By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A counterintuitive view of why Obama blew it

If only

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.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. Mike Stucka

    This will sound petty, and it is — but I really wish the Senate would change some of its internal rules.

    A filibuster should be a filibuster, involving fierce determination and an issue of Depends.

    And the secret “holds” on bills are an affront.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: The Senate has changed its rules in the past. In fact, it used to take 67 votes to break a filibuster. Many of Congress’ internal rules, especially the Senate’s, assume that the parties will not vote in rigid lockstep with the party leadership. It just doesn’t work anymore.

  2. Al Fiantaca

    Democrats control the Senate only nominally. Harry Reid can set an agenda, and control the legislative calendar, but as long as the Senate stays a body that needs a cloture invoking 60 to pass anything significant, the Republicans have effective control of it, too. I can’t imagine any scenario in which enough Democrats vote against this deal to overcome certain unified Republican support of it.

  3. Stephen Stein

    Glenn-zilla argues that contrary to prevailing view that Obama is “weak”, Obama is getting pretty much what he wants:

    The evidence is overwhelming that Obama has long wanted exactly what he got: these severe domestic budget cuts and even ones well beyond these, including Social Security and Medicare, which he is likely to get with the Super-Committee created by this bill (as Robert Reich described the bill: “No tax increases on rich yet almost certain cuts in Med[icare] and Social Security . . . . Ds can no longer campaign on R’s desire to Medicare and Soc Security, now that O has agreed it”).

    Not sure I’d go that far, but Obama has shown his liberal base time and again that he’s just not into them.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Stephen: Any serious person knows that Obama wants the Bush tax cuts on the rich repealed. Greenwald says he doesn’t. Therefore …

  4. Matt Kelly

    Couldn’t Obama have just ignored the debt ceiling, been impeached by the House and then had the vote die in the Senate?

  5. L.K. Collins

    Gee, and your side told all that the Republican Party was dead in 2008.


  6. Stephen Stein

    @LK – that Republican party IS dead, in case you haven’t noticed. They had to re-brand somehow, after destroying the world economy and all.

  7. Stephen Stein

    @Dan – The Bush tax cuts don’t need to be REPEALED. They expire on their own. If Obama wanted them gone, all he had to do was not sign the extension. And yet, that’s not what he did.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Stephen: Obama strongly favored keeping the Bush tax cuts for the middle class, and still does. He couldn’t let the cuts expire without breaking his campaign promise not to raise taxes for people making under $200,000 (or $250,000 for families). I would like to see them all expire, because it would take care of something like 40 percent of the long-term deficit, and because those rates worked very well in the ’90s. But that’s not Obama’s position.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Stephen: OK, now I’ve read all of the Greenwald’s screed, something I try to do with him at least once or twice a year. I was wrong. He actually does accept that Obama wanted more taxes on the wealthy. But his penchant for ascribing the basest of motives to anyone with whom he disagrees is tiresome, and has been for a long time.

  8. Sean Roche

    Matt Yglesias:

    When I get to hold the country hostage, my “super congress” will be called “parliament.”

  9. L.K. Collins

    They’ve managed to eat the Democrat’s cake rather well since 2010. Ain’t politics grand?

    I do have to say, however, I share your opinion on the lack of leadership shown by Obama. I can easily see how upsetting it is given the euphoria that attended his anointment.

  10. Mike Stucka

    Oh, another suggestion: Nonpartisan redistricting. Right now moderates in both parties are endangered and likely nearing extinction.

  11. Stephen Stein

    @Dan – I agree with you about Obama’s position on whose tax cuts should have expired and whose preserved. I would have liked to see them ALL expire as well.

    It would have made the deficit much more manageable without this Tea Party hostage-taking.

  12. Dan Storms

    I don’t see where Greenwald is ascribing base motivations to Obama’s cave. He states that Obama has long made it known that he wants cuts in SS, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. and is willing to accommodate the radical right to get them. Pointing out that Obama is being true to his word and not to the progressive liberal view many of his supporters ascribed to him is simply stating the facts. Unless you think it is wrong to point out that Obama has always been willing to screw his base (cut entitlements for the poor and powerless, ignore the malfeasance of the financier class that contributed so heavily to his campaigns, compromise away real health care reform, forgo real economic stimulus to pursue lopsided bipartisanship, forgive the criminal behavior of the previous administration for pursuing a national security state of unwarranted wiretapping, torture, indefinite detention, pursuit of whistleblowers and the like while increasing hostilities in Muslim lands and advocating the un-Constitutional assassination of unindicted American citizens without pretense of due process).

  13. Stephen Stein

    Kevin Drum reflecting on Jared Bernstein has a point or two worth considering.

    Those of us who do care about the above [good things governments can do] will not defeat those who strive to get rid of it all by becoming better tacticians. We will only find success when a majority of Americans agrees with us that government is something worth fighting for.

    I think this is roughly correct. Public opinion is everything. Ronald Reagan was successful because public opinion supported him: he wanted to cut taxes and raise defense spending and so did big chunks of the public. He was leading in a direction that they already wanted to go.

    But no matter how many times we try to kid ourselves with one poll result or another, liberals just don’t have that advantage.

  14. Stephen Stein

    Kos says getting rid of the Bush tax cuts won’t happen. I can’t see where he’s wrong.

  15. Mike Benedict

    @StephenStein: “Ronald Reagan was successful because public opinion supported him: he wanted to cut taxes and raise defense spending and so did big chunks of the public.”

    Only the latter half of your statement is correct. If Reagan wanted to cut taxes, he would have cut taxes. Instead he raised them, and often.

  16. Mike LaBonte

    Any bill that “has to pass” is an invitation to play chicken. There should be no vote for anything that “has to pass”. Obviously each side will propose bills the other side hates, and one side will eventually cave rather than be the last side to vote down a bill that would save our finances.

    As usual the Republicans did a great job of not being afraid to be the ones with no intention of turning the wheel. If the Democrats understood the concept of showing up at a gun fight with guns they would have set the agenda, beginning with a bill calling for all Bush tax cuts to expire, then universal health care, reinstate Glass-Steagall, etc.

  17. Mike Benedict

    What several posters have missed, or ignored, is that Obama said from the outset he wanted to change the nature of the debate from fractious to workable. And from what I’ve seen, he’s been willing to concede and negotiate, but the GOP has predictably refused. No surprise — they are assholes. But to suggest Obama is somehow weaker as a result of that is a misreading both of his agenda and the tea leaves. If you are elected after a campaign platform of competence and bipartisanship, then that’s what you should deliver. He’s delivered. The GOP continues to hurt itself each time they pick an unwinnable fight with the only politician in Washington the country generally approves of. That’s just dumb. Obama learned wisely from Reagan and Clinton, and it shows.

  18. L.K. Collins

    Na, Mikey, the Democrats are the assholes. They elected Obama and now they are stuck with him.

    Go tell your kids that the massive structural debt that country faces will not have an impact on their futures.

  19. Mike Rice

    What a screwed up mess. Without an improved economy, savage tax hikes and spending cuts borrowing trillions more is nothing other than “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” as the saying goes.

  20. Mike Benedict

    Actually, the “massive structural debt that country faces will not have an impact on their futures” is a true statement.
    It simply won’t. Thanks to their grandparents’ hard work, both my kids will be multimillionaires before they turn 18 even if my wife and I are still alive. (If we are dead, they will be worth a whole lot more.) Our kids will never have to work, and thanks to the stupid tax laws, despite their rather excessive and completely unearned wealth, they will pay far less than any of your *shudder* progeny. I worry about lots of things, but their future isn’t one of them.

  21. L.K. Collins

    I’m impressed Mikey, duly impressed.

    Can we hear more of your storied accomplishments? We all want to know just how wonderful you are.

    How tall was the building that you were leaping over?
    6″? 7″ A whole 1′?

    Did you call someone to change the batteries in your garage door opener?

    Did you pay…GASP…cash for your Starbucks fix this morning?

    Did you get your Ikea hutch put together? Did you pay … gasp…cash for it too?

    It is really fun to see you get apoplectic when the world doesn’t meet your pre- and misconceptions.

    It’s really fun to see you react as if it is all about you.
    Shows a real lack of self-confidence. Don’t you like who you have become?

    Here’s the statement again: Go tell your kids that the massive structural debt that country faces will not have an impact on their futures.

    If you don’t believe it won’t, you are a fool…or one of those types that you accuse others of being.

  22. Al Fiantaca

    @Mike 5:52 PM
    Yes, Obama said he would change the nature of debate, and he has seemed to make an effort to do that in meetings with his political enemies, but as you said, they predictably refused. The problem is that we are suffering tangible losses, and the high road doesn’t seem like any consolation for them. Do you think that Republicans will suffer major electoral losses in the next election as a result of their behavior, or will we (Democrats) be seen as feckless frauds, and just add to the losses we already suffered in 2010, including to a Republican candidate for president? Even if Republicans are punished in the next election, what hopes can we have to overturn, or undo the damage that will be done if this deal is approved as expected? The super committee and trigger mechanism look like real Trojan horses, capable of delivering devastating blows to our community. I just don’t see any silver lining to this dark cloud.

  23. Al Fiantaca

    When is it acceptable to say that your political opponents have refused to engage in a positive manner for the country, and realize that the resulting deals and legislation are causing too much damage not to change tactics. In other words, how many times can you turn the other cheek when you get slapped in the face before you respond with an uppercut of your own? How long can we be expected to put up with this high road effort when doing so has resulted in so many losses?

  24. Mike Benedict

    @AlFiantaca: Depends on your end goal. The GOP is all about the outcome, so much so that it has publicly stated that the means don’t matter. For three generations it has shown complete disregard for the law of the land, breaking the laws and then shamefully arguing that they shouldn’t apply to them in the first place.

    I’m one who believes process counts. Over time, follow the right process and you’ll get the intended results. I have a hard time believing the US is truly any more polarized than it was even 15 years ago when I worked in DC. Even then, everyone complained that nothing got done and that the tension between the parties was palpable. But at least no one was shooting their rivals, like they did in the 1800s. The system is set up to ensure tension, so I have a hard time arguing that we should take any broad measures to resolve that. The fact is, Obama is the most popular politician in America today, and has been for several years now. Meanwhile, mainstream America holds Boehner, Cantor and the rest of the crazies in complete disregard. My goal is to ensure Obama gets re-elected because I understand not every decision is going to go my way, but it has a much better chance as long as he’s in office. (I do find it humorous that the right wing nutjobs say they want a strict interpretation of the Constitution, then keep trying to change that same document.) Some of these things will take time — perhaps the most important decision the President makes today is naming new Supreme Court nominees, because it’s SCOTUS that does most of the heavy lifting these days. Scalia and Kennedy are 75, Ginsburg is 78. There could be at least one changeover during the next presidential term.

    @LK: Since you are so concerned about my kids, perhaps you should come babysit them. While you’re at it, you can mow my lawn. I’ll even throw a few bucks your way.

  25. C.E. Stead

    About that Obama ‘base’ – he doesn’t have one.

    Obama ran as a tabula rasa, with lovely but non-specific slogans and speeches. Since the day he was elected, various activists have been asking what happened to the person they worked for – gay activists wondering why he isn’t pro-LGBT, social justice activists that wonder why he isn’t working on prisoner’s rights, peace/isolationists wondering why Gitmo isn’t closed, the PATRIOT Act extended, and Iraq and Afghanistan still active deployments (let alone new ones in northern Africa).

    He told no lies – he merely didn’t contradict people who wanted to work for him because of their assumptions about where he stood. THAT’S his base.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @C.E.: Where do you get this stuff? Obama has been very good on gay and lesbian issues, bringing DADT to an end at long last. During the campaign he said he opposed same-sex marriage, and guess what? He opposes same-sex marriage. We know why Gitmo wasn’t closed — Congress refused his attempt to relocate the last remaining prisoners in the United States. He promised to expand the war in Afghanistan, and that’s certainly a campaign promise he kept. Mainly, I think he’s been lousy on civil liberties, but that’s true of all recent presidents except George W. Bush, who was much, much worse than lousy.

  26. Christian Avard

    *** a determined minority is far more powerful in our constitutional system than the majority, because members of that minority can just say no. ***

    Very true. So why couldn’t the Dems act like that when they were in the minority? What are some good examples of that? They can’t necessarily blame their lack of unity on the “Blue Dogs.”

    I think it was Molly Ivins who said “Trying to herd liberals is like trying to herd cats.”

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