I recently watched (for the umpteenth time) the 1974 film, The Longest Yard, starring Burt Reynolds as disgraced former football star Paul Crewe. A pro quarterback who shaved points and gambled on his own games, Crewe has ended up in prison, where an ambitious warden has his eye on a semi-pro title for his prison-guard football team. In the improbable tale, the warden enlists Crewe to help him get the title by providing a high-quality warm-up game against a team of convicts. Crewe’s job is to coach the convicts’ team, for which the warden promises reduction of his sentence and easier prison living conditions.
The story has many twists and turns – some grimly humorous and some violent – but it finally comes down to the warden threatening Crewe with no parole review and a long, unpleasant sentence unless he sees to it that the convicts lose the game by a sizeable score. The convicts’ talented players – including some with pro experience – have gained the upper hand in a brilliant first half. Title-aspirations or no, the warden cannot allow the convicts to elevate themselves by winning, so Crewe is tasked to keep that from happening. “After all,” the warden tells Crewe, “you’ve done it before.”
In a moment of weakness and fear – with years of hopeless imprisonment staring him in the face – Crewe gives in to the warden’s threats and lets the guards’ team score several times, apparently putting the game away for them. One of the black convicts – who had put racial animosity aside to play for the convict team – confronts Crewe, saying, “Anybody can see that you’re throwin’ the game…”
The statement sticks in my mind as I reflect on the current political dynamics in our country, on which much more hinges than a prison football game between guards and convicts. The “game-thrower” that I perceive in the political arena is President Barack Obama. His “team” is the Democrat Party – specifically, congressional Democrats who have gone to the mat for his radical programs through 2009.
In July, Speaker Nancy Pelosi dragged her huge House-majority, kicking and screaming, through passage of radical cap-and-trade legislation by a narrow margin of 219-212. The bill would, in the estimation of many economists, crush the American economy with $1 trillion-plus in new taxes on business and electric-power production – ostensibly to stop global warming by limiting production of carbon dioxide, but in reality producing no discernible impact on the climate. (Indeed, the entire premise of anthropogenic global warming has been thrown into question in recent months.) Democrat leaders in the Senate have made sympathetic noises about the bill, but are full of excuses for not taking it up. I think it is as dead as Julius Caesar, as more and more Democrats head for the tall grass to hide from the wrath of the voters.
Both congressional houses have passed separate versions of comprehensive health-care reform, but voters’ response has been increasingly restive and hostile. Over a million people have attended Tea (Taxed Enough Already) Party rallies, nationwide. Popular commentators like Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh are in full cry. And in the November off-year elections, Democrats lost the governorships of both Virginia and New Jersey – the latter a shocking outcome in a reliably “blue” state.
The biggest political bombshell of all was virtually unknown Massachusetts State Senator Scott Brown’s out-of-nowhere capture of Ted Kennedy’s old senate seat on January 19th. The Obama White House has furiously tried to spin the explosive event as anything but a referendum on Mr. Obama’s first year in office, but the attempt has flopped. A Republican win in the blues of blue states – of the sacrosanct Kennedy seat, no less – could have been produced only by a deeply disquieted electorate finally becoming energized enough to do something to stop the Obama program.
Mr. Brown’s seating will eliminate the Democrats’ 60-vote majority in the Senate. Without that majority, changes to the Senate’s version of health-care reform cannot get past a GOP filibuster to final passage. Ditto for Cap-and-Trade. Massachusetts voters have done the impossible. They stopped a runaway train.
Mr. Obama’s reaction has been fascinating to watch. First, he chided Democrat congressmen for failing to get the job done. Then he tried to claim that they – certainly not he – had made the unsavory “backroom deals” that let health-care reform legislation pass both houses. (A clearly untrue claim, on which he was immediately called.) Then he met with congressional Republicans in a highly publicized Q & A session, appearing to solicit GOP ideas for solving the country’s problems. Finally, he has doubled-down on his calls for Democrats to get his agenda passed. Basketball players would call this a total-motion offense. Mr. Obama’s evident hope is that something good will come from all the activity – something like hoping that a print-shop explosion will produce the Bible.
Voters have made it clear that they oppose Mr. Obama’s radical program, so his determination to push that program through congress seems certain to cost many Democrats their seats. At least ten Democrat senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, could be in trouble for the November elections. Election prognosticators are predicting a “blowout” in the House that could put Republicans back in the majority.
One would think a prudent president might pull back a little on his program, in order to protect his Party for the 2010 elections. But, evidently, one would be wrong. It looks to me like he’s deliberately throwing the game. He seems entirely willing to sacrifice a Democrat congressional majority for his own purposes. In recent days Mr. Obama has even come out in favor of undoing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rules, which limit inclusion of homosexuals in the military. Does that seem like a “prudent retreat?”
My buddy Al (of Al’s Coffee Shop) disputes my game-throwing theory. “Why would he try to throw the November elections for the Dems,” asks Al. “It’s crazy. He needs those guys to get his program passed.” Al has a point, but it’s not necessarily the only point to be made.
My answer is the Ghost of Bill Clinton. In 1993-’94, Mr. Clinton pushed a radical agenda that included gays in the military and comprehensive health-care reform. (Sound familiar?) The public opposed it, so voters did the only thing they could: they booted the Democrat congressional majority and elected a Republican majority. I don’t believe President Clinton wanted or anticipated this result. It seemed like a catastrophe at the time, but he showed himself to be the Master of Reposition. Declaring that the era of big government was over, Slick Willy moved steadily to the center over the next two years – even signing historic welfare reform that no GOP president could possibly have obtained. (True, Republicans produced the legislation, but he signed it.) In 1996, Mr. Clinton cruised to an easy win over Senator Bob Dole – helped significantly by Ross Perot’s candidacy that split the GOP vote. But a win is a win.
This example cannot have been lost on Barack Obama and his inner circle. The key question is this: What does every first-term president (including Mr. Obama) want? Answer: a second term. Yes, Mr. Obama has said that he would rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president. Maybe he means it, but I wonder if he has checked with his inner circle. My estimate is that they want that second term very badly. The game is over if your guy isn’t in office.
In The Longest Yard, all ends happily with Crewe regaining his nerve, re-entering the game, and engineering a dramatic win – thus boosting the convicts’ self-respect and evoking grudging admiration from the guards. But real life isn’t a movie. It seems entirely likely to me that Mr. Obama will sacrifice Democrats’ congressional majorities in order to cover his move to the center and ensure his re-election.
Remember, you read it here first.