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The Bush Non-Steamroller


Matt has some useful additions to my post yesterday on presidential power. On the second term, one could add the the 2005 bankruptcy “reform,” which again involved legislation supported by powerful interests, an issue that doesn’t divide the Republican coalition, and key support from parasite-state Democrats. Where one of these conditions wasn’t present, Bush’s allegedly more potent machine wasn’t able to accomplish anything on domestic policy. Bush’s immigration reform proposal advanced powerful interests and had Democratic support — but split the Republican coalition, so no dice irrespective of how much pressure he applied. And this isn’t because he had a significantly less favorable legislative context — indeed, I would argue that given their greater homogeneity and the tilt of the Senate towards conservative states 55 Republican votes are worth more than 59 Democratic votes.

But the real key, as Matt says, is to also examine Bush’s first term. The number of times Bush steamrolled Congress into accepting his domestic legislative agenda despite opposition from the median votes is “none.” Tax cuts are the single issue that most unites the Republican coalition and of course are strongly supported by the moneyed interests that exert undue influence. And note than even on the first round of tax cuts Snowe, Collins et al. were able to get the totals arbitrarily trimmed (although this does illustrate a legitimate Obama blunder — his opening bid on the stimulus package should have been higher.) NCLB was an actual bipartisan compromise. Medicare Part D was a largely Republican bill that Bush did exert a lot of pressure to pass, but one attempting to preempt a Democratic issue that certainly didn’t reflect conservative ideological priorities (and did have key Democratic support.) More to the point, there’s nothing in the 8 years of the Bush administration that represents the kind of legislative achievement the ACA was – a central piece of presidential agenda passed over united partisan opposition and despite substantial reluctance on the part of median Senate votes. (The closest comparison to the ACA was Bush’s Social Security initiative — which went down in flames.) There may be times when a more Bush-like leadership style would have produced better results — most notably the stimulus and the debt ceiling package. But any differences are going to be marginal, for the simple reason that in terms of enacting (as opposed to implementing) legislation the president is subordinate to Congress. This isn’t revisionism I’ve developed to explain away Obama’s failures; it’s a fact. Many people may not understand this, but I’m not one of them (note the date of this post.)

I don’t have a lot more to say about Glenn’s rejoinder, because much of it is non-responsive. When talking about legislation I was of course talking about major domestic legislation. Most of the cited evidence goes to establish a point — that in foreign policy the president is dominant — that isn’t in any dispute. If Obama was failing to bomb countries or to enact even more draconian restrictions of civil liberties in the name of the War on Terror then I agree he would be largely responsible, but in the context of the actual argument it’s beside the point. The point about the bailout is addressed above — it wasn’t a central point of Bush’s agenda and represented an issue where there was substantial bipartisan agreement. Finally, I think one reason we’re talking past one another is that Glenn seems particularly concerned with the question of what Obama really believes or wants. Essentially, my position on this is that it’s both unknowable and largely irrelevant, most importantly because for elected officials principle and political viability are inextricably intertwined. Is the ACA exactly what Obama would have wanted and enacted if he was a Prime Minister in a Westminster system? I’m skeptical, but maybe Glenn is right, and I can’t prove that he isn’t. But since, especially in light of Lieberman’s goalpost shifting, nobody has explained how 60 votes for the public option were obtainable it also doesn’t matter. Obama would have signed legislation with a public option and had little leverage over most of the conservative Democrats who didn’t want one and didn’t care if the bill went down, and that’s what matters.

…Given the accusation’s that I’m building my own strawman, I should once again cite Drew Westen and David Sirota [“Most agree that today’s imperial presidency almost singularly determines the course of national politics.”] The Green Lantern theory isn’t a figment of my imagination.

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