I want to offer a counterintuitive view of why President Obama and congressional Democrats caved to the demands of Republicans, and to challenge the notion that if only they had held firm we could have ended up with a better debt-limit bill that would at least include a few tax hikes on the wealthy.
Yes, I agree with liberal critics who think Obama botched it. He and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should have staked out a clear position somewhere to the left of where they were willing to end up, and then held as fast as they could for as long as they could. But though that would have been a better political strategy in terms of public consumption, I don’t think it would have changed the end result.
The flaw is in thinking that because Democrats control the White House and the Senate, then they shouldn’t let the Republican House push them around. This is a variation on the widely accepted (and wrong) idea we often heard during Obama’s first two years — that he and Democrats had no excuse for not getting what they wanted given that they controlled the White House and both branches of Congress.
In fact, and as should be obvious to anyone, a determined minority is far more powerful in our constitutional system than the majority, because members of that minority can just say no — and there isn’t a damn thing anyone can do to change that no to yes. Especially with the Tea Party Republicans, many of whom were perfectly willing to drive the economy off a cliff by letting the government go into default.
What happened in the Senate, of course, is that under the Republicans — and it really has been an almost entirely Republican phenomenon — the filibuster became routine, which meant that a minority of 40 senators could prevent anything from happening. (This is compounded by the constitutional requirement that gives each state two senators, which tilts power toward small, Republican-leaning states.) Add to that a Republican House, and you’re left with a situation in which liberals fulminate about Obama’s weakness without having a clue as to how it might be otherwise.
And, as we have seen, even a minority of a minority can bring everything to a halt. Although it’s not entirely clear what happened with the “grand bargain” that Obama and House Speaker John Boehner nearly reached (it could well be that the Gang of Six chose exactly the wrong moment to speak up, since Obama was pushed into backing more tax hikes than he and Boehner had already agreed to), there’s no question that part of it involved a revolt against Boehner on the part of Tea Party freshmen. (When Eric Cantor pats Boehner on the back, he’s feeling for soft spots.)
Again, I don’t want to let Obama off the hook. He has utterly failed at Negotiating 101, as he did with health-care reform by never telling us exactly what he wanted. He could have pushed the Republicans into rejecting what most people would have regarded as an attractive alternative. Instead, he looks irrelevant. Substantively, though, it probably didn’t matter.
So what do we do about it? At a minimum, we all know now that the Senate filibuster doesn’t work in an age of highly ideological partisan politics. Get rid of it.
At a maximum, we ought to admit that divided government no longer works, either, and for the same reason. It worked reasonably well, or at least better than it did today, when the two major parties comprised broad coalitions of liberals, conservatives and moderates. That’s no longer the case.
Virtually every democracy other than ours gives its government the chance to enact its program, and to rise or fall accordingly. Under a parliamentary democracy, there’s no such thing as divided government. And though I’m under no illusion that we would ever adopt such a system in the United States, at times like this I wish we could.