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.

Paul Krugman’s prescient criticism

Paul Krugman

I’ve been trying to think of a way to add some value to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s blog post on the “cult of centrism,” which he’s now expanded into a column. I can’t think of much other than to urge you to read it. The media’s insistence on balancing sanity with insanity and truth with lies is not only infuriating, but it’s having a deleterious effect on our democracy, especially in the unspeakably stupid debate over the debt limit. Today, even John Boehner might agree.

Here’s one thing I can recommend that might help place Krugman in context. In early 2009 — even before President Obama took office — Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, wrote a series of columns arguing that the economic stimulus Obama was proposing would not be enough to offset the worst economic crisis to come along in many decades. Krugman pulled all the strings together in early March, arguing that the $787 billion stimulus was too small and too tilted toward tax breaks, and that when it failed, Obama would be blamed for “massive,” out-of-control spending.

It doesn’t get more prescient than that. And this week Krugman proves himself to be as an astute a media critic as he is a political economist.

Abortion, health care and the media

John Boehner

While driving to work yesterday, I heard House Republican leader John Boehner on NPR, claiming — as he has on any number of occasions — that the health-care-reform bill now being considered by the House would allow for “taxpayer-funded abortions.”

Based on the best available evidence, what Boehner said was not true. That he and other health-bill opponents keep getting away with it exposes a flaw in the news media that goes back at least to the days of Joseph McCarthy. That is, journalists regularly report the words of powerful figures, but only rarely challenge them on the facts. It’s just one of the reasons that President Obama’s quest for near-universal health care is hanging by a thread, and could still be defeated.

A bit of review. Last year the House and the Senate both passed health-care-reform bills with language aimed at ensuring that the current ban on federal funding of abortions would remain in place. Pro-life activists claim the House language is tougher, but other observers say the two bills would accomplish the same thing. Here is Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in a recent appearance on ABC News’ “This Week”:

The president has said from the outset, we don’t want to change the status quo on abortion funding. Neither the Senate or the House bill has any federal funding for abortion, none. Yes, abortion services are provided, and people will pay out of their own pockets, in both the Senate and the House, but they do it in slightly different ways.

Now, I understand that Sebelius isn’t a neutral analyst. Rep. Bart Stupak, the Democrat who wrote the anti-abortion language that’s in the House bill, says he will oppose the Senate bill, which is under consideration by the House this week. So it’s complicated. Yet there are ample reasons to believe that the concerns Stupak has voiced are wrong, and that, therefore, Boehner and his ilk are exploiting the always-volatile issue of abortion rights for sheer political gain, knowing they can get away with it. Here are three compelling pieces of evidence:

1. The Pulitzer Prize-winning, nonpartisan Web site PolitiFact.com reports that Stupak is just plain wrong — as in “false” — in claiming that every enrollee in the government health-care exchanges that would be created by the proposal would be required to help fund abortion. In addition, PolitiFact notes that the Senate anti-abortion language was written by Sen. Ben Nelson, who’s pro-life. Finally, PolitiFact looks at a claim that a loophole would allow federally funded community health centers to provide abortions as “highly misleading” and “barely true.”

2. A serious pro-life Democrat, Rep. Dale Kildee, announced yesterday that he will support the Senate language after concluding that it will not lead to taxpayer funding of abortions. “I have listened carefully to both sides, sought counsel from my priest, advice from family, friends and constituents, and I have read the Senate abortion language more than a dozen times,” Kildee, who once studied for the priesthood, told the New York Times. “I am convinced that the Senate language maintains the Hyde Amendment, which states that no federal money can be used for abortion.”

3. A coalition representing more than 50,000 Catholic nuns released a letter yesterday supporting the health-care proposal, including the Senate language, thus contradicting a stand taken by the U.S. Conference of Bishops. Have the nuns suddenly become pro-choice? No, they have not, according to the Los Angeles Times. “We agree that there shouldn’t be any federal funding of abortion,” Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of Network, is quoted as saying. “From our reading of the bill, there isn’t any federal funding of abortion.”

Legalisms aside, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof today predicts that the health-care bill, if it becomes law, will lead to a dramatic decrease in the number of abortions, since research has shown that access to health care correlates with fewer abortions.

Since the health-care debate began a year ago, Obama and the Democrats have done a miserable job of explaining the stakes, and the media have largely engaged in their typically mindless “he said/she said” horse-race coverage. When the media do attempt to tease out the truth (as in this CNN “Fact Check”), the results are often muddled with so much fake even-handedness that news consumers are left not knowing what to think.

Perhaps in examining just this small aspect of the debate, we can detect a larger pattern.

Photo (cc) by republicanconference and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.