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Every Friday, I post a small insight into running Curio City and/or Blue Hills Editorial Services. My most recent posts are directly below. You can also start with the first post, or use the subject labels to the right to home in on particular topics. Feel free to comment on anything that interests you.
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Friday, January 22, 2010

Not My Cup of Tea

I couldn’t sleep Tuesday night after Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. The ground trembled as hell froze over and poor Teddy spun in his grave, and the wailing of the damned echoed all night. Wednesday morning I cowered indoors like the other survivors, peering fearfully out my window at the shattered political landscape. Zombie Democrats staggered blindly through the rubble, searching in vain for brains (having long since depleted those of the Coakley campaign). Mutant Republicans emerged from dark burrows, blinking their little pig eyes and cackling with joy at condemning 30 million uninsured Americans to early deaths.

OK, maybe it wasn’t quite like that. On Wednesday morning the sun rose in the east. The Boston Globe waited on my front porch, crammed with verbiage trying to make sense of the apocalypse. The electricity was still on, the furnace worked, water still flowed. My cat had his breakfast and then went out. I had coffee.

Coffee always helps.

Don’t worry; you didn’t stumble into a political blog. I’m taking this detour because I’ve written about our health insurance struggles before (use the subject tags to see those posts), and because Curio City went to sleep as everyone’s Christmas credit card bills came due last week. Last year’s numbers were fattened up by a single $1,200 sale; without a comparable lightning strike this year, January probably won’t reach LY’s numbers -- forget about my 15% planned increase. 2010 is not off to a promising start. But one big sale can always turn it around, and that sale could materialize at any moment. (While I was finishing this post a $120 order from France arrived; a few more like that would save my bacon).

So this week I’ll explore why Massachusetts fell for a Republican who’s sworn to use Ted’s seat to kill the cause of his life.

Voter turnout was heavy in the wealthy suburbs. Independents went overwhelmingly for Brown, who favors extending the Bush tax cuts for millionaires. These people with big incomes and generous health insurance plans and investment portfolios and fat retirement accounts feel threatened by the Democratic agenda. Turnout in the urban Democrat strongholds, OTOH, was weak as the machine failed to rally the lower-class faithful behind their deeply flawed candidate.

These rich suburbanites were seduced by something called tea baggers. Besides its sexual meaning (Google it if you dare), “tea bagger” is also an unfortunate name for a populist political movement. The so-called Tea Party is an anti-Democrat movement disguised as tax rebellion -- not really a party at all, but a loose confederation of libertarians, Republicans, and mad-as-hell conservatives who oppose Obama and progressive society. We paid them no heed here, thinking that these right-wing nutjobs couldn’t breach our liberal stronghold. Underestimating the enemy within was the Democrats’ first mistake.

Things are bad in Massachusetts. The unemployment rate rose 0.7% in December to its highest level since 1976. The Democrats raised our sales tax last year and extended it to alcohol for the first time. Beer is all I've got! Things are not getting better; in fact, with federal stimulus money drying up and the state’s rainy day fund gone, they’re about to get worse. There is a lot of unfocused anger and anxiety that naturally gravitates to whomever’s in charge. When the Democrats put forth an arrogant, dull candidate whose campaign strategy was to run out the clock and claim what was rightfully hers, they gave conservatives an opening. Many people think that Martha Coakley’s career as a prosecutor showed a knack for doing evil, too. (I voted against her in the primary and did not intend to support her in the general election until the seat was actually threatened). Martha Coakley was their second mistake.

We are not accustomed to competitive elections in Massachusetts. The Democrats didn’t know how to react, so they didn’t. Coakley came out of the chute too late with a barrage of mean-spirited attack ads and robo-calls – the same vicious tactics that cost Kerry Healey the governor’s mansion in 2006. Being obnoxious was their third mistake.

For their part, the Republicans had a charismatic candidate with a well-organized campaign and a populist image. They also attracted a crapload of outside money in the final week of the campaign. His main message – I’ll kill health care reform – was exactly what the teabaggers wanted to hear. If they can kill insurance reform, they can cripple Obama and bring down his whole presidency…presumably so that we can return to the halcyon days of the Cheney administration.

How Americans can think this is a good idea eludes me.

Somehow they turned the election into a referendum on the federal health care bill. That shouldn’t have been possible. Massachusetts enacted stronger reforms and achieved universal coverage four years ago. We had very little stake in so-called “ObamaCare”. Some liberals oppose it for being too weak – an expensive giveaway to the very insurance companies that we ought to be dissolving. But in terms of state and local issues, it should have been a sideshow.

OK, so what?

A year ago I might have joined the Brown bandwagon. I’m not a Democrat and Coakley makes my skin crawl, even though her politics line up with mine pretty closely. I have a long history of backing underdogs and political insurgents. I do, however, support Obama’s progressive agenda – remember that he was the underdog just 18 months ago. The health care bill wouldn’t affect me much, but it was a first step in an ambitious agenda that will reduce our oil dependence, fight global warming, lessen income inequality, and address a whole roster of social-justice issues that get conservatives lathered up. After the disastrous Bush-Cheney presidency, and under the spell of Sarah Palin, Republicans should’ve been locked out of power for a generation.

A year of unemployment and dependence on government programs have partly resuscitated my 1970s-vintage inner socialist, purely as a matter of self-preservation. I want unemployment benefits and COBRA subsidies to be extended for as long as the economy remains in the crapper, even if that’s years more. I wish that other Americans had a federal equivalent of the Medical Security Program that will reimburse 80% of our health insurance premiums for as long as Anne’s unemployment benefits continue. Without these liberal programs, we’d have severely cut our standard of living and spent down our retirement accounts. I would’ve had to fold Curio City to beg for a minimum wage job. I’m no hypocrite; I have to support the party that’s supporting us during these hard times. If that makes me a reluctant Democrat for the time being, then that’s what I’ll have to be.

What have the Democrats done for me lately? Congress extended the 65% COBRA subsidy by six months, retroactive to last November. We are expecting our first reimbursement check from the Medical Security Program any day now; our mortgage payment this month depends on it. Anne’s unemployment bennies were renewed through the middle of March. We’re solvent into April, and possibly even as far as June. But take heart, teabaggers: Our COBRA eligibility expires in August. The MSP will drop us when Anne’s unemployment benefits run out this spring. By then we’ll be suffering the way we deserve to suffer.

Maybe Anne will find a job before it comes to that. Never mind that Massachusetts employers destroyed another 8,400 jobs last month and drove the state unemployment rate to its highest level since 1976. Maybe the Democrats will come through in time with another rescue plan. The Republican now moving into Ted Kennedy’s chair makes that a little less likely.

In spite of our insecurity and my misgivings about Scott Brown, I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude. What else can I do -- move to a more liberal state? Perhaps some good will come of this. Perhaps strengthening the moderate, secular wing of the Republican Party will weaken the evil religious wingnuts. Perhaps the Democrats will focus on jobs and the economy before they take an even weaker stab at health insurance reform. Perhaps Democrats at the state level will straighten up and fly right. Perhaps having a friendly new Republican in Congress will blunt their "Party of NO" tactic of kneejerk opposition to every Democratic initiative.

Leaving all of that aside, a Senator’s primary responsibility is to bring home federal tax dollars. Taking out more than you paid in is all that really matters in the end. Kennedy was a master of pork; no conceivable successor could fill out his money belt (although Coakley might be ruthless enough to have made a good show of it). Some pundits say that having one foot in the enemy camp might open the federal spigot a wee bit more for us. I’m not sophisticated enough to understand how that’s supposed to work, but the idea’s out there.

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