This assessment of the current relationship between Congress and the president is so remarkable it might surpass anything in the oeuvre of Ron Fournier himself:
Progressives have long said that Obama made a mistake in 2010 by admitting he took a “shellacking” in those midterms, and by retrenching rather than pushing harder and louder with a bold progressive message. Those people now seem to have the ear of the president. After naming some unobjectionable items he hoped to get through in the current session, such as fighting Ebola and curbing ISIS, he offered incoming Republicans the chance to work with him on a higher minimum wage and other longstanding Obama agenda items.
Most notably, of course, he said he would take executive action on immigration by year’s end unless Republicans passed a bill. It’s certainly a bold negotiating tactic: You can do what I want, or I’ll go ahead and do what I want anyway. This is how you “negotiate” with a seven-year old, not a Senate Majority Leader.
I’m not sure that isn’t what Obama thinks he’s doing, and I’m sure many of my left-leaning readers are chuckling right now at the comparison. But Mitch McConnell is not a seven year old; he’s an adult, and he just won an election in which voters repudiated Obama and his party. (Temporarily, I am sure, but just the same: As someone once said, “Elections have consequences.”) McConnell is not the proverbial Tea Party extremist who won’t negotiate; he’s an establishment guy, known as a strategist and a tactician, not an ideologue (which is why the Tea Party isn’t that fond of him). In short, he’s someone who can make deals. Responding to McConnell’s rather gracious remarks about finding common goals by announcing that you know what the American public wants, and you’re going to give it to them no matter what their elected representatives say, seems curiously brash. It might chill the atmosphere today when he sits down with congressional leaders.
I…just can’t even. Yes, it’s perfectly true that Mitch McConnell is more of a tactician and strategist than ideologue. This doesn’t mean what McArdle seems to think it does, because his strategic goal is to deny Obama any legislative accomplishments. This can be easily inferred from his tactics, but in case there was any doubt he is entirely upfont about it. The argument stands reality on its head. An ideologue you can potentially negotiate with, but someone who’s opposed in principle to making a deal with you is a different story. The idea that McConnell is going to suddenly drop his blanket opposition to giving Obama any legislative accomplishments now that he’s the majority leader is absurd. And even if Mitch McConnell suddenly turned into a 60s Republican minority leader, the chances that Boehner could deliver the votes for any significant non-budget legislation acceptable to Obama are less than nothing.
Obama’s negotiating posture doesn’t reflect him kowtowing to progressives so much as elementary game theory. When your attempts at cooperation end up with the other side defecting, you don’t keep playing the sucker. If you want to call that like negotiating with a 7-year-old, fine, but it’s also the only rational response. Executive action is Obama’s one and only source of leverage; he’s going to use it. Attempts by pundits to preemptively excuse Republicans for not passing anything by blaming Obama aren’t going to fly.
If there is one thing that Obama should regret most deeply, it was this fateful quote: “Elections have consequences,” he said. “I won.” Republican intransigence has stymied the president for four years. But the seeds of that revolution were laid in the first two years of Obama’s term, when giddy Democrats decided that he was the second coming of FDR, and Republicans would just have to go along with the Democratic agenda or get left behind. “Bipartisanship” involved gracious offers to let them fiddle with minor details of various plans — the policy equivalent of being allowed to choose the drapes for your maiden cruise on the Titanic. And when Republicans protested, they were bluntly told that their input wasn’t necessary, thankyouverymuchandgoodbye.
His presidency has never recovered from that mistake. The Tea Party Republicans who unnecessarily brought the government to a halt, and double-unnecessarily cost their own party many key elections, have much to answer for. But the Democrats who helped create them have some accountability, too. Democrats who try to attribute all the backlash to Republican racism are fooling themselves, setting themselves up for future repeats of these mistakes.
This argument has not improved with time. The claim about “offers to let them fiddle with minor details of various plans” is rather strange, given that Republicans had lost the White House and both houses of Congress. “Bipartisanship” means that a decisively repudiated minority party should not only be given some influence over the shape of legislation but…control over the legislative agenda or at least the core features of legislation? I think I can see why Democrats didn’t consider this attractive.
In addition to this, the timeline makes no sense. McConnell’s intransigence was clear during the entire process of passing the ACA; it wasn’t a result of it. Given the moderate and conservative Senate Democrats who were desperate for bipartisan cover and wasted a lot of time trying to get it, this isn’t a difficult counterfactual; there was nothing Democrats could have done to get Republican support without abandoning any significant health care reform altogether. In addition, the Tea Party was of course not a direct response to the ACA. The Rick Santelli rant that was the crucial catalyst was 1)about proposals to help struggling homeowners, not the ACA, and 1)was more than a year before the passage of the ACA. The ACA might have somewhat intensified the Tea Party but it certainly didn’t create it. (The implicit assumptions have the some problem here as all backlash arguments; you can sometimes reduce backlash by just not winning policy victories, but what’s the point of trying to win elections at all?) And, needless to say, the idea that not passing the ACA would have been worth the 50 seats the Democrats would have needed to maintain control of the House is absurd.
So, in other words, McArdle is suggesting that Democrats should have foregone trying to pass any substantive legislative agenda in order to 1)prevent two midterm election losses that would have happened anyway (we can quibble about magnitude, but not control of the respective houses) and 2)to secure Republican cooperation that had no chance of coming under any circumstances. It’s a real puzzle that Obama didn’t take this advice!