By Brad Friedman on 12/23/2010, 4:52pm PT  

A "turducken" is defined by Wikipedia as "a dish consisting of a de-boned chicken stuffed into a de-boned duck, which itself is stuffed into a de-boned turkey." Sounds pretty close to what we've just witnessed in the closing hours of the 111th Congress.

Conventional wisdom, at least that flogged by the MSM over the last 24 hours or so, has it that somehow Democrats shocked the nation by finally stepping up their game and doing the extraordinary in the lame duck session by passing an unprecedented number of their hard-fought initiatives, many thought to have been otherwise dead (or waiting for reconsideration in the next, more heavily Republican-weighted Congress).

Not to be a contrarian here, or even a Christmas curmudgeon, but while the Democrats deserve credit for hanging in there on a number of important initiatives, rather than tossing up their hands and walking away in the face of unprecedented, historic obstructionism by the GOP, it's a fact that the major legislation finally passed can hardly be seen as any sort of "progressive," or even "liberal," victory. It all may well represent a Democratic victory, if a short-lived one, but that only demonstrates how successful Republicans have been in pushing Dems far to the right, and how willing Democrats are these days to celebrate the passage of center and center-right (and even hard-right) legislation, almost all of which was depressingly low-hanging holiday fruit to begin with...

The top legislative accomplishments in the lame duck phase of Congress this year include:

  • The Tax "Deal" - In which virtually every concession the GOP sought was granted to them, in exchange, apparently, for an extension of unemployment benefits (which they've granted time and again in the past, and likely would have again, once the wrath of the American people was brought down on them), and a few other crumbs such as tax credits, many of which Republicans had already gone on record as being willing to support previously.
  • New START - A rather non-controversial, updated version of Ronald Reagan's nuclear arms treaty with Russia, supported by generations of both D & R senior statesmen, which the GOP has always supported in the past anyway, and most certainly would have again had pressure been applied, even without the reported promises by Democrats for funding of updates to our existing nuclear arsenal and further investments in "Star Wars" missile defense systems. The original START was ratified 93-6 by the Senate in 1992. New START mustered just 71 votes, only 13 of them Republican.
  • Food Safety Bill - An immensely popular, non-controversial, long overdue (by 70 years) modernization of federal safety standards and monitoring of the national food supply in the wake of recent massive food recalls over salmonella and other similar concerns.
  • The Zadroga Bill - No-brainer healthcare funding for 9/11 first responders dying from cancer and other respiratory illnesses tied to cleanup at "Ground Zero" --- another non-controversial issue, embarrassingly stalled by the GOP and reduced from its initially proposed $11 billion dollars down to just over $4 billion in order to receive approval from Senate Republicans. And even that likely would not have come about had it not been for Jon Stewart's heroic "Hail Mary" on his final show of The Daily Show season last week.
  • Repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" - Arguably the most difficult piece of legislation to pass, despite the fact that some 70% of Americans have now long supported doing away with the original Clinton-era Democratic compromise to allow discrimination in our armed forces.

All of those bills (save the bulk of the Tax "Deal," the passage of which some have credited with making the others possible at all) are all well and good, but, with the exception of the popular repeal of DADT, it's difficult to describe any of them as particularly "progressive" or even controversial in any way.

That Democrats are willing to settle for passage of the above, and take a huge victory lap for them in the bargain, illustrates just how far off the rails Democrats have gone in their supposed fight for peace and justice, against poverty, and in support of working families. If anything, Republicans ought to be taking the victory lap if that's the best Democrats can do --- pass a bunch of initiatives that Republican rank and file generally support anyway --- even as the passage would appear to be in contradiction of the GOP's ill-considered agenda of simply denying Democrats and President Obama any legislative victory they can, simply in the hopes of making them appear to be ineffective and unable to govern.

Largely cowardly (chicken) legislation, passed in a lame duck Congress, by a bunch of turkeys. A lame turducken. Emphasis on lame.

This is not to take away from several noteworthy accomplishments by the Democratic Congress in the 111th prior to the lame duck session (Greg Sargent details several here), but there were an equal number of non-progressive legislative "compromises" (healthcare insurance reform comes to mind), out and out legislative failures (DREAM Act, Climate and clean energy), and even inexcusable anti-progressivism (legislation, during the lame duck, by the way, forbidding closure of Guantanamo and the movement of its detainees onto domestic soil, for example)

In the bargain, we saw a lurch to the Right at a time when the country had cast its ballot for a move away from the very Right-leaning policies that had gotten the nation into this fine mess in the first place. As much as Obama, Democrats and their supporters are desperate to take victories where they can find 'em, it's difficult for clear-eyed, independent observers to avoid acknowledging the obvious setbacks to hopes of progressive ideals.

Adam Sewer makes a simlar observation at WaPo today:

The Obama administration's agenda, by and large, reflected a liberalism chastened by past failures and willing to endorse more market-based solutions to problems. Rather than simply dismissing conservative criticism, liberals internalized it --- and modified, narrowed and adjusted their goals accordingly. Where conservatives said liberals were too ambitious, liberals sought more focused solutions. Where conservatives said the market would work better than government, liberals tried to find a market-based path to the same goal. When conservatives pointed out that judicial decrees, even in matters of civil rights, are no substitute for the legitimacy conferred by legislative action, liberals took it to heart.

Of course, as liberals moved right or recognized conservative criticism as legitimate, conservatives mostly leveled the same tired epithets at everything liberals tried to do.

It should be noted, in the above, that Sewer does his own bit of "internalizing" by framing the discussion as one of "conservatism" versus "liberalism" when, in fact, the modern Republican Party has shown itself to be anything but conservative, and the bullk of the elected Democratic Party representatives in D.C. can hardly be described as liberal. But setting that aside, Sewer's point is certainly on the money.

Brian Beutler offered a similar sentiment this morning, questioning the knee-jerk MSMisms since yesterday that "Obama's got his mojo back":

Let's face it, Obama and the Democratic Congress got four headline-making things done in lame duck: a very popular tax cut plan, a very popular international arms treaty, a very popular civil rights advancement, and a very popular bill to make sure sick 9/11 heroes get health care now. What you'll notice about all four of those things is that they're very popular --- more popular than the somewhat popular immigration bill and unpopular spending bill, both of which failed during lame duck. That they didn't pass before November says much more about the GOP's pre-election political strategy, and the dysfunction of the Senate, than it does about Obama's mojo.
...
Don't confuse this for the new normal. The new normal will be tons of Republicans, and a bare minimum of common ground. Democratic elected officials seem to understand this, but based on the coverage yesterday, it's not clear that the media, and therefore Obama supporters, really do.

Later in the day, Beutler went on to offer one more thought for jubilant Democrats (and gullible MSM gum-flappers):

Republicans must at some level have understood that some of these things weren't going away. DADT would've stayed on the agenda. 9/11 responders would have stayed on the agenda. DREAM will stay on the agenda. And I'm guessing they made the simple calculation that it would be easier and wiser to give Dems these victories now, rather than fight it out with them publicly next [year] after the GOP takes over the House with a caucus that's divided over these things.

Now the issues are off the table, and that creates more space for them to set the agenda.

Right. Virtually all of the initiatives passed were likely to pass anyway (exception, perhaps, being DADT, though had it not been legislated by Congress, the federal courts were likely on track to have taken care of that unconstitutionality for them.) Better to let Democrats have the easy ones now and let them feel, momentarily, as they've had victories, even if what they were victorious in finally seeing passed were ideas that almost every Republican, elected or rank and file, was ultimately fine with seeing passed anyway.

Some victory. But ya take 'em where ya can get 'em if you're a Democrat these days, I guess. Enjoy your Christmas turducken. It's not likely to get much better than this for a while.