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Why, Oh Why, Did Barack Obama Turn Mitch McConnell Into A Reflexive Partisan?


Virtually every word of Christopher Caldwell’s evaluation of Obama’s presidency is an embarrassment. Let’s start here:

Health-care reform and gay marriage are often spoken of as the core of Obama’s legacy. That is a mistake. Policies are not always legacies, even if they endure, and there is reason to believe these will not. The more people learn about Obamacare, the less they like it — its popularity is still falling, to a record low of 37 percent in November. Thirty states have voted to ban gay marriage, and almost everywhere it survives by judicial diktat.

You have to love the bait-and-switch within the same paragraph. Whether the ACA will be enduring is based solely on public opinion surveys, although the GOP isn’t in a position to repeal it and the primary threat to it is “judicial diktat” (although he would never call judicial decisions he likes that.) On the other hand, public opinion strongly trending in favor of same-sex marriage is ignored because in some states same-sex marriage is recognized because of judicial opinions. If Caldwell thinks that same-sex marriage won’t be enduring because the courts took the initiative, all I can say is, care to make it interesting?

It gets worse than this:

These are, however, typical Obama achievements. They are triumphs of tactics, not consensus-building. Obamacare involved quid pro quos (the “Cornhusker Kickback,” the “Louisiana Purchase,” etc.) that passed into Capitol Hill lore, accounting and parliamentary tricks to render the bill unfilibusterable, and a pure party-line vote in the Senate. You can call it normal politics, but Medicare did not pass that way. Gay marriage has meant Cultural Revolution–style bullying of dissenters (notoriously, Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty and the Mozilla founder Brendan Eich). You can call this normal politics, too, but the 1964 Civil Rights Act did not pass that way.

Let’s leave aside the outright factual errors (the “Cornhusker Kickback” was not part of the final ACA, what the hell did Obama have to do with Brandon Eich losing his job and what does it have to do with Maoism?) The argument is still a logical and historical disaster. First of all, Caldwell apparently doesn’t know anything about the passage of the Civil Rights Act or Medicare, both of which involved legislative deals. The EEOC was gutted to get Republican support for the Civil Rights Act; congressional leaders abandoned price controls in Medicare to placate the doctor’s lobby. The idea that there’s something new in making deals with legislators is farcical, and giving some additional Medicaid funds to Louisiana is one of the more trivial examples of the genre.

It is true that major reform legislation passing on a straight party-line vote is relatively unusual. But the obvious problem is blaming Barack Obama for the new conditions of American politics. Let’s go back to the Civil Rights Act. From Julian Zelizer’s superb new book The Fierce Urgency of Now, on getting Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen’s support for cloture on the Civil Rights Act:

Dirksen firmly believed that the job as a legislator was to make the compromises necessary to pass bills. Like so many others in this period of insider politics…Johnson and Dirksen knew each other well, liked each other, and believed in working together…

Johnson was hoping to take advantage of Dirksen’s concern for his legacy. Like Johnson, Dirksen measured his worth by the legislation he was able to move through Congress. (116-7)

So, yes, the ACA was passed through different means than the CRA or Medicare. But the key variable was Congress, not the White House. Johnson was dealing with a Republican leadership that was supportive of some parts of Johnson’s agenda ex ante and, more importantly, believed that it was the job of legislators to pass legislation. The current Republican leadership explicitly believes its responsibility is to prevent legislation supported by a Democratic president from passing, and failing that its job is to not give it any patina of bipartisan legitimacy. The only way Obama could have avoided unified Republican opposition is just to not support any significant legislative initiatives. I’m sure this is Caldwell’s preferred outcome — he’s arguing in transparent bad faith here — but it’s absurd to think that historians will be incompetent enough to think that Obama is to blame for Mitch McConnel’s legislative strategies.

Of course, Caldwell uses similar arguments to call Obama racially divisive:

Mitt Romney won three of five white votes in 2012, and exit polls from 2014 show this to be a floor rather than a ceiling. Obama may be remembered the way Republican California governor Pete Wilson was after he backed the anti-immigration Proposition 187 in 1994—as one who benefited personally from ethnic polarization but cost his party and his country dearly by it.

Sure, Romney may have been beaten convincingly by Obama, but Romney won among real voters, and by definition the candidate that was supported by a more heterogeneous coalition is more racially divisive. (Barack Obama getting 2 out of 5 white votes — divisive! Mitt Romney getting fewer than one in ten African-American votes — inclusive!) I’m sure Caldwell’s views will heavily influence historians — if the Dunning School comes back. Otherwise, while it’s of course unclear how historians will evaluate Obama, the evaluation won’t be this.

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