Political Animal


June 05, 2012 2:59 PM Political Analysis of the Day

By Ryan Cooper

I hope readers aren’t annoyed by my relative lack of blogging on the ups-and-downs of the campaign. Ever since 2008 I have found it increasingly hard to pay close attention to the political minutiae of gaffes, attacks, counterattacks, and polls, partly because I think it’s dramatically over-covered, partly just general preference, and partly because a large fraction of the people who are paid for that kind of coverage are lousy at it.

However, there is a space for quality political analysis, especially for those can capture the grand sweep of things in an interesting way. One of Josh Marshall’s readers has a very good sample of that today, making the point that if Republicans seem to be winning now, Democrats are actively losing just as much:

You know enough political history to recall that Roosevelt generation of Democrats hung the name of Herbert Hoover around the necks of their political opponents for a generation after 1932. Reagan-era Republicans did the same, for a shorter period of time and less dramatically, with the name of Jimmy Carter after 1980. It’s not the Republicans’ fault — or the product of any Republican “strategy” — that the President who was more unpopular for longer than any President since the invention of modern opinion polling was allowed to vanish without a trace by January 22, 2009.
George W. Bush’s invisibility, and the profoundly Bush-like Mitt Romney’s lack of any public identity as a “Bush Republican,” were the product of Democratic choices. So was the inadequate stimulus package at the beginning of 2009 that ensured a crushing recession that began under a Republican administration would not draw an effective government response under a Democratic administration. So was the disappearance from memory of the politicized, demoralized Justice Department of Alberto Gonzales, and the inept, crony-laden FEMA leadership that had let New Orleans drown.

The ill repute George W. Bush had earned for the Republicans was what made Barack Obama President: not his “story,” not the “hope and change” schtick, not that community organizer business, and not his army of self-consciously self-admiring campaign consultants. That’s the political asset Obama and the Democrats cast away, by choice, right from the beginning.

Though the political efficacy of this kind of messaging is unclear, it is still astonishing that the Democrats have allowed George W. Bush to be erased from the national discourse. I really hope they’re got something planned to address this.

Substantively, the response I would expect is that the Democrats did all they could. They only had 60 votes in the Senate for a short time, and Republicans filibustered and dragged down everything they could.

But this just speaks to the Democrats’ larger lack of vision and commitment. Anyone with a lick of sense could have seen the consequence of failing to go huge on stimulus—namely, discrediting the whole idea, and getting crushed in 2010 for failing to fix the economy. Furthermore anyone who had been awake for the last generation would have known that Republicans weren’t going to compromise, they were going to obstruct.

In Master of the Senate, Robert Caro talks about how Lyndon Johnson, through a lot of deft maneuvers and force of personality, upended the rules of the Senate to give more power to the party leadership (i.e., himself), which allowed the Senate to work for the first time basically in a century. If the Democrats in 2009 had any guts, they would have realized the implication of their situation and taken that lesson to heart. Right at the start of the congressional session they could have killed the filibuster, streamlined the Senate rules, especially removing a lot of the horrible anonymous “holds” and so forth, and then rammed through their agenda on a party-line vote, especially including a stimulus appropriate to the situation.

The Republicans would have howled bloody murder, and the DC press would have taken to the fainting couches, but by November 2010 no voter would have remembered and the Democrats would still be in power. That’s the key point out there, for future political movements. Policy has real consequences, and the way to win (during a recession, at least) is to actually fix things and make government work for people. If your stimulus is limited by having to get Olympia Snowe’s approval, then you write her out of the equation.

Ryan Cooper is the Monthly handyman. Follow him on Twitter @RyanLouisCooper.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • millekat on June 05, 2012 4:13 PM:

    "Substantively, the response I would expect is that the Democrats did all they could."

    It seems like this campaign is gonna boil down to: The Dog Ate My Homework.

    It's not much of a winner, considering no one seems to have any plans for curbing the dog.

  • RP on June 05, 2012 4:24 PM:

    Not this stupid c**p again.

  • Roddy McCorley on June 05, 2012 4:28 PM:

    And this is why I blame both parties for the mess we're in. No, that's not to say both parties are equally bad - clearly one is grotesquely worse than the other. But the fact that our Democratic politicians are unwilling to point out the painfully obvious fact that the GOP has degenerated into an aggregation of vandals puts a nice chunk of blame squarely on their quivering shoulders.

    The Democrats play Larry Fine to the GOP's Moe Howard.

  • DAvidNOE on June 05, 2012 4:28 PM:

    You do have to remember that those 60 votes in the Democratic caucus included Lieberman, Ben Nelson, Landrieu, Lincoln, Baucus, and 3-4 others who were by no means on board with the whole Obama program; remember, they didn't get a vote from ANY Republican for any stimulus at all. The R's wanted a 5-yer spending freeze.

  • dontcallmefrancis on June 05, 2012 4:33 PM:

    if the repubs gain the Senate watch how fast the filibuster rules get changed.

  • JackD on June 05, 2012 4:36 PM:

    I don't suppose the term, "blue dog" or the names, Lieberman, Baucus and others of their ilk mean anything to your "analysis". The Democrats did not have a supermajority in the senate. It was a Republican/blue dog majority, and they didn't like the things you think are obvious. LBJ could not have changed that. Obama did well to get done what he did. Where he blew it, in my opinion, was in failing to rally the troops for the 2010 midterm with a progressive pitch. Of course the progressives whining and dropping out didn't help. I'm not sure they would have allowed themselves to be rallied.

  • JMG on June 05, 2012 4:38 PM:

    Your argument is based on the unproven assumption that Senate Democrats WANTED to enact appropriate policies. Remember mortgage principal cram-down? That, at the very start of Obama's administration, didn't get 50 votes from a 59-41 Democratic Senate.
    The filibuster serves a majority looking for an excuse just as well as it does the minority.

  • FlipYrWhig on June 05, 2012 4:42 PM:

    The flaw in this analysis is that there's no such thing as The Democrats, a unified force that sees things in similar terms and acts to advance common goals. Many, many Democrats don't want dramatic action on the economy, don't want to spend borrowed money, don't want to create new entitlements, don't want to subordinate themselves to a president not well-regarded in their state, etc. You can't just wave that away with a statement about how they shoulda changed the rules and coulda taken Snowe "out of the equation."

    Yes, they _could_. And they could have closed Guantanamo, and they could have had two votes on the Bush tax cuts, and they could have signed onto the public option. They didn't. Because THEY DON'T BELIEVE IN THOSE THINGS. There aren't 60 votes for liberalism and grand, epoch shifting change; there aren't 50, either, and probably not 40.

    And when it comes to the filibuster, one of the people most adamant about keeping that power was Russ Feingold, because of his views on the Constitution and the separation of powers, which he cared about more than winning a skirmish on a piece of legislation or backing a president's agenda.

    I don't know why the liberal blogosphere has this romance for the idea that Congress is easy to circumvent if you just utter the magic words and, since Obama didn't do it, he must not have tried hard enough. Instead it seems to me that the moral of the story is that a determined minority has always been able to bring Congress to a grinding halt, only no one ever dared to do it before, and by laying blame at Obama's feet we conspire in letting the Republicans (and the conservative Democrats) get away with it.

    Also, it seems to me that if everything had happened according to this plan, Democrats would have gotten a bit more of what they wanted -- but then the big meta-complaint for 2010 would be that the Democrats promised to work together and instead were brutally partisan, which the media would have loved, which would have fueled largely the same losses in 2010, plus Obama's personal favorability would be trashed as he gained the reputation for scorched-earth tactics. And then all the Deep Think pieces like this one would be about how lamentable it is that Obama could have been a unifying figure but turned out to be the Democratic version of George W. Bush.

  • Steve on June 05, 2012 4:47 PM:

    Josh's commentor actually doesn't make a lot of sense. He argues that the Democrats have dropped the ball on reminding people of Bush's failed policies and on labeling Romney as a Bush Republican. He argues that Democrats have allowed people to forget that Bush politicized the DOJ and gutted FEMA, and so on. You could make a case for any of these points.

    But then he goes on to argue that Obama has essentially continued Bush's "permanent campaign" by virtue of associating with Axelrod, Plouffe, et al., and not only do I disagree with that, I don't see how you can square that with the other point. If Obama has really been in "permanent campaign" mode since 2009, wouldn't we have heard a lot more about how everything is Bush's fault, and so forth? I think many supporters of the President would take the view that he has not been political enough until very recently, and that he has fallen into the trap of sitting back and attempting to let good governance speak for itself while the other side focuses all its efforts on demonizing you. Seems to me that if the White House's sole focus had been on achieving a second term, a lot of things would have been done differently.

  • FlipYrWhig on June 05, 2012 4:52 PM:

    Among the 60 nominal Democrats, once Franken was seated and before Kennedy died, were Lieberman, Lincoln, Landrieu, Pryor, Carper, Webb, Warner, Baucus, Bayh, Begich, Johnson, Nelson, Nelson, Conrad, and of course Specter. Even McCaskill and Feinstein aren't exactly stalwart progressives, nor Casey and Tester, nor even, really, Reid. And then there's the case of Feingold, who has committed views on the separation of powers. Where was this support for structural change within the Senate supposed to come from, let alone the support for bigger and more progressive solutions on policy? There are a lot of non-progressives in the Democratic fold. It's a hugely consequential factor in how we got to where we are, and, frankly, it borders on miraculous that we've gotten as _much_ done in the Obama years as we witnessed.

  • T2 on June 05, 2012 4:52 PM:

    the above posters are correct. The Democratic Party has a variety of minds on things.giving us creeps like LIEberman and Nelson who consistently vote against Dem bills and Obama's plans. There is nothing like that on the Republican side...they are lockstep, including jerks like Collins and Brown who vote for Liberal things only when their vote doesn't make it or break it. When the chips are down, the GOP is solid, but the Dems are not......that's just the way it is. With all the problems it brings, I'd rather be diverse than a robot.

  • FlipYrWhig on June 05, 2012 4:54 PM:

    Isn't the whole point of choosing the campaign slogan "Forward" to suggest that Romney is a step backwards... to Bush?

  • IDTT on June 05, 2012 4:55 PM:

    @DAvidNOE, not just the centrist, their might have been one vote where all 58 Democrats and the 2 Indy's voted on a bill. The rest of the time, Sen Kennedy and Sen Bird's health issues forced them to miss votes and Al Frankin not being seated until late July (due to Tim Pawlenty enable stalling the certification of the election results) kept him from voting. Until Frankin was seated, the Dems were starting out with 57 votes and that's before Sen Leiberman or the rest of the conservaDems began tanking the legislation (from the Progressive POV). It's strange how no one in the media on the left, right or center ever offers this context about the 60 vote majority that was never there. It's easier to push the CW that the Dems squandered the opportunity rather than do actual reporting and offer contextual truth.

  • FlipYrWhig on June 05, 2012 4:59 PM:

    Even more simply, and even outside the whole ideological divide, isn't it always going to be a hard sell to tell a group of Senators, "Hey, you know what would help fix politics in this country? If you guys would give up some of your unique perks and prerogatives. If you could do that, it'd be swell, thanks."

  • Marvin on June 05, 2012 5:01 PM:

    It's June. Yesterday it was Bain Capital; today it's Romney's record in Mass.; tomorrow and the day after can be Romney=the second coming of Dubya.

    Relax. There's plenty of time for our side to say all the mean things we want them to say. We shouldn't panic because of tight polls and a bad jobs report. In fact, we can stop giving them "good advice" altogether and start registering voters!

  • Ryan Cooper on June 05, 2012 5:16 PM:

    I agree with folks that point out problems with actually carrying out these plans, the Lieberman caucus that didn't actually want to fix things, etc., but my point is that those people killed the Dem's electoral prospects, and whoever is next in line for the Democratic leadership (broadly speaking) should remember that and not let them.

    There's nothing in the Constitution about the filibuster or any of those rules. If you had the VP and a bold coalition of 51 Senators, you could rewrite the rule book however you like, then pass your agenda, centrists be buggered. If Romney wins, I would be very surprised if the Republicans don't do exactly that.

  • Gandalf on June 05, 2012 5:32 PM:

    Man this blog has the lamest ass replacements for the regulars. Where do these brilliant minds with their masterfull insight of the issues come from?

  • David on June 05, 2012 5:38 PM:

    Yes, the Blue Dog-Republican block in the Senate, in combination with massive propaganda from the right wing media,reduced the effectiveness of the President's initiatives before the 2010 elections. Notwithstanding that, a lod did get done but not enough to sustain a robust recovery. Perhaps the notion of a robust recovery is oversold given the seveity of the downturn and the nature of the financial and ral estate implosion that began as early as 2005.

    This brings us to the fact that at least since late last summer the President has on numerous occasions in speeches and other events attempted to look back to the Bush and earlier administrations to explain both the what he faced when he took office and to help folks understand the complexity of righting the ship. A major reason why we fail to recognize this is because the major media seem to have the notion that the world began in January 2009. This is reinforced too often by major pundits who seem to think that yesterday didn't happen andtomorrow is too far in the future to worry about -- except when they worry about the deficit.

    So, in my mind, there are lots of places to look when assessing blame on the President for lack of in attempting to identify the origins of our current economic problems and the likely future under a Rhomney presidency based on past performance at Bain and as Governor of Mass.

    Don't get me wrong, President Obama and his advisers did make some political mistakes, but, there were efforts to take the long view both backward and forward.

    If the tree falls and no one is there to hear it (the big media) does it make a noise?

  • gus on June 05, 2012 5:40 PM:

    I’m not sure it if could happen but it seems like it would be to Obama’s benefit to explain how the 60 vote hurdle is not the way the Senate is supposed to work for most bills.

    Sure, Republicans will try to say it exists as some sort of benefit to prevent “Tyrranny” or some such BS, but, no one else is explaining that it is a BS threshold.

    The guy should use that Bully Pulpit for something. It is the only way people are going to learn that it is not normal, or traditional.

    The Republicans, with the seemingly full compliance of the political media, seem to have redefined the notion of Majority just as they did with the notion of a Mandate (Obama sort of had one of those when he won handily in 2008...not that you’d know in in 2009 by the GOP or the media).

  • Rabbler on June 05, 2012 5:44 PM:

    'Right at the start of the congressional session they could have killed the filibuster, streamlined the Senate rules, especially removing a lot of the horrible anonymous “holds” and so forth, and then rammed through their agenda on a party-line vote, especially including a stimulus appropriate to the situation.'

    Great stuff Ryan. Been so long since I've heard that argument that I was beginning to wonder if it was true. Also, risking a constitutional crisis necessary to save that patient, the Democrats could have invoked the clause of the constitution severely restricting SCOTUS' control of the election process and really reformed the process, taking the money out of the picture to a great extent.

    Remember the wackos showing up at rallies toting guns? The message was received. If we aren't willing to stand up to the thugs, by the time the promised demographic cure gets here, it won't matter a bit. The enemies of America are working hard to make permanent a disenfranchisement that no amount of supposed registration will be able to overcome. We will be like the freedom fighters in Tiananmen, without sufficient backing from the forces we have payed to raise. Who will stand with those who won't stand for themselves?

  • FlipYrWhig on June 05, 2012 6:31 PM:

    @Ryan, the thing is, there isn't a "bold coalition" of 51 Democrats, even when there were 60 Democrats. So, sure, _if_ they had wanted to do it, "they" could have done it. But there's no "they." If we're just inventing hypothetical majorities, hey, great, there's no stopping hypothetical progress! But the much more important thing to acknowledge is that there always have been enough worrywarts and naysayers _within_ the Democratic caucus to make this crusade quixotic. And the Democratic leadership gets to _be_ the leadership because of its ability to navigate these ideological divides. A more ruthless, no-holds-barred leadership wouldn't stay the leadership for long.

  • Rachel on June 05, 2012 6:36 PM:

    It's called LEADERSHIP. The Democrats have none.

  • buddy66 on June 05, 2012 6:51 PM:

    Gandalf, go crawl back in your hobbit hole.

    You're doing fine, Ryan.

  • emjayay on June 05, 2012 6:58 PM:

    OK, there were those blue dog Demos. But, as has been gone over here and elsewhere a billion times, Obama wanted to be the post partisan conflict resolution reasonable guy despite all the R's saying their number one priority was getting rid of him ASAP. No blaming Wall Street guys. No blaming Bush admin for anything, at least not clearly. Just look to the future.

    I don't know if any legal charges could be brought against Wall Streeters, but I bet if they tried they could come up with something and it could clarify those issues. Maybe some law prof has written about this? But would it killed O to call it the Bush/Reagan Deficit or the Bush Crash or the Bush Recession? Where's our propaganda wordsmith?

    As far as those Blue Dog jerks go - WWLBJD? (What would LBJ do?)

  • Doug on June 05, 2012 7:33 PM:

    "As far as those Blue Dog jerks go - WWLBJD? (What would LBJ do?) emjayjay @ 6:58 PM

    He would have called in a few favors from Republicans he'd worked with - an option NOT open to President Obama.
    Without the agreement of several Republicans, there was no way for the stimulus to even reach the floor for a vote; ergo, the amount of stimulus was limited by what those Republicans would support. The same applies to the House EXCEPT that those providing the needed votes were Blue Dogs and not Republicans.
    I have no idea what President Obama's real desires concerning the size of the stimulus were; I DO know of a lot of self-serving claptrap that has been tossed out by sundry persons determined NOT to be blamed for its' subsequent "failure". I also know that the data being used by the Executive branch in determining the size of the stimulus was off by at least 50%, probably more. Which means that the stimulus, as passed, was very close to meeting the crisis BASED ON THE INFORMATION AVAILABLE! That information was ALSO available to those whose support the President needed. Which possibly, just might, maybe explain WHY the stimulus was the size it was and not any larger?
    While I also participate in political versions of "Monday-morning QB-ing", I've never had any attraction for fantasy gaming...

  • FlipYrWhig on June 05, 2012 7:58 PM:

    What LBJ would have done is... Cut a deal with the Blue Dogs, because they would have been moderate Republicans in his time.

  • PTate in MN on June 05, 2012 8:07 PM:

    I'm one of those progressive who started moaning about Obama in December 2008, when he announced his economic team and that Rahm Emmanuel was going to be chief of staff.

    But he is looking fine to me right now, and I'll be working for his reelection this summer and fall. The conservative movement lined up all their guns on him, and they've been firing at him 24/7 from the hour he became president, and yet he stands.

    He has made two major mistakes, one that I forgive and one that I may never understand. The first was believing that Republicans wanted to accomplish what was best for the country and that they would respect the will of the majority. Ha!! It was naive, yes, but I'm not going to fault someone for being generous and broad-minded.

    The second mistake--which may cost him the WH and us our democracy and economy--is why he pivoted to the Republican frame of deficit reduction over jobs creation. Was he threatened somehow? Why are the Dems not putting the Republican obstructionism on show daily, forcing them to vote down one jobs bill after another. All we need is 51% of the voting electorate (or 55% to compensate for voter suppression activities) to get that the Republicans are not a political party anymore, but a terrorist organization dedicated to weakening the USA.

  • square1 on June 05, 2012 10:12 PM:

    Obama IS a centrist Democrat. For some reason, some people just can't accept that. They have an insatiable need to project their own views upon Obama and concoct elaborate explanations for his actions. For example, the reason that Obama chose Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles to head his deficit-reduction commission couldn't possibly be that Obama largely agrees with their fiscal views.

    And the reason that Democrats kept the filibuster couldn't possibly be, in significant part, because the President (and former Senator) wanted to keep it.

    No matter how many times the President stakes out a position or rhetorically defends Centrist policies, we are implored to believe that, really and truly, the President is a liberal.

  • FlipYrWhig on June 06, 2012 1:33 AM:

    The president sets the rules for the filibuster now? If that were so, wouldn't he be able to use his Jedi mind powers to get his own party's senators to close Guantanamo?

  • square1 on June 06, 2012 7:06 AM:

    FlipYrWhig: while the filibuster was used on several occasions to ostensibly block liberal policies, it is hard to think of any major piece of legislation that the President supported that was ultimately blocked by the filibuster. This why many liberals believe that the filibuster was a useful excuse for party leaders -- including Obama -- who never wanted more liberal legislation in the first place. The filibuster allows Democrats to pay lip service to voters while delivering for corporate donors.

    Can the President unilaterally abolish the filibuster? Obviously not . But there are three thing he could have done:

    1. Called on the Senate to abolish the filibuster. Obama didn't.

    2. Made it well known that it was unacceptable for Democrats to filibuster major party bills. That Senators could vote against whatever they wanted, but they couldn't block votes. And that Democrats who violated this rule would face severe repercussions. Obama never made such a warning.

    3. On a case by case basis, gone to individual Senators and attempted to persuade them to change their position. For example, when Kucinich threatened to vote against ACA because the bill was too conservative, Obama took Kucinich up in AF1 and leaned on him. But when Lieberman said that he was going to block both the public option and Medicare buy in, Obama never even asked him to reconsider. In fact, I can't think of a single example of Obama lifting a finger to move a recalcitrant Blue Dog on any threatened filibuster.

    It grows tiresome hearing Obama's defenders pretend that liberal critics are expecting the President to wave a magic wand or act beyond his Constitutional authority. Everybody knows that the President cannot unilaterally change Senate rules. However, the President has time-tested, real-world tools that he could have employed to pressure his own party members to fall in line. That he has repeatedly failed to use these tools when it comes to Joe Lieberman or the ConservaDems tells me that Obama isnt all that disappointed in their behavior.

    It would be nice if we could discuss this issue honestly. Right or wrong, Obama is a Centrist and sometimes disagrees with his liberal base. He is not a weak and powerless liberal advocate, simply unable to overcome the obstructionism of the various Blue Dogs.

  • FlipYrWhig on June 06, 2012 12:41 PM:

    I don't know what the "repercussions" and "tools" are that you can use to coerce the at least 15 Democratic Senators who aren't remotely liberal to vote for liberal policies, repeatedly, while never giving up anything in return. Senators like leverage, and they use it. Democrats in the Senate _enjoy_ being irritants to Democratic presidents.

    There's no need to speculate about feints and fake-outs and silent agreements to do nothing. It's simple. If you are Ben Nelson, why should you do what Obama wants if you don't agree with it and don't think your constituents want it? If he tries to threaten you, why wouldn't you tell him to take a hike and see if he can get a better deal from the next Democrat who can get himself elected in Nebraska? Substitute for "Nelson" any red-state Democrat in the Senate, of which there are many.

    We've talked about this before. IMHO threats to crack down on Democrats who don't get with the program would always be hollow. Lose their vote on Issue X and maybe you lose it on Issues Y and Z, and then you have nothing. (See, for instance, Lieberman on DADT repeal.)

    Liberals, honestly, are easier to pressure -- because in their hearts they want to make progress. "Moderates" barely care about anyone but themselves. That's why "moderates" go rogue so easily.