For progressives, President Obama must seem like a pitcher who gives up 12 runs in the first six innings, but begins the seventh by striking out the first batter with two great curve balls and a fastball that catches the outside corner. Now that his presidency is all but over, and the progressive hope that accompanied him into office has largely evaporated, President Obama has begun to make bold progressive moves that many expected from him back in 2009. Ironically, it is now a much easier environment for him to take these positions because nobody really expects him now to accomplish anything.
Since his party’s resounding defeat in last week’s midterm election, Mr. Obama has done two things, nominating Loretta Lynch to succeed Eric Holder as Attorney General and taking a strong position in favor of net neutrality, that–though a little late–must be pleasing for his party’s activist base. The President’s statement yesterday regarding net neutrality and the direction in which he would like to see the FCC move was not ambiguous at all. “We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas. That is why today, I am asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to answer the call of almost 4 million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.”
This position is more or less exactly what millions of grassroots net activists wanted from the President. The statement has no legislative or regulatory teeth, but the President clearly can influence the FCC, and its chair Tom Wheelers, on this issue. Opposition was swift and predictable. David Cohen, the executive vice president of Comcast, the largest cable company in the U.S. articulated his industry’s opposition to net neutrality. “The internet has not just appeared by accident or gift — it has been built by companies like ours investing and building networks and infrastructure…The policy the White House is encouraging would jeopardize this engine for job creation and investment as well as the innovation cycle that the Internet has generated.”
Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tx) was the most prominent politician expressing disdain for Mr. Obama’s statement, tweeting “‘Net Neutrality’ is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.” Presumably, Mr. Cruz sought to take a position against government intervention in the internet comparable to how the Affordable Care Act has brought the government into healthcare. Mr. Cruz’s words, however, are probably richer in provocative imagery than in an easily understandable critique. Nonetheless, this is evidence that the Republican Party is going to make a fight over net neutrality.
Mr. Cruz is likely to seek his party’s nomination for President in 2016, so taking a visible position against Mr. Obama and net neutrality is a strategic move for him. It is noteworthy that another Senate Republican considering a run for the presidential nomination in 2016, Rand Paul, was relatively quiet on this issue. Sen. Paul’s tweets Monday were focused more on foreign policy and celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago. The position expressed by Mr. Cruz and cable companies like Comcast are not likely to resonate much with the younger tech-savvy voters who Mr. Paul believes will support his brand of Republican Libertarianism in 2016.
The evolving donnybrook regarding net neutrality could evolve into a major fight in Washington potentially involving Congress, the administration, lobbyists and the courts, but it also may begin to reveal some tensions within the Senate, where several members will shortly begin running against each other for President. For incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, holding together his delegation–populated by several prospective presidential candidates with significant ideological differences–could prove a challenge. Net neutrality is only one of the issues a clever White House can use to exploit this.
Lincoln Mitchell is the national political correspondent for the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.