Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 18, 2009

A PARALYZING SYSTEM.... David Roberts notes that much of the left has been dispirited as much of President Obama's ambitions have "crash[ed] on the shoals of the status quo ... and the status quo isn't budging." Kevin Drum adds that conservatives were thinking the same thing not too long ago.

They wanted a revolution, but instead they got NCLB. And a wimpy stem cell compromise. And Sarbanes-Oxley. And McCain-Feingold. And a huge Medicare expansion. And complete gridlock on Social Security.

Not exactly what they signed up for. The tax cuts were great, of course, but what about abortion and gay marriage and entitlement reform and slashing the size of government and ANWR and the Endangered Species Act and everything else on the conservative wish list? They got most of what they wanted on the national security front (missile defense, big Pentagon budget increases, a couple of nice wars), but on the domestic front most of them felt like Bush ended up delivering almost nothing.

It wasn't quite that bad, of course. They did get the tax cuts, after all. And they got a new bankruptcy law and a bunch of right-wing judges. But for the most part, their domestic agenda crashed on the shoals of the status quo too. Washington DC is a tough place to get anything done.

It is, but I find the differences interesting. After all, Bush had a Republican Congress for most of his tenure, just as Obama has a Democratic Congress now. D.C. is tough place to get anything done, but it's a heckuva lot easier when a president is working with allies running the Hill.

So, what stood in Bush's way? There were, to be sure, some institutional hurdles. But more important was the realizations that Americans didn't really support the conservative agenda, and only voted GOP because national security dominated the landscape, and Republicans were perceived (incorrectly) as more trustworthy on the issue. Bush and his allies could have pushed harder for more of the conservative wish-list, but there was no mandate, no public demand, and the very real likelihood of a public backlash (which, as it turns out, happened anyway in the face of war, scandal, corruption, and almost comical incompetence.)

Obama is finding that D.C. is tough place to get anything done for entirely different reasons. The White House agenda is popular, but his obstacles are almost entirely institutional hurdles -- the Senate operating as if every bill demands a supermajority, the Kennedy/Byrd illnesses, and the prevalence of center-right Dems in both chambers who look askance at the progressive agenda and who the president has no real leverage over.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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The system was designed to protect minorioty rights but it has mutated into a system that permits minority rule. And deadlock only works for those who do not want government to work so as to put the country into the hands of vested interests. Liberals need a government that can level the playing field. Conservatives don't need government at all.

Posted by: Ted Frier on August 18, 2009 at 4:55 PM | PERMALINK

One thing I will say on this, is that this battle has ENERGIZED the left. I've been saying for weeks that democrats need to have a march on washington for reform and need to push their agenda. If they let the right do so openly then there are going to be consequences when they don't reciprocate.

I have no idea if Obama had planned to piss off the left like this right now, but if he did, he is a genius.

Posted by: Chris A. on August 18, 2009 at 4:55 PM | PERMALINK

Obama may not be using his leverage over recalcitrant Democrats, but he has it. A simple statement to the effect that if health care fails, his party's legislators deserve to be punished by voters would make his point.

Posted by: JMG on August 18, 2009 at 5:01 PM | PERMALINK

Come on now...does anyone think the GOP really wants legislation on abortion or teh gay? Without wedge issues they have nothing. There is no way they would allow laws to lose their prime Get Out The Vote.

I'm sorely disappointed in Obama. I can only hope I'm wrong.

Posted by: MsJoanne on August 18, 2009 at 5:02 PM | PERMALINK

It's possible that the RNC taking the position that a co-op is just a public option by another name is a blessing in disguise. Since Republicans are unwilling to vote for either one and the progressives want the public option, it seems like Obama might as well go with what he feels is the best.

Posted by: sceptic on August 18, 2009 at 5:04 PM | PERMALINK

President Obama has proven himself without peer when talking the talk. Now, he has to walk the walk, lest his silver-tongued offerings of the future start looking like that pile of dog poo in the back yard that I'm too lazy to clean up right now.

"I cannot understand why so many chiefs in Washington are allowed to talk so many different ways, and promise so many different things. ... [T]hey all say they are my friends, and that I shall have justice, but while all their mouths talk right I do not understand why nothing is done for my people. I have heard talk and talk, but nothing is done." - Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé, Washington, D.C. (1879)
Posted by: Out and About in the Castro on August 18, 2009 at 5:06 PM | PERMALINK

A few things that don't get mentioned very often concerning the general direction of the country.

1. Democrats have won the popular vote in 4 of the last 5 presidential elections (including Al Gore).

2. Democrats have also increased their raw popular vote totals in every presidential election since 1984 (believe it or not, Walter Mondale got about 2 million more votes than Carter did in 1980. Look it up.)

3. The same cannot be said for the Republicans -- in three elections their raw popular vote total fell as compared to the previous election -- 1984-1988, 1988-1992, and 2004-2008. Moreover, between 1992 and 1996, Dole only manage barely eked out a 100,000 vote increase over Poppy's 1992 total.

4. Obama was only the fourth Democrat since 1900 (the others are FDR, LBJ, and Carter) to win an outright majority of the popular vote. Moreover, he received the highest percentage of the vote of any first time national candidate since Ike (Bush the Elder's percentage was about 1% higher, but he had run twice on a national ticket with Reagan, and had also run for president in 1980).

Posted by: Dave in DC on August 18, 2009 at 5:09 PM | PERMALINK

Folks I need your help. If we are going to get a government option we must turn the tide. Instead of complaining about those dirty tricks the conservatives are playing we must go on the offensive. How you ask? My idea is to use scare tatics just like they do. See My Answer To Sarah Palin on facebook and get the word out. flood the internet with insurance companies rejections, turning down common proceedures as experimental, post every law suite you can find they yhey lost. Print their ceo and upper management salaries and bonuses and corp profits. Expose which hospitals they own. Go on the offensive the other side expects us to just sit back and cry. Lets let them know what they are standing for. The public wanted a government option before they started to scare them it won't be as hard as it looks to scare them back to our side. Then once the ball is rolling our way (after Labor day and we must pound once twice a day till then) we start exposing the liars and the techniques like bring conservative forieners to host the Limbaugh radio show and tell horror stories. One more thing the government option is more like Blue Cross Blue Sheild than it is like medicare or medicade people just don't understand the it is just a competitive plan to Cigna and United Health etc that will make them streemline their plans and actually pay for something. Please help start today

Posted by: Mattress Answer Man on August 18, 2009 at 5:21 PM | PERMALINK
Ted Frier: "The system was designed to protect [minority] rights but it has mutated into a system that permits minority rule."

You're stating the painfully obvious to us here in California, where all budgetary issues require a two-thirds majority in both the State Assembly and the State Senate for passage, and where 14 Republican state senators in that 40-member chamber have annually brought the entire 120-member state legislature to a grinding halt.

Now granted, our legislature certainly has other "issues" at play, but the two-thirds supermajority requirement on fiscal matters has always proven a rather potent formula for Sacramento gridlock and disfunction.

And you know something else? If an initiative was place on the ballot requiring that all future gubernatorial appointments be subject to a Senate vote that's factored into a quadratic equation based upon the square root of a hypotenuse drawn between the interior of the state capitol dome and the rotunda floor, the voters would probably approve that, too. Yeah, that oughta show all them pussyfootin' goodfernuthins up there!

When you cut right to the chase, we the voters have only our own laziness and self-indulgent ignorance to blame for the intractible mess that's become Sacramento. The same can probably be said for what's also happening in Washington, and probably in every other state capital and county seat throughout the country, as well.

Posted by: Out & About in the Castro on August 18, 2009 at 5:31 PM | PERMALINK

Steve, take another look at the parts of the Bush/Cheney agenda that came out almost exactly as desired (tax cuts, wars, credit card debt bankruptcy "reform" -- stuff that made their corporate pals rich) versus the parts that didn't or were watered down. These guys never really cared about abortion, gay marraige, or stem cell use other than as campaign fodder.

Social Security and ANWR were both saved because progressives picked their fights where they could.

But other than that, Bush and Cheney got everything else they really wanted, right up to the end.

Posted by: drew42 on August 18, 2009 at 5:47 PM | PERMALINK

Health care reform is being picked a part over the following deal breakers:
- public funded abortion
- higher taxes and fees (for everyone)
*- end or life “counseling” (now out of the bill in the Senate)
- loss of present coverage (eventually as parts of the House bill mandate that only “qualified“ plans will be allowed)
- seniors getting the shaft (500 billion being cut from Medicare)
- monstrous additions to the deficit
Health Care Reform won’t survive once people find out about the above provisions in the House Bill. - hence why President Obama and Co. wanted to pass it with haste and no scrutiny. His plan to bum rush this bill is gone, so the only question for President Obama at this point is how to best to revise this Bill so as to make it palatable to the public. The Dems (from red districts) have to know that if they vote for this then they’re toast in 2010 which is why they’re giving the impression of people not "understanding" the provisions in the bill and calling anyone a lot of names like "evil" if they disagree with the left about the bill.

Posted by: henry on August 18, 2009 at 5:54 PM | PERMALINK

A really good point, Steve: "the Senate operating as if every bill demands a supermajority."

Can anyone explain why we don't require filibusterers to actually filibuster? Doing this one thing alone would do a lot to break the log-jam. That's the way it was back in 1964. The bastards opposing the Civil Rights Act had to talk.

If he's alive, Kennedy will be there. Byrd, too. We are heading for dramatic moments. Those Dems who might in the end be inclined to waver are going to have to say "no" with Teddy sitting/lying there. With Robert shaking in his seat.

And if the Repubs drag this out and either one passes, then we'll have a speech like this one: "John Kennedy's death commands what his life conveyed -- that America must move forward.
The time has come for Americans of all races and creeds and political beliefs to understand and to respect one another. So let us put an end to the teaching and the preaching of hate and evil and violence. Let us turn away from the fanatics of the far left and the far right, from the apostles of bitterness and bigotry, from those defiant of law, and those who pour venom into our Nation's bloodstream. I profoundly hope that the tragedy and the torment of these terrible days will bind us together in new fellowship, making us one people in our hour of sorrow. So let us here highly resolve that John Fitzgerald Kennedy did not live or die in vain."

That was LBJ, speaking to Congress and to the nation. And thanks to JFK and LBJ, and the pressure put upon them by MLK and the civil rights movement, we have Barack Obama.

Like I keep telling everyone, it's a long game. Do try to look ahead. See what's coming, and help bring it about.

Posted by: CMcC on August 18, 2009 at 6:11 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin Drum, like many other "sensible liberals" and indeed many "conservatives", has evidently been bamboozled into thinking that abortion and gay marriage and stem cells and other Ditto-Head fodder had anything to do with Cheney and Bush's "ambitions".

Cheney and Bush accomplished a massive, generational transfer of wealth and power to the wealthy and powerful. They looted the Treasury to enrich their cronies and they left the country firmly in the iron grip of a tiny, ultra-rich, increasingly hereditary corporate-feudalist oligarchy, with the rest of us to serve as ever-cheaper labor. That was their mission. They accomplished it. Their work will not be undone for generations, if ever.

If Obama is remotely as successful at accomplishing the mission that he has publicly espoused as Cheney and Bush were at accomplishing their mission, then he will be a hero for the ages.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on August 18, 2009 at 6:11 PM | PERMALINK

oh and I suppose Big Media mauling the progressive agenda and running interference for republican malfeasance has nothing to do with it, verses their carrying water for bush obfuscating his criminality and legitimizing wingnut insanity and violence. No difference at all there.

Posted by: pluege on August 18, 2009 at 6:15 PM | PERMALINK

It should be noted that those things Bush was successful at doing were aimed at his real constiuents, the ultra rich.

But Bush's greatest achievement was the destruction of a functioning government from the inside. The DOJ is politicized, the SEC and Fed looked the other way while Wall St imploded the economy, FEMA is inept, and the DOD is infiltrated with right wing fundamentalists and skinheads.

I agree with SecularAnimist, if Obama can have the same hit ration as Bush/Cheney, he will be extremely successful.

Posted by: Glen on August 18, 2009 at 6:24 PM | PERMALINK

Bush got most of what he wanted, even though his agenda was wildly unpopular.

He also never had 60 votes. I can't even imagine where we would be today if he had.

Posted by: buggy ding dong on August 18, 2009 at 6:39 PM | PERMALINK

What a crock. There is hardly equivalence here. The tax cuts were huge and hugely unjust. Two wars? Trillions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of lives, and still going. The Medicare prescription drug benefit: a load of crap but a giant $5 trillion program. The Robert and Alito Supreme Court chipping away at women's rights, plaintiffs' rights, worker's rights. Warrantless wiretaps on millions of American citizens. Widely expanded executive power. The list goes on. The right wing got an awful lot.

Posted by: bobbo on August 18, 2009 at 6:58 PM | PERMALINK

SecularAnimist is so right, I can't resist repeating it:

Cheney and Bush accomplished a massive, generational transfer of wealth and power to the wealthy and powerful. They looted the Treasury to enrich their cronies and they left the country firmly in the iron grip of a tiny, ultra-rich, increasingly hereditary corporate-feudalist oligarchy, with the rest of us to serve as ever-cheaper labor. That was their mission. They accomplished it. Their work will not be undone for generations, if ever.
That they managed to get anyone (other than their easily duped base) to focus on some "conservative wish list" shows how effective they were.

Posted by: Jeff W on August 18, 2009 at 7:01 PM | PERMALINK

Gays have had our constitutional rights of equal protection and due process with regard to employment, marriage, and family ripped away at the ballot box in at least 42 states since 1998. 82% of counties in America have no abortion providers. Just two months after christian terrorist Scott Roeder murdered Dr. George Tiller in his own church, federal marshalls have removed protection detail from Dr. Carhart, one of only two doctors left in the entire country who perform medically-necessary late-term abortions. Churches still don't pay taxes despite their involvement in politics, and members who donate to church PACs can write that off on April 15th right before they go their tea party with other angry white people.

From where I'm sitting it looks like the right got what they wanted and then some.

Posted by: Keori on August 18, 2009 at 7:44 PM | PERMALINK

In that last sentence, Steve seems to be implying that Obama had a "progressive agenda."

Really? Where is it? Because I haven't particularly seen anything progressive. I've seen some "rightish Dem" policies, the appointments of Summers and Geithner who are Republican-lites, some astonishing giveaways to the banks and big finance: none of that is what I'd call "progressive."

Posted by: Mo So on August 18, 2009 at 8:30 PM | PERMALINK

If the Democrats had 50% of GOP discipline and 50% of their balls, they will have health care reform and much more. But they are chicken fighting each other.

Posted by: Yoni on August 18, 2009 at 10:27 PM | PERMALINK
- public funded abortion

False.

- higher taxes and fees (for everyone)

False.

*- end or life “counseling” (now out of the bill in the Senate)

Actually, it isn't, not yet, although it likely will be, which would be a shame, since it's both popular and needed.

- loss of present coverage (eventually as parts of the House bill mandate that only “qualified“ plans will be allowed)

False.

- seniors getting the shaft (500 billion being cut from Medicare)

False.

- monstrous additions to the deficit

And, of course, false. You know, if you're going to lie, the least you could do is try to make the lies faintly plausible instead of mindlessly regurgitating obvious bullshit.

and calling anyone a lot of names like "evil" if they disagree with the left about the bill.

Nah, I'll settle for calling you ignorant.

Posted by: PaulB on August 18, 2009 at 11:13 PM | PERMALINK

The President needs to lead. Obama's timidity is the enemy, not the GOP. It took a while to get Lincoln to shed his romantic illusions about the lunatics of the South. There is no "there" there in compromise Mr. President. Get on with the work.

Posted by: Sparko on August 19, 2009 at 12:43 AM | PERMALINK
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