, largely supported Obama in the presidency. However, many of those voters have now switched over to vote for a Republican. So I think what we are seeing—.

JAY: Or stayed home.

WYSHAM: Or stayed home, yeah. And, of course, the weather had something to do with that. But I think what we’re beginning to see is a bit of disillusionment on the part of some American voters who really did have hope for some major changes in the way Washington works, and they haven’t seen the evidence so far with the Obama presidency.

WEISS: Scott Brown himself said this election was not about Obama. So I question the idea that it was a rejection of either him or his governance.

WYSHAM: Well, I mean, I think Scott Brown is the only one who’s decidedly saying that it’s not about Obama. I think a lot of people are feeling that Obama is losing some of that head of steam. I mean, all you have to do is look at some of the polls, and they suggest that he has lost some popularity since his highs of recent months. And that has a lot to do with his not really sticking to the high moral ground that so many people expected of him, whether it was in sticking with the public option in the health-care package, whether it’s pushing for an increase in troops in Afghanistan, continuing the war in Iraq, really not playing as strong of a leadership role in climate change as many people hoped he would. I think that people are beginning to feel that he’s caving a bit too much to the center or even to the right in the interest [inaudible]

JAY: Well, the counterargument would be he’s been more realistic about where public opinion’s at, and this actually is evidence of that.

WYSHAM: Well, that’s one argument. I’m not so sure that that holds water. I mean, I’ve been looking at responses that are coming in from people that we work with across the country, and a lot of people feel that they really have lost their faith in the dream that Obama was putting forward of a real changed politics.

JAY: So his base wasn’t energized to go out and vote.

WYSHAM: Exactly. Exactly. And that there wasn’t a real sense that really, you know, he was going to push and get out ahead of Congress on many of these issues. Instead, he’s sort of deferring to Congress a bit too much.

JAY: Daniel, I was talking to someone yesterday who, during the election campaign, helped organize buses from Washington to go out and campaign in all the neighboring states. He was saying after yesterday he was kind of happy Obama and the leadership of the Democratic Party needed to be taught a lesson not to give up on what they campaigned for. What do you make of that?

WEISS: I think interpreting the outcome of this election is like reading a Rorschach test: a lot of it’s going to reflect your own views and biases that you bring to it. There’s no exit polling, so we don’t really know what the voters were thinking. We have to remember this is a state that’s only had Republican governors between 1986 and 2006, so it’s not like this is, you know, the People’s Republic of Berkeley here. Massachusetts is a two-party state, not at the congressional level, but certainly at the statewide level, where they’ve had every governorship until 2006. You know, there’s a lot of—.

JAY: But what Daphne is saying and many people are saying is this thing that got him elected was this idea that we’re going to transcend politics as usual, and change you can believe in. [inaudible]

WEISS: To transcend politics as usual, you need partners in that effort, and the Republicans have made it clear from January 20, 2009, that their goal was to oppose President Obama at every single step [inaudible]

JAY: That’s going to be the argument, that it’s Republicans that have been the obstacle to this [inaudible]

WYSHAM: Well, and there is, of course, some truth to that. The leadership of the Democratic Party is certainly a part of it, as are the obstructionist tactics of the Republicans. However, he’s been trying to appease Republicans and trying to appease the moneyed interests in a way that I think people feel is a bit of a betrayal for them. And so in that sense he has lost that luster that he had in those first few months, where people really could imagine a major change in this country.

JAY: Well, one of the Democratic party pollsters said, apparently, to Huffington Post—everyone’s seen this now on the Internet—that it was the banking bill that really sunk the Democrats in Massachusetts and that it was this whole perception that Obama administration is just too close to Wall Street. I mean, you don’t think that’s a factor?

WEISS: Well, there’s no question that one of the first things that they should have done when they took office was to go investigate how the near collapse of our financial system occurred the previous fall due to the poor oversight of the Bush administration. They should have done that early on, and they didn’t. Secondly, some of the other things that people don’t like, for example keeping General Motors from going bankrupt, I think the president needed to have done a better job in talking about how this was not bailing out General Motors, this was a jobs program.

JAY: Well, in fact—.

WEISS: One in ten jobs in America’s related to the auto industry.

JAY: But have you heard that in Massachusetts about the auto industry? ‘Cause I haven’t heard much about that. It’s been about the banks.

WEISS: Well, I’m talking more nationwide. If you look at the polls, the bank bailout program’s unpopular, and helping the auto companies from going bankrupt was unpopular. And they never really talked about helping the auto companies. It wasn’t helping, you know, William Clay Ford; it was about helping Joe Smith on the line, because one in ten jobs in America are related to the auto industry. And it was about rebuilding an industry that through its own failures had brought itself to near collapse.

JAY: But that’s a good example, like, in term—.

WEISS: And he didn’t talk about that. After he protected them and bailed them out, he didn’t talk about or continue to tell the story about here’s why we’re doing this: we’re doing this to save American jobs. And that is a narrative that exists and is true, but he didn’t really talk about it enough.

JAY: I mean, if you talk to a lot of people who consider themselves climate-change activists and environmentalists, they’re extremely disappointed with his bailout of Detroit. It wasn’t seen as a success story; it was seen as, instead of turning Detroit into, like, an engine of a green economy, it was slash and burn much of the manufacturing base and turn them back into car companies again.

WYSHAM: Right. Right. And there were two opportunities that he really sort of screwed up. One was the bailout of the auto industries, where he could have made very strong fuel-efficiency requirements, you know, key to the bailout, as well as in the cash-for-clunkers program, where instead of really setting a rigorous fuel-efficiency standard for the cars that people would purchase in exchange for turning in their clunkers, he set it at around 23, 24 miles per gallon or so. There was not a requirement that these cars be domestic automobiles, thereby giving yet another boost to our ailing auto industry. So it ended up being a subsidy largely for foreign automobile companies.

WEISS: That’s not so. First of all, the average mileage increase of the new cars was 9 miles per gallon above the old cars. Old cars were about 15 miles a gallon, new cars about 25. Secondly, the cars had to be made in the United States; they didn’t have to be made by a domestic manufacturer, but they had to be made in the United States. To do otherwise would have violated numerous trade agreements. So they did it as well as they could within the constraints of existing laws and policies made by previous presidents. In fact, the program was a success in that it did get 700,000 clunkers off the road and helped jumpstart our auto industry. Lastly, if you go to the autoshow in Detroit this year, what were all the companies unveiling? Their hybrid SUVs, their all-electric cars. They were unveiling the cars of the future that rely much less on gasoline, much more on other fuels, and will be much more fuel-efficient than what’s on the road today.

JAY: But you’re not dealing with the issue of Detroit. And across the sort of environmental political spectrum, and including many autoworkers, I mean, especially autoworkers, there was great disappointment with what happened in Detroit, that, you know, thousands of workers have lost their jobs, thousands of skilled tool and die makers [inaudible] manufacturing capacity that they are autoworkers themselves, many of them are arguing, could have been turned towards creating this green economy that was promised during the election campaign.

WEISS: But that’s happening.

JAY: Well, no, it’s not happening.

WEISS: For example, they’re taking a closed auto plant in Michigan, and it’s now becoming a factory to make advanced batteries; same in Indiana; both funded by the stimulus package passed early in his term. So that’s happening.

JAY: In a very small scale it’s happening. The number of job losses—I don’t have that number at hand, but the number of job losses are in the thousands. I mean, do you think it’s happening? Are you satisfied? ‘Cause what I’m getting at is not—no let—hang on. Hang on. ‘Cause what I’m getting at here is—I don’t want to dig in right down into the depth of this piece of the debate. The part I’m getting at is: is the lesson of Massachusetts that if the base believes the promises made to them are not being kept, are they going to stay home? And if that’s the lesson, what does that mean for the coming congressional elections?

WYSHAM: And I think the lesson there is—it’s a profound one, which is that you do have to not only win over the hearts and minds of the American people and, you know, in the process get elected as Obama did, but then you actually have to follow through on—both with, you know, continuing that wonderful gift that he has of that rhetorical gift of, you know, giving very powerful speeches—. He has failed in many senses in terms of moving people on the issue of climate change, and he’s also failed to really drive home to people how much he cares about the job situation, whether it’s in Detroit or elsewhere. He has given people the perception that he’s much more interested in working out compromises with—whether it’s with the banks or the insurance industry or others, which may be the way you get things done, as Dan says. However, the way you get lasting change is to win over the hearts and minds of the people and to move them in a direction that’s about change.

JAY: Well, what do you make of this argument? Hang on a second.

WEISS: [inaudible] win over the hearts and minds when there’s 10 percent unemployment in a recession started under your predecessor due to his being asleep at the switch—he’s been saddled with the impacts of the Bush recession, just as Ronald Reagan was saddled with the impacts of a Carter recession, and he also had bad poll ratings going into the 1982 elections. And, in fact, the Republicans lost 26 seats in the House in 1982 because of the faulty economy inherited by Reagan.

JAY: But when it comes to the anger people are feeling about this unemployment and deciding whose side is this administration on, and when they came out and said, “We’re from Main Street and we’re going to have—the vice president’s going to fight for the middle class, and we’re going to be the administration that’s devoted to the middle class,” it’s not what’s the perception of people now. The perception now is this administration’s on the side of Wall Street.

WEISS: You’re right.

JAY: And so who’s expressing the popular anger is now coming from the right.

WEISS: Right. And you’re right. The president, as Daphne was saying earlier, should have done a lot to investigate and punish those responsible for the near-financial meltdown.

JAY: But it’s not just about the past; it’s about what they did under his watch. It’s not only about what was done before his watch.

WEISS: Well, they’re finally starting to establish new rules to make sure this doesn’t happen again and make sure that the financial tools are not misused in the way that they were in the past. They’re still getting some resistance from Congress. And remember, in the House, not a single Republican voted for the financial reform package designed to make sure the excesses of the past do not occur again.

JAY: Okay. So in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about what’s going to happen with climate change now that they’ve lost their supermajority in the Senate. What’s next? And what does it mean in terms of the promises made in Copenhagen? And, more importantly, that what does it mean in terms of the planet? So please join us for the next segment of our debate/conversation on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee complete accuracy.

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Daphne Wysham is a Fellow and board member of the Institute for Policy Studies, founder and co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, a project of IPS, and founder and co-host of Earthbeat Radio.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress, he leads the Center's clean energy and climate advocacy campaign. He spent 25 years working with environmental advocacy organizations and political campaigns. Weiss is an expert in energy and environmental policy; legislative strategy and tactics; and advocacy communications.

Daphne Wysham is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and founder and host of Earthbeat, now airing on 61 public radio stations in the US and Canada.