In the Clinton-Obama tug-of-war, the Obama team gave education reformers something to cheer when they won the Senate contest in Colorado. Former Denver school superintendent and now incumbent Senator Michael Bennet barely put down a surprisingly strong primary opponent backed by the male member of the Clinton team. The teacher unions are not altogether happy with that outcome, as Bennett’s support for performance pay had caused no little consternation within their ranks.
But the bigger victory this week went to the Clinton-Pelosi-teacher union coalition in Washington. As the president’s poll ratings falter, the teacher unions are becoming more assertive. In the original House version, the Pelosi-union group stole money from the union-despised Race to the Top (RttT) to help cover the cost of passing their ill-considered, stimulus-lite, $20 billion handout to local school districts and other state agencies, thereby putting at risk the most innovative education strategy of the Obama Administration.
The original, nearly trillion dollar, stimulus bill was at least conceived on a grand enough scale that it could convince Keynesians it might do some good. Instead it left the country with an unemployment level almost certain to rise again to double digit levels. So Pelosi and the unions used that fact to promote their teeny-tiny stimulus bill, which will do nothing for schools other than allow states and districts to avoid making the tough fiscal and policy decisions RttT was trying to encourage.
Two Republican Senators from Maine supplied the key votes in the Senate that pushed the stimulus bill over the top. At this stage, RttT monies were restored but at the price of cutting the food stamp program. Though the president supported the compromise, the energy that pushed the bill forward came not from the White House but from unions, members of the House of Representatives (whose membership needs all the organized help it can get for the November election), and, we guess, from a former president of United States whose desire to return to residency in the White House has not abated.
All these signs from Colorado and Capitol Hill reflect a growing underground disturbance welling up inside the Democratic party. It will disappear overnight, if the economy revives, unemployment falls, and those presidential poll numbers that have headed steadily south for the past eighteen months turn north. Otherwise, columnists will begin reminding readers that a candidate with close ties to a former president of the United States came close to winning the Democratic nomination against a sitting president as recently as 1980. Had it not been for the very brief popularity boost Jimmy Carter got in the initial days of the Iranian hostage crisis, Kennedy might have won the nomination—and the election.
Any good politician knows that what nearly happened recently can easily happen soon.