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They Pull Me Back In


I have been informed by several commenters that the beliefs about the limits of presidential power held by pretty much everyone to have studied the issue have been proven wrong.   I am especially happy to provide the link, as I can’t imagine a better (if inadvertent) case that there was no plausible path to a public option getting through the Senate.    Atkins’s argument is that the failure of Obama to try a bunch of obviously good strategies proves that he was opposed to the public option, and this is the primary reason it failed.   But the strategic options he presents are almost remarkable for being transparently ineffectual or counterproductive.    It’s hard to identify the single most obviously self-refuting item on the list, but I think we have a winner:

4. Promise to campaign hard for Blanche Lincoln if she voted for the public option.

So, if Lincoln votes for a public option, she would have the full support of a president who lost her state by almost 20 points in the midst of a fairly easy victory and remained about as popular as syphilis. Clearly, the fact that he didn’t think of this brilliant strategery proves he’s a closet Republican! And then he could have responded by threatening to support her primary opponent (point 6) for a nomination everyone knows is basically worthless anyway (point 5), and then offer her some unspecified “plum appointment” that would surely be more attractive than any other career available to a former senator.  Hard to see any flaws with that plan.

The rest of the list is similar; implausibility after implausibility that fails in particular to consider downside risk as well as the fact that the legislators who don’t care if anything passes hold all the cards. The fact is, the Obama/Reid strategy with Lieberman was vindicated; stripping him of his chairmanship would have just led to him caucusing him with Republicans, which means not only no public option but no ACA and no DADT repeal. And even in the extremely unlikely event that this worked his vote for the public option is worthless without the votes of other senators (like Bayh) Obama has no leverage over at all. (Why would we think that Nelson wanted a kickback he had to distance himself from and was stripped from the final bill so badly he would support the public option?) Baucus wasn’t “empower[ed]…to be a kingmaker” by Barack Obama, but by the fact that he controlled one of the relevant committees, and in any case how disempowering him would have made him more likely to support the public option is unexplained, for the obvious reason that it doesn’t make any sense. And so on. The idea that this amateur-night political speculation reflects hidden presidential powers is just bizarre. At some point, maybe you have to consider that a lot of Democratic senators are conservatives, and the leverage that presidents have over them is very limited.

But the real key is the assertion that “LBJ and FDR were legendary for their arm-twisting tactics when it came to recalcitrant Congresses, and they are Democratic legends in Presidential history.” The idea that the success of FDR and LBJ was in their ability to steamroller Congress is a myth. Let’s go to Sides again:

The short answer: presidents don’t often succeed in persuading reluctant members of Congress to go along with their views. Take Lyndon Johnson, supposedly a master manipulator of Congress. Edwards shows that support in Congress for Johnson’s initiatives was not systematically higher than Kennedy’s or Carter’s. For example, on crucial votes in the House, Johnson won the support of 68% of Democrats and 29% of Republicans. Kennedy did better among Democrats (74%) and worse among Republicans (17%). Carter did worse among Democrats (59%) but the same among Republicans (29%).

FDR and LBJ are the two presidents of the last century with longer lists of progressive accomplishments than Obama, and they were the two that had substantially more favorable legislative environments.  And the Democratic presidents with a less impressive record of achievements than Obama all (with the possible exception of Carter) had substantially less favorable legislative environments. Republican presidents in Democratic-dominated periods had much more liberal records than those in Republican-dominated contexts. At some point, you have to start wondering if it’s more than just a coincidence.

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