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The Retrospective Perfection of Great Democratic Presidents

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One commenter in the third party thread argues that people arguing against implausible heighten-the-contradictions arguments have their own, similar problem:

the even-handed liberal in me must point out that the alternative is just as unbounded across the middle.

1. Vote for Democrats, who will always and up spitting on you, and running to the right.
2. ???????
3. Profit!

This argument only works, however, if we assume that under extant institutional and cultural conditions a substantially more progressive governing coalition (and hence something closer to European social democratic policy outcomes) is possible, that the timid centrism of many Democrats and the legislative outcomes of the about-to-be-concluded Congress represent correctable tactical failures. My position is that a substantially more progressive governing coalition (president+median votes in both houses of Congress) almost certainly isn’t possible, and that the domestic policy disappointments under the Obama administration are not the result of strategic and/or tactical failures by progressives.

Another way of looking at this is to consider presidencies that most would consider progressive models. Outside of a few dead-enders, most of us can agree that projecting much more progressive preferences and the ability to achieve them on Hillary Clinton is farcically implausible. But perhaps a more superficially plausible comparison is with FDR. If FDR could be a great progressive president without these compromises, why can’t Obama? But the problem is, this FDR who was relatively uncompromising is a complete myth. If you think that health care reform kowtowed too much to corporate interests, consider the first segment of the New Deal that essentially consisted of establishing corporate cartels. If you’re appalled by Obama’s foot-dragging on gay and lesbian rights and by health care reform not going far enough, consider the fact that the (very skeletal and parsimonious) social programs of the New Deal were deliberately constructed so as to largely deny benefits to African-Americans (while FDR did almost nothing about the egregious abuses of the apartheid states of the American south.) Think Obama’s civil liberties record is pretty terrible? You’re right! But it’s hard to argue that anything he’s done can top the internment of persons of Japanese descent based on security justifications that were largely known within the administration to be false or frivolous. (FDR’s own initiative, too, not merely an unwise decision to defend the awful policies of his predecessor in court.) If you’re outraged by selling out progressive interests, kowtowing to reactionary forces, and third-of-a-loaf social reforms, you can have a field day with FDR.

LBJ — who is invoked much less — is actually a better case. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and (especially) the 1965 Voting Rights Act are as close as you can get to uncompromising progressive triumphs, and a great deal more worthy legislation passed under his watch. But even in insanely favorable circumstances (massive majorities with unusually large numbers of progressive Republicans willing to collaborate, halo effect of an assassinated president, booming economy) Johnson was unable to pass anything remotely resembling universal health care, and then there’s his cronyism botching Earl Warren’s replacement (which effectively rendered Brown a dead letter by the early 70s) and…the whole Vietnam thing which (defensibly) prevented the most progressive president of the 20th century from even getting his party’s nomination to run a second time. And remember, these are the strongest cases — your Clintons and Carters don’t get close to these records for various reasons, and we won’t even get into allegedly progressive presidents like Wilson and Jackson whose blemishes arguably outnumber their virtues.

Is Obama comparable to the best and most consequential of these figures, with all context considered? It’s way to early to say, and he may not be. Certainly, no president under current circumstances is likely to have the reconstructive effects of FDR. He can be fairly criticized for many things, and there are areas where his perfoamnce has been disappointing even given realistic expectations. But there’s no point in comparing him to a baseline of progressivism no American president has ever approached.

The bottom line is that people don’t pay enough attention to structural factors. The high number of veto points, the modest malapportionment of the House and the gross malapportionment of the Senate all conspire against progressive reform and make it much easier for relatively coherent conservative governing coalitions to form than progressive ones. The rule is that periods of reform are very rare, and reforms (with some very unusual exceptions like civil rights under LBJ) are modest, incremental, and involve buying off a lot of reactionary stakeholders — and FDR very definitely isn’t an exception to this rule. It’s pretty implausible that this is just the result of generation after generation of progressives making tactical mistakes or not doing enough to challenge the Democratic Party.

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