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That Green Lantern Won’t Raise Itself

[ 96 ] January 7, 2014 |

In her “conversation” with David Brooks, Gail Collins manages to capture in two sentences how not to think about legislative change:

I’m with you on the single-payer option. If only the president had not taken the path that was touted by several generations of Republican deep thinkers.

The first problem with the “Republican thinkers” bit we’ve discussed extensively — the “generations” of “Republican thinkers” who have wanted to greatly expand Medicaid and substantially tighten restrictions on the health insurance industry don’t actually exist. But let’s imagine an alternate universe in which the Republican offer on health care has not consistently been “nothing,” and 30 years ago a lot of Republicans sincerely favored something like the ACA. What implications follow from this, exactly? Roe v. Wade had 5 Republican appointees in the majority with only 2 Democratic ones, with the two dissenters evenly split on partisan lines. Does this make Roe a fundamentally “Republican” decision Democrats should reject? Should Everett Dirksen’s support for the Civil Rights Act cause us to construe it as a sellout? John Chafee, I am assured by many commenters and people on Twitter, defined “Republican” health care policy circa 1993. So I assume that Chafee’s 1993 proposal for a federal handgun ban is also a “Republican plan” liberal Democrats should reject if it was politically viable?

Anyway, apart from the fact that it’s false and would be irrelevant even if it was true, the “ACA was a Republican plan” is a great argument.

On the second point, the argument that the choices of Barack Obama are the reason single payer didn’t pass should by all rights be a strawman, but it’s not. (In fairness, I assume that given more space to elaborate, Collins would have phrased it in the more typically weaselly manner: “I’m not saying it was guaranteed to work, but we’ll never know if stalwart liberals like Joe Lieberman and Kent Conrad and Ben Nelson would have supported single payer because Obama didn’t. even. TRY! Bully Pulpit! Overton Window on Steroids! Change the Game by Doubling Down!”) Anyway, let’s say Obama had chosen 2009 to initiate a “national conversation” on single payer. Allow me to dramatize the outcome:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: “Dammit, Harry. I know neither Hillary nor myself nor Edwards even ran on it, but I’ve decided that eliminating the American health insurance industry is the only way to go — American political institutions naturally gravitate towards optimal policy outcomes, right? I’m guessing that going public like George W. Bush on Social Security will put us over the top, but how do things look in the Senate right now? I figure that at worst, Congress would have to meet us halfway, just like Bush on Social Security and Clinton on health care.”

MAJORITY LEADER REID: “Thank you for your very serious proposal, Mr. President. I have a whip count in my desk somewhere that my intern typed on her imaginary typewriter. Let me get it for you.”

PRESIDENT OBAMA: “Great, thanks!”

[Instrumental version of "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" plays]

PRESIDENT OBAMA: “Hello? Is there a bad connection?”

[Instrumental version of "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" plays]


Green Lantern ACA Addendum

[ 253 ] December 3, 2013 |

Armando asks a common question with respect to my post from this morning:

Well, whether the ACA was literally the most that could have been obtained is unknowable. But I will say this:

  • Of course Obama had agency.  It was because of him that health care reform was the top priority, and he certainly could have abandoned it in exchange for token reforms, as his chief of staff inter alia urged him to do after the election of Scott Brown.  Again, nobody thinks that the presidency is powerless.  The question is whether Obama could have done something to get a dozen+ conservative Democrats in the Senate to vote for progressive additions to the ACA they clearly didn’t support.
  • It seems to me that given many decades of failure to pass comprehensive health reform, the burden of proof rests squarely on those who think that Obama could have gotten substantially more.  How, in concrete terms, is Obama getting Lieberman’s vote for a public option?  Then repeat for Nelson, Bayh, etc. etc.   (And, no, “end the filibuster” isn’t an answer, since there aren’t even 50 votes for that now.)
  • In particular, any counterfactual must take into account that Bill Clinton tried the strategy most commonly favored by the ACA’s left critics (develop a plan, use public pressure to get Congress to pass it), and it was an utter catastrophe that set back health care reform for a generation.  Again, the burden of proof is one those who want to argue that Obama should have repeated this strategy rather than trying to do something different, especially since Obama’s actually, you know, worked.
  • If you look at the comments thread, it’s instructive that the “Obama failed by getting unprecedented legislation passed” crowd can’t help assuming that Obama is a Westminster Prime Minister.  Did you know that Obama “let” Max Baucus take charge of the bill as a powerful Senate committee chairman?  Not if you understand anything about American politics.
  • If you want me to take your counterfactuals seriously, it’s probably best to not characterize plans that are supported by Republicans only when supermajorities of liberal Democrats would pass them anyway as “Republican plans.”

Green Lanternism, Right and “Left”

[ 43 ] October 2, 2013 |

Nick Gillespie thinks that you shouldn’t worry yourself about which party is responsible for refusing to negotiate or which party is trying to leverage economic damage of various scope in order to get an agenda that was just rejected by the electorate implemented because probably Both Sides are Doing It. Rather, we should focus on the president who is causing everything by refusing to lead, with leadership:

The one thing that shouldn’t be slighted, though, is that it is ultimately Barack Obama’s fault. He’s the deciderer, right, the top dog? The eight years of his time in office will be known to future generations as the Obama Years and not the Boehner Perplex or the Reid Interregnum.


Indeed, the shutdown is happening because the federal government doesn’t have a budget for fiscal 2014, which starts today. The reason it doesn’t have a budget is because the Republican-led House passed a budget calling for $3.5 trillion in spending, the Democratically controlled Senate passed a budget calling for $3.7 trillion in spending, and President Obama issued a proposal calling for $3.77 trillion in spending. This happened back in the spring. The House and the Senate passed their budget plans in late March. The president’s proposal, the last to be issued, came out on April 10.


Then you compounded legislative issues by failing to kick the asses of sorry little functionaries like John Boehner and Harry Reid to pass budgets on a regular basis. At this point, you’re one for five, batting .200 on budgets. If you had forced the budget process, most Americans would never have learned of the debt limit, whose increase you used to rail against so eloquently. It’s hard, after all, for Congress not to pass increases to pay for spending it budgeted through the normal budget process.

Like a head-in-the-clouds grad-school layabout, you yourself were late on just about everything too, such as Obamacare deadlines and this year’s budget plan. Think about it: You became unpopular enough that Americans were willing to vote back into partial power the same team that gave us the goddamn Bush years.

You lost total control of the federal government and thus the ability to not have to offer anything. Get over it. Figure out how to fix the impasse and spend way more money than the American people think the government should be spending.

After all, it’s your name on the era.

First of all, I love the opening tautology — some people will name a political era after the president as shorthand, and some subset of them might be unsophisticated enough to think that this means that the president dominates domestic policy, and this proves that Sorkin and Westen are right! (It probably goes without saying that he moves on to the old “how can you say that the president has limited power over domestic policy when the president can bomb stuff when there’s obviously a single indivisible entity called Presidential Power so haha gotcha” routine.) Also note the end, where Gillespie tries the classic conservertarian move of invoking general opposition to federal spending in the abstract while failing to note the far more relevant fact that most specific federal spending is highly popular. The rest I’ll outsource to Chait:

First, the lack of a conference to negotiate the House and Senate budgets didn’t happen for “all sorts of reasons.” It happened for one reason: Democrats pleaded to hold one and Republicans refused. Senate Democrats have spammed my e-mail in-box pleading for a budget conference on a near-daily basis. House Republicans refused because their strategy is not to negotiate through regular order but to use the threat of a shutdown and debt default to leverage unilateral concessions. This isn’t my partisan accusation. They said this themselves, repeatedly!


Third, Gillespie’s entire rant is beside the point, because the lack of a negotiated budget is not the cause of a shutdown. Budget conferences are designed to set long-term federal budget policy. Keeping the government open doesn’t require that. You just need to pass a “continuing resolution.” That’s it. Pass the CR, and the government stays open, and then you can either negotiate or not negotiate the federal budget.

It’s continually amazing to me that this publication publishes commentary on public policy by a writer who lacks even a rudimentary understanding of the policy process.

In fairness, lacking even a rudimentary understanding of the policy process is something that can be found on the nominal left as well:

However I have zero sympathy for the Obama administration as they struggle to correct these glitches in the federally run exchanges. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius has asked we give them “the same slack you give Apple,” but that is an unfair comparison since Apple is not forcing you to be their customer.

It’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference between this kind of ostensible “left” and conservertarians. Why not just start babbling about broccoli at this point?

Yes this is an incredibly difficult technological task, but it is only an incredibly difficult task because Obama chose to make it so difficult. President Obama and Congressional Democrats could have adopted a much better health care law that would have also been dramatically easier to implement. They chose not to.

Democrats could have just directly expanded public insurance to the uninsured. Even if they insisted on going with a private insurance system there was no need to build these exchanges. For example, in Switzerland the government simply mandates all insurers sell an approved basic package but there is no special government run site you are made to buy from.

If the incredible complexity at least provided real advantages that might be understandable. Instead the ACA was made needlessly complex so it could purposely leave in place an inferior system that allows the health care sector to continue to rip off Americans.

If you choose to make your plan needlessly complex, you won’t get any slack when you run into problems implementing it.

I guess there is a trivial and irrelevant sense in which the assertion that “Democrats could have just directly expanded public insurance to the uninsured” can be made sorta true. An entity called the “Democratic Party,” in an alternate political universe with a unicameral House about three times the size and heavily apportioned to emphasize liberal representation the way it’s currently apportioned to emphasize conservative representation might have been able to enact a single-payer plan. In the actually existing political universe of 2010, the idea that Obama could have “chosen” to enact Medicare for all is just absurd. As always, such arguments abjure history and structural limitations — the requirement to make social programs more complicated and worse to buy off vested interests is pretty much how social policy is made in the United States; it’s not an invention of Barack HUSSEIN Obama. And this is a particularly strange week to assume that we have a perfect constitutional system that is just being screwed up by those meddling Democratic presidents.

Who Smashed the Green Lantern?

[ 58 ] September 9, 2013 |

Sam Tanenhaus has a piece about presidential war powers that helps me understand why he commissioned a review of a bio of Willie Mays that consisted mostly of nostalgic blubbering about the Brooklyn Dodgers and the horrors of relief pitching:

But Mr. Obama might also have been acknowledging something else: that he holds office at a time when the presidency itself has ceded much of its power and authority to Congress. His predecessors found this, too. Bill Clinton discovered it after the 1994 election, when Newt Gingrich, the architect of the Republican victory in the House, briefly seemed the most powerful politician in the land.

George W. Bush discovered it 10 years later when he claimed a mandate after his re-election, only to see two of his prized programs — privatizing Social Security and immigration reform — wither amid resistance in Congress.

To note the obvious:

  • This is the same as it ever was. There has never been a time in history where presidents routinely just rammed their policy preferences right down the throat of an unwilling Congress.  And, yes, that very much includes FDR.
  • Syria is a very strange example to use as a hook for an argument about declining presidential power.  The authority of presidents to make war (unlike their before-the-fact powers on domestic policy) have substantially increased over the last century, and Congress failing to go along on Syria wouldn’t actually be a good counterexample.  The Libya example strongly suggests that had Obama just unilaterally decided to launch cruse missiles at Syria he could have done so without Congress doing anything about it.  He chose to request congressional approval, therefore putting the power of inertia against his  policy rather than in favor of it — but the key words there are “he chose.”   It doesn’t really tell us anything about the power of modern presidents to order military strikes.
  • If the decline in presidential power is supposed to be that Obama couldn’t just force Congress — including the house controlled by the other party — to go along, again there’s no actual change in presidential powers happening.

I’m not sure why the Times didn’t just go directly to Drew Westen if it wanted this terrible argument made again.

That Green Lantern Won’t Raise Itself!

[ 57 ] July 9, 2013 |

Shorter some unnamed “Democratic strategists”: “Nothing would have House Republicans more likely to support an immigration reform bill than have Barack Obama come out strongly in favor of it. He needs to be proactive, and certainly more strategically dynamic.”

Green Lantern II: Norm Ornstein Speaks

[ 38 ] May 10, 2013 |

Some useful history lessons:

Now, after the failure to get the background-check bill through the Senate, other reporters and columnists have picked up on the same theme, and I have grown increasingly frustrated with how the mythology of leadership has been spread in recent weeks. I have yelled at the television set, “Didn’t any of you ever read Richard Neustadt’s classic Presidential Leadership? Haven’t any of you taken Politics 101 and read about the limits of presidential power in a separation-of-powers system?”

But the issue goes beyond that, to a willful ignorance of history. No one schmoozed more or better with legislators in both parties than Clinton. How many Republican votes did it get him on his signature initial priority, an economic plan? Zero in both houses. And it took eight months to get enough Democrats to limp over the finish line. How did things work out on his health care plan? How about his impeachment in the House?

No one knew Congress, or the buttons to push with every key lawmaker, better than LBJ. It worked like a charm in his famous 89th, Great Society Congress, largely because he had overwhelming majorities of his own party in both houses. But after the awful midterms in 1966, when those swollen majorities receded, LBJ’s mastery of Congress didn’t mean squat.

No one defined the agenda or negotiated more brilliantly than Reagan. Did he “work his will”? On almost every major issue, he had to make major compromises with Democrats, including five straight years with significant tax increases. But he was able to do it—as he was able to achieve a breakthrough on tax reform—because he had key Democrats willing to work with him and find those compromises.

And one could cite FDR’s relationship with Southern Democrats as well. Again, the inability of presidents to get Congress to pass legislation legislative majorities don’t want to pass isn’t a strategic failure; it’s the inherent nature of the office.

Raising the Green Lantern Is Your Job

[ 116 ] May 1, 2013 |

Shorter MoDo: No matter what Obama says, he could totally get House Republicans to do what he wants if he only had the leadership to lead, with leadership. I blame his failure to hire Aaron Sorkin as a speechwriter.

And the depressing thing is that Dowd’s column wasn’t the worst one to be published by the New York Times in the last two days. It might not even be the second-worst.


Noted sprawler-across-staircases Maureen Dowd has fashioned herself another Chronic Ward of a newspaper column today on her now-regular theme of what a wimpety-wimp-wimp Barry Obama is, and why she never should have let him take her to prom instead of the hunky Andrew Shepherd from The American President who, while admittedly fictional, never would take this guff from actual human beings like John Boehner and Eric Cantor and Louie Gohmert, to which latter we give the benefit of a considerable doubt on this score. From the available evidence (again), and for all the relevance her insights have on what’s actually going on in American politics, Dowd once again seems to be writing from an assisted-living facility on the far side of a world Beyond The Planet Of The Ultra-Vixens. First of all, she, along with Jonathan Karl, seems to be overly concerned with the condition of the president’s “juice,” which she seems to feel is less fortified with essential vitamins and iron than the juice of a president should be. And, somewhere in the Beyond, Freud gives up the business entirely and opens a cigar store.

Raise the Green Lantern, Fact Chuck Edition

[ 45 ] March 11, 2013 |

Shorter Glenn Kessler: Republicans aren’t lying when they say that President Obama doesn’t have a plan. Because if he was really behind a plan, he could shove it right down Congress’s throat. By having the leadership to lead, with leadership. Like that time Bill Clinton gave a speech and then something happened after that.

…we should also always remember that grand bargains are a con even if presidents could magically make them happen.

Keep Raisin’ That Green Lantern!

[ 111 ] November 29, 2012 |

In a further refinement of the power attributed to the BULLY PULPIT, we are informed by Ben smith that the president’s ability to send emails to his supporters is not merely a powerful tool, it is his most powerful tool.   Surely, John Boehner is quaking in his boots about the prospect that a weapon of this power might be unleashed.    And if Bill Clinton’s masterful job getting major health care legislation passed proves anything, it’s that going public is far, far better than meaningless “congressional negotiations.”

The Cultural Origins of Green Lanternism

[ 111 ] September 27, 2012 |

I’ve been thinking more about issues surrounding what I see as progressives’ lack of understanding around how to organize for the change they want. See here, but to reiterate, too many progressives see voting for “the one leader who will save us” every four years as a useful strategy, as opposed to the decades-long work of creating real change through organizing on the local level and either establishing a legitimate third party with deep local roots or taking over the Democratic Party structure and remaking it in their own image, i.e., what radical conservatives have done to the Republican Party over the past 50 years.

I started to wonder why so many progressives seem to believe this, whether Nader in 2000 or Obama in 2008 or whatever. I’m sure there are many reasons for this. But as a historian, I wonder if part of it doesn’t have to do with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about the past. Traditional teachings of history, as their critics have so long pointed out, have focused on the Great Man. Of course, that was a Great White Man who probably oppressed others or was at least morally compromised in some unacceptable ways (Thomas Jefferson having sex with his slaves, Andrew Jackson and lots of horrible things, etc). That kind of teaching about those kind of people arguably reinforced conservative political values, which is part of the reason that conservatives fight to control local school boards.

But while the Great White Man version of history is rightfully out of fashion for progressives, the Great Person who created tons of change version of history is as strong as ever. By focusing on the Great Person, even as we often tell ourselves that we focus on mass movements when really we don’t, I think we might be creating the conditions for Green Lantern versions of how change happens.

The most clear example of this is the civil rights movement. This story of one of tremendous complexity. It took decades of organizing to make this happen. Yet we tell it as the story of a couple of people doing amazing things. Rosa Parks wouldn’t get to the back of the bus because she wanted to rest her tired feet (a story that actually conflates two different women but one that is commonly told). Martin Luther King had a dream. Then some bad southern white people did bad things and King’s dream convinced the government to do something and the black people could ride the bus and go to school with white people. Therefore, the civil rights movement was a success.

King just had a dream. It was so powerful, look what it accomplished.

Or at least that’s pretty close to the master popular narrative of the movement.

This of course disguises that the civil rights movement was something that engaged tens of thousands of people over a century plus who did amazing actions and still do, even though the master narrative says the movement ended when King was killed in 1968.

It’s not all that different with other movements. The women’s movement is a series of leaders from Susan B. Anthony to Gloria Steinem. Environmentalism is Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir and Rachel Carson. Gay rights is Harvey Milk. Labor is Mother Jones and John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther. Note that I have tried to avoid biographical pieces in my This Day in Labor History series. This is a specific choice to counter these narratives, though I may do so in the future.

We say these are mass movements, but we don’t teach them that way. Instead we teach the Dream and the Great Person. If King could change people’s hearts with his Dream, why can’t Obama change it with his supposed vision?

And the answer of course is that a) King didn’t change people’s hearts solely with his Dream and b) disappointment with Obama, while rooted in real reasons, is also a reflection of how the world works outside of myths we tell ourselves about change. A whole lot of civil rights activists called King a compromiser and even a sellout too, not only Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael, but everyday people involved both deeply and peripherally in the movement. Whether they were right or wrong is a matter of opinion, but this King-centric Dream story is one that developed after his death, not during the movement’s heyday.

I understand the psychic need we have as people to craft historical narratives to fit our desires for the present. Stories about individual people creating change have a beautiful simplicity to them. But that doesn’t mean they are true. As we see in the present, change doesn’t happen in a beautifully simple and inspiring way. It’s a bloodbath full of power plays, infighting, and knife fights.

And I think if we understood this about the people and movements we revere in the past, we’d do a better job understanding how to organize and what to expect from our leaders in the present.

I don’t want to overstate the case because I am sure it is multifaceted. But I think I am getting at part of the problem.

Bob Woodward Raises the Green Lantern

[ 51 ] September 11, 2012 |

I forgot to get to this when I first read it, and fortunately Pareene did the job so I mostly don’t have to. I’ll just focus on this particular howler:

“The Price of Politics” ends with similar editorializing. Mr. Woodward writes that “the debt-limit crisis was a time of peril for the United States, its economy and its place in the global financial order” and that “neither President Obama nor Speaker Boehner handled it particularly well,” unable to transcend “their fixed partisan convictions and dogmas.”

His harshest words are reserved for Mr. Obama: “It is a fact that President Obama was handed a miserable, faltering economy and faced a recalcitrant Republican opposition.

“But presidents work their will — or should work their will — on the important matters of national business. There is occasional discussion in this book about Presidents Reagan and Clinton, what they did or would have done. Open as both are to serious criticism, they nonetheless largely worked their will.

Um, excuse me? Clinton “worked his will” to a greater degree than Obama? Gee, that constitutional challenge to the comprehensive health care reform bill that passed in 1994 was a little late in coming, don’t you think? And the gays and lesbians who were discharged from the military between 1993 and 2010 will be furious to know that DADT had secretly been repealed without anyone knowing.

This idea that Clinton was able to impose his will on Republicans on a way that Obama couldn’t is absolutely bizarre. With the exception of the 1993 budget deal — where Clinton compromised entirely with conservative Democrats — here are the circumstances under which major legislation was passed under the Clinton administration:

  1. The bill had substantial a priori support among congressional Republicans.
  2. There is no #2.

When Clinton was advancing his own agenda before 1995, he was spectacularly unable to “work his will.”   Reagan fared a little better, because selling tax cuts and increased defense spending to Republcian and conservative Democrats is about as difficult as selling giving away free wine and food to grad students.   Nonetheless, on a number of issues where the a priori support wasn’t there — aid to the contras, the Bork nomination, eight overriden vetoes. The idea that Clinton or Reagan could have imposed their will on recalcitrant members of Congress in similar circumstances is nonsense.

Raise the Green Lantern, Health Care Edition

[ 246 ] July 2, 2012 |

Doubling down on her contrarian take on the Supreme Court and the PPACA, Marcia Angell provides as undiluted a version of the BULLY PULPIT fallacy as we’re likely to see:

On July 22, 2009, Obama said in a press conference, “Now, the truth is that unless you have what’s called a single-payer system in which everybody is automatically covered, then you’re probably not going to reach every single individual.” Bingo. Too bad he didn’t hang on to that insight, and use his rhetorical skills to make the case strongly to the American public. If he had fought for single-payer health care at the beginning of his administration, while he had both houses of Congress, and mobilized public opinion behind it, he might have made it. After all, the only thing members of Congress need more than industry money is votes.

Other than the fact there’s absolutely no evidence that presidents can change public opinion in this way, and the fact that Bayh, Nelson, Lieberman, etc. do not in fact need “votes more than money” since they’re not running for anything (and who thinks that winning votes and money are entirely unconnected anyway?) — hard to see any problems with this plan. I mean, this “going public” strategy sure worked well for Clinton, and Obama’s rhetorical skills sure did make the PPACA immensely popular.

The strangest thing about this kind of BULLY PULPIT argument is that people who seem to consider themselves tough-minded leftists have beliefs about American political institutions that are like caricatures of the most naive 1950s-style pluralists. I’m amazed anybody who considers themselves to have a critical attitude towards the status quo could implicitly deny that “[t]he flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent.” I’m also frustrated that getting a rational health care policy in the United States isn’t viable, but “forgetting” that hegemony exists is not actually going to facilitate change, and to the extent that it requires passing up opportunities to pass useful reform measures it actually makes things worse. Plans to transform American domestic politics that involve heroic presidential daddies imposing major social change on powerful interests by sheer force of will are indistinguishable from having no plan at all.

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