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June 27, 2011 10:05 AM Institutions matter

By Steve Benen

Late Friday night, New York became the sixth state to make same-sex marriage legal, and given the state’s large population, the number of Americans able to take advantage of marriage equality laws has effectively doubled.

Success on this proposal wasn’t easy, and a lot of people deserve credit for making this happen. But New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), just six months into his first term, invested a great deal of energy into making the law a reality. It’s not at all an exaggeration to say the measure would have failed were it not for Cuomo’s leadership.

This, in turn, is generating quite a bit of national praise for the rookie governor, and Nate Silver lauded Cuomo for “setting a lofty goal, refusing to take no for an answer and using every tool at his disposal to achieve it.” Nate added, however, this is “a brand of leadership that many Democrats I speak with feel is lacking in President Obama.”

In response, Matt Yglesias’ point about institutions rings true.

Suppose that the New York State Senate operated according to the rules of the United States Senate and a bill failed unless it secured a 60 percent supermajority. What would people be saying about Andrew Cuomo now? Well, it seems to me that many people would be castigating his failed leadership. Instead of Michael Barbaro’s account of his behind-the-scenes leadership reading like a virtuoso performance it would be reading like a story of a failed inside game. The meeting with high-dollar pro-equality Republican donors would seem not savvy, but naive and weak.

Conversely, if the US Senate operated on a 50 vote rule, then both the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank bill would have gone further in advancing progressive priorities, there would have been more economic stimulus in the 111th Congress, the DREAM Act would have passed, and it’s conceivable that some kind of nationwide carbon pricing scheme would be in place.

Which is just to say that political institutions matter, a lot. Getting concurrent majorities in two legislative houses, as Cuomo did, is very hard. Getting a 60 percent supermajority is harder.

This, obviously, is not to take away from Cuomo’s inspiring success on marriage equality. He’s receiving great accolades, and as far as I’m concerned, he deserves them.

But to argue that Cuomo has demonstrated great leadership and President Obama has not is a mistake. Cuomo worked with a state Senate where a handful of moderate Republicans still exist and won a simple majority. The president has no such luxury — GOP moderates are all but extinct in Washington and a Senate that was designed to function by majority rule no longer does.

Indeed, facing the kind of obstructionism that has never existed in American history, Obama still managed to pass a Recovery Act, health care reform, Wall Street reform, student loan reform, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, New START, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the biggest overhaul of our food-safety laws in 70 years, new regulation of the credit card industry, new regulation of the tobacco industry, a national service bill, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, most sweeping land-protection act in 15 years, health care for 9/11 rescue workers, and the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices.

In several of these cases, success was by no means assured, but President Obama, to borrow a phrase, “set lofty goals, refused to take no for an answer, and used every tool at his disposal to achieve them.” He obviously could have achieved more if the Senate operated, as it used to, by majority rule, but it’s not up to the White House to dictate how the legislative branch conducts its business.

Regardless, if Cuomo deserves credit for advancing a tough bill through a difficult terrain, Obama deserves at least as much credit for his 2009 and 2010 achievements.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • c u n d gulag on June 27, 2011 10:09 AM:

    Yes, Coumo did a nice job on gay marriage.

    But, outside of this, he's closer to a thinner Krispy Kreme Christie than to his Daddy.

  • Jimo on June 27, 2011 10:09 AM:

    Of course, that 60 vote rule continues to exist because Democrats comspire with Republicans to keep it in place. They do so because all Senators pursue the illusion of personal power. In reality, it's only negative power - the power to prevent. It's not real power - the power to create.

    Obama should be demanding reform of the rule (and other similar rules) that after all is 'anti' constitutional, that is, exists nowhere in the constitutional design of this nation's government.

  • GP on June 27, 2011 10:25 AM:

    Jimo,
    Agreed...Obama and the Dems should be calling the Republicans out every time they use the supermajority threshold; make them actually enact a filibuster, and go on the record for requiring a 60-vote majority instead of just accepting it as a reality. When voters see better the utter dysfunctionality at work, voters will blame the obstructionist party: Republicans. Obama and the Dems simply accede to Republican requirements without pointing a spotlight on their outrageous practices. If one accepts extortion and hostage-taking and ransom time after time after time, as Obama and the Dems do, why would the perpetrators want to change their ways? What's going to make them do it? Certainly not a sense of decency or regard for the commonweal.

  • anon on June 27, 2011 10:26 AM:

    The truth is there is a conservative majority in the US senate. Until that problem is overcome, we are screwed. It really is that simple.

  • stevio on June 27, 2011 10:32 AM:

    Obama's failure isn't his non-success in legislation that requires a 60 vote threshold which , on the best day, is ludicrous to think achievable. His more distressing failure is his inability, especially with his huge advantage of the bully pulpit, to make his case to America how GOP obstructionism is curtailing his ideation as a leader on these more progressive legislative efforts.

    Cuomo may not be as accomplished as his dad, but give him a chance. Obama doesn't have the same fire in his belly. He's more like Kerry who was flabbergasted that Bushit would attack his war record and use it against him. It completely paralyzed him.

    Democrats aren't very good at politics. Obama is no exception. he should be screaming obstructionism at every speech. He still may but if he relies on the "brain capacity" of this electorate for reasoned discourse, he's doomed.

  • kk on June 27, 2011 10:42 AM:

    Cuomo, a really a Republican light despite his father, did do a good job on this. I do have to give the GOP Senate credit, they good have used procedures to block it but chose not to. The reason I suspect is that they made the political decision not to become irrelevant in NY. They just took back the Senate and likely would have lost it they stopped it.
    Bigger news is the moronic 2% property tax cap the genius managed to push through. Welcome to Howard Jarvis's California. In NY our public schools are our pride and Andrew has done his best to kill them. Why pray tell would he hoist Senate rules, 41% blocking any increase, on us? We are all free to vote any budget we want down. Insanity and undemocratic. I hope it goes to the courts.

  • bigutah on June 27, 2011 10:42 AM:

    You left out the anonymous holds, and all the other perogatives that single senators keep that are also un democratic; in addition, state senate seats are typical proportional, aren't they? That is, with one man one vote, state seats at both house and senate levels are proportionally set up, so while gerrymandered, you do not have the absurdity of 40% of the body representing something like 20% of the state population, as we do with the US Senate.

    Agree to some extent with folks who wish BO was out front more, but I think there is a greater failing at lack of coordiation and strategy across the Dem party. I think the prez. should be able to take a higher road, but there should be some Dem attackers - for exa., what would the dynamic be if Howard Dean was Dem party Chair? I bet we'd hear a lot more, even through the MSM bias, than we do from ... umm ..., the guy who is chair .... There need to be several well spoke, relentless, non elected high profile dems pounding messages daily.

    And back to the Senate - the problem is further compounded by seats that need to be held to keep a majority - we have to keep Clair McCaskell, Jon Tester, Ben Nelson [gag], et., in seats to prever repups. from takeover... which means a tightrope walk. A simple majority would go some of the way, but with the 2 senator / state rule, we will always have a different dynamic.

  • Steve M. on June 27, 2011 10:44 AM:

    Indeed, facing the kind of obstructionism that has never existed in American history, Obama still managed to pass a Recovery Act, health care reform, Wall Street reform, student loan reform, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, New START, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the biggest overhaul of our food-safety laws in 70 years, new regulation of the credit card industry, new regulation of the tobacco industry, a national service bill, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, most sweeping land-protection act in 15 years, health care for 9/11 rescue workers, and the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices.

    That's a lovely list. Unfortunately, it isn't going to get any longer, even if Obama is president for another five years. He isn't going to be able to add even one additional major piece of legislation to it.

  • Jim Pharo on June 27, 2011 10:47 AM:

    Steve, this is a swing and a miss.

    Dems like me don't fault the President for failing to achieve legislative success like Cuomo has done. I fault him for not fighting for our values. Most swing-able voters get the impression from BHO that he is a technocrat bent on getting things done. They do not understand him as a champion of progressive values or working-man values, or any other kind of values.

    To me he reads like someone who is getting an A in the official duties of being President, taking that as the major part of the job. But the other part -- the leadership part -- may be of somewhat less importance, but it seems to be completely dismissed by the WH.

    There's a reason why people follow passionate champions. It's why we followed BHO on the campaign trail. But in office I see a BHO who thinks it's other people's job to lead, not his.

  • Ron Byers on June 27, 2011 10:47 AM:

    I am not sure Republicans understand just how much this issue is going to hurt them long term. The people who oppose gay marrage and are DADT deadenders are centered in the Fox News demographic. Younger people just don't care.

    By the way there is a new term circulating to describe the Republican crazies, some of the young people I have recently encountered are referring to them as "Fox News Republicans."

    As an aside, I spent the weekend at the Tough Mudder contest in BeaverCreek Resort near Vail Colorado. Thousands of young people (mostly 20s and 30s) ran a 10 mile obstacle course up and down a ski mountain for the Wounded Warrior Project. I didn't know young Americans were either that fit or that willing to take on physical challenges. It did my old heart good to see them overcome some interesting challenges instead of just sitting on their asses updating their facebook pages, playing with their iphones and drinking beer.

    On the way to and from Vail, I drove next to the Smoky Hills Wind Farm in Western Kansas and was reminded that despite what the politicians in DC think America really is embracing alternative energy.

  • Goldilocks on June 27, 2011 10:47 AM:

    Steve, you have used your pulpit with masterly erudition and marshaling of facts, which is your hallmark, to say what I have been struggling to put words together to express for ages. I am most grateful.

    Your pivotal observation is that it's not up to the White House to dictate how the legislative branch conducts its business. No - it's up to the legislative branch. That's the rub.

    How does the legislative branch restore its conduct to its originally intended functionality? That's the key issue. Since, to borrow a phrase, GOP moderates are all but extinct in Washington and a Senate that was designed to function by majority rule no longer does, there is no point in looking for a bipartisan solution. The only solution, therefore, must come from the electorate. Only with a Democratic super majority in the Senate can its normal functioning hope to be restored.

    A vain hope? Possibly not.

  • walt on June 27, 2011 10:53 AM:

    I'm tempted to grade Obama on Benen's curve when I talk to lefties - "remember who he's dealing with!", etc. The problem is that this nation is in a deep crisis. Obama is still the president and he still could command center stage if he were so inclined. He isn't. While a president with Obama's temperament would have been ideal in a more civil age, it's nearly insane when you're facing the dismantling of it the very social democracy that has kept us from becoming a third-world hellhole. Where is the fire? Where is the sense of the moment? Obama is lost in a post-partisan reverie that is wholly inappropriate for our current circumstances.

  • jpeckjr on June 27, 2011 10:55 AM:

    @Jim Pharo: I share your sentiments on the President's leadership. I appreciate his restraint and his non-reactive style, so different from his predecessor and from the Republican and Tea Party voices who are just so pissed off all the time. But I do wish Mr. Obama was no so prone to negotiate. That, I think, comes from his community organizing and legislative experience. As an executive, he has authority he is not using.

  • June on June 27, 2011 11:04 AM:

    Thank you, Benen! Amen, brother! Great list of the Obama priorities that were accomplished - you know, one difference I've noticed between Republican/teabaggers and Democrats/liberals/progressives -- the right will take spectacular failures on the part of "their" elected officials and make them into soaring victories (e.g., Bush-9/11); a significant portion of the left almost always predictably takes solid (and even sometimes genuinely spectacular) victories on the part of our elected officials and looks for every single reason it can find to tear them down and claim they're meaningless.

    BTW, it's so good to have a Cuomo again as gov here in NY. And credit where credit is due - thank you NY Republicans who bucked a tsunami of rabid, right-wing nonsense and did the right thing by voting for passage of the same-sex marriage bill.

  • Danny on June 27, 2011 11:33 AM:

    Steve, that's right on the money. We got a lot done in 09 and 10; unfortunately losing the midterms put a stop to progress for now. The only way to get progress going again is winning in 2012.

    Of course, the whining netroot commenters that make up the 10-15% or so of self identified dem liberals who don't approve of Obama (but makes up 75% of blog comments here) wont be satisfied. Thats to bad. They'll come around though, the ones who are worth having. In the meantime we'll make do with the silent majority.

  • Anonymous on June 27, 2011 11:57 AM:

    @Jim Pharo: You fault him for not fighting for "our values"?

    I understand the frustration that some may feel toward the president. I don't, however, understand the hyperbole and logical contortions that people make to recast his accomplishments as inconsequential or inconsistent with Progressive, "working man," or more importantly, American, values.

    For example, the notion that expanding healthcare to 32 million new people, making discrimination against people with preexisting conditions illegal, expanding coverage for the poor and underprivileged, among other benefits -- that those things are not consistent with Progressive values is baffling. Is the healthcare law a liberal dream? No. Is it significant forward progress, and a base to expand upon? For anyone willing to honestly entertain the question, the answer is unequivocally yes.

    Such is much of the progress attained on the (truncated) list Steve Bennen provided -- perhaps imperfect but a notable, and often significant, advancement nonetheless. The reality is that that's how progress is usually made in America. (Read up on the history of Social Security and Medicare -- two programs that are today championed as representing Progressive and working-man values.)

    This president is often hyperbolically faulted for not fighting "our values." Nothing could be further from reality. The utilization of the bully pulpit, which Obama has -- contrary to some misconceptions -- often used to champion fairness in America, is not the metric by which social progress should be measured. The metric should be the actions a president takes to actually bring about that social progress. In other words, actions speak louder than words. Which, coincidentally, may be why Obama often polls well when people are asked whether or not he shares their values. It seems that most Americans see what has been accomplished, perhaps understanding it will take time to realize the ideal (especially when dealing with immoderate opposition), and at least acknowledge that Obama is making significant, tangible strides toward making sure America does indeed reflect their values.

  • jrosen on June 27, 2011 12:05 PM:

    Of course BHO hasn't got everything that he wants, and of course he could have pushed harder. TS...he didn't. I think he is smart enough (and political enough) to know that until the crazies lose their clout (which means Fox News mainly) that the crises which pile up upon us will keep getting more serious, if they are not already past the point of no return and that some of thwem may not be beyond redemption if he doesn't demonize them 9as much fun as that is for us). I live in a liberal NE enclave and I don't know how middle-class, independent voters in places like Ohio and Central Florida might react if he were to channel his inner Truman and "give 'em hell, Barry!" He can see more hidden cards than I can. Or you can.

    It's also possible that our Constitutional setup is no longer viable, but the machinery for altering it is so cumbersome and creaky that he, as an expert in that machinery, sees that little can be done but tweak the edges and keep the ship afloat a while longer. Personally, I think that's the best anyone can do and I'm glad that we have him, considering all the alternatives.

    Speaking of which, when are the carpers on the left who held their collective breath and stayed home on Election Day going to acknowledge that they helped the wingnuts capture the House? I fear that will be when the Nader nutcases own up to giving us and the world GWB for 8 years. In other words, never.

    I expect to get slapped around for saying these things but I don't care any more; I've been around long enough to see 12 presidents come and go (and began my involvement in politics stuffing envelopes for Henry Wallce in 1948, when I was 8) and BHO is one of the better ones, IMO (which is not at all humble).

    Finally, and it is a minor point, the zealots who want to abolish the filibuster might not be old enough to recall when the good guys were the minority, and could use the filibuster to protect some of our dearest values. That, and not a lust for personal power (which is not absent either, of course) is a strong reason for keeping it. Just because an organ can be abused by over-use it doesn't follow that one should cut it off.

  • Alli on June 27, 2011 12:12 PM:

    I would also like to point out that Cuomo COMPROMISED. See that section of the bill where it says church's are protected from lawsuits if they don't want to marry any gay couples? See that? COMPROMISE? Cuomo didn't just say give me gay marriage. He had a strategy, involved some big money people, and COMPROMISED.

  • jdb on June 27, 2011 12:37 PM:

    Silver's column was an embarrassment. He is a great statistician, seems to have some incredibly sophisticated methodology for predicting elections and baseball games, but, in that column (and in subsequent tweets), he demonstrated that he is out of his league when talking about Presidential leadership. I understand why he might be trying to expand his 'expertise' into the sexier world of political analysis - but he should stick to what he knows.

  • Cas on June 27, 2011 12:39 PM:

    "In several of these cases, success was by no means assured, but President Obama, to borrow a phrase, �set lofty goals, refused to take no for an answer, and used every tool at his disposal to achieve them.�"

    My tea almost came out my nose when I read that piece of "lofty" writing. If you are referring to Health Care, then I beg to differ. As I remember it, BO basically gave away his chips at the start, was willing to settle for a crappy bill, and only managed to get something even half-way palatable, because Speaker Pelosi had the drive to get what BO couldn't. True, BO is not responsible for getting something out of Congress, but he had a responsibility to "lead." He "led," eventually, but only after Pelosi put it on the line...

  • Doctor Biobrain on June 27, 2011 12:58 PM:

    There's this magical belief among many on that left that if Obama were to push for liberal policies in his speeches while blaming Republicans for our problems that we'd win and could get more of what we want. And since we're not getting what we want, it's assumed Obama's not doing enough to push for them. But the reality is that there's nothing much more Obama can do. He gives liberal speeches every day, yet these people refuse to believe it, because they assume that speeches are all we need.

    Every day, Obama uses the Bully Pulpit to push liberal policies using liberal rhetoric, and it's so futile that even liberals never hear about it. And if you want to criticize Obama for what he's saying, you should bother reading what he's saying. And I mean the WHOLE speech, not the excerpts other people are feeding you. You'd be amazed at what a liberal president we have.

    But alas, liberal speeches are simply not enough.

  • Walsh44 on June 27, 2011 1:06 PM:

    Also note that in New York State, senate seats are apportioned by population. In the US Senate, Alaska (population 710K) has the same number of voting senators as does California (population 37.2M). Further, the equal representation of states in the Senate is the one current provision of the US Constitution that cannot be changed by amendment (Article V). The result in 21st America is a legislative body in which a small minority of the population can wield a majority of the votes.

  • Doctor Biobrain on June 27, 2011 1:09 PM:

    "As I remember it, BO basically gave away his chips at the start, was willing to settle for a crappy bill, and only managed to get something even half-way palatable, because Speaker Pelosi had the drive to get what BO couldn't."

    Well then, you remember it wrong. All the "chips" you think he gave away were demands from conservative Democrats in Congress and they were never his to give away. He didn't set the perimeters for debate, Congress did; and we couldn't possibly get anything through Congress without them. But the law we got was still quite good, as we got healthcare for millions, ended recession, got rid of the pre-existing condition issue, and limited profit margins. Those were all key issues before the law passed, and those have now been fixed.


    We effectively neutered the health insurance industry, and the main thing we lost was a Public Option that most people wouldn't have qualified for. That's the weirdest thing about it, in that the Public Option was NEVER going to be the catch-all savior many on the left imagine it was going to be. If you read back to what the Public Option was going to be, you'd realize that we didn't really lose much, as most folks would still have been covered under their employer's insurance plans. It was never meant to replace private insurance.

    Anyone who is still angry that we didn't get a Public Option never understood what it was supposed to be in the first place. If they did, they'd realize we didn't lose much. Yes, it would have been nice, but it was only a small piece of the prize; not the whole thing.

  • rrk1 on June 27, 2011 1:15 PM:

    Cuomo (Andrew) is a very bright man. I've had the opportunity to speak with him directly, and his intelligence comes through immediately. Obama is a bright man as well, and an eloquent speaker. The difference between them is that Cuomo is a take-no-prisoners kind of guy. He was his father's enforcer, even though Mario really didn't need one as governor. When Cuomo commits to an issue, as he did on same-sex marriage, he intends to get it done pretty much the way he wants, and not let others define the issue first and then jump in at the eleventh hour. That's what Obama has done repeatedly, and why much of the federal legislation that has passed is weaker than it had to be.Obama doesn't put himself on the line like Cuomo does.

    As for Obama's liberal speeches: The old saying is never mind what I say, it's what I do that counts. Amen.

  • Danny on June 27, 2011 1:26 PM:

    @rrk1 (the token tru librul)

    So what's your opinion on the rest of Cuomo's accomplishments so far? You think he set his mind at slashing NY spending as well and made it happen in his take-no-prisoners, enforcer way? That proves he's really a DINO then doesn't it? Or maybe you just don't care about stuff that won't provide opportunities to unload on the Prez?

  • taritac on June 27, 2011 3:17 PM:

    Cuomo needed only 51 votes, but Obama had close to 60 for his first 2 years. What's the difference in working hard to get from 49 to 51 and getting from 58 to 60? Nothing. Obama is much more interested in finding the perfect "middle" than pushing the Democratic agenda.

  • yellowdog on June 27, 2011 9:18 PM:

    President Obama is doing a very good job under the most difficult of circumstances. Whenever I feel a slight ache of disappointment that he did not go a bit further on one issue or another, I look at the line-up of charlatans and dimwits he has to go through to get anything accomplished. Their one goal, their unifying goal, is to destroy Obama and take back the reins. That much is clear. They have said so from the first days of his presidency. They lie, they obstruct, they mislead. Their clocks all run backwards. It now takes only 40 of these characters to stand in his way. If you have any doubt about the qualities of deception and moral decay these people represent, just look at John Kyl and his performance negotiating with Obama on the Start Treaty. Kyl would have let a valuable nuclear treaty with Russia go unapproved just because it had Obama's name on it. And he would do it in a time of war, when we are trying to keep loose nukes out of places like Pakistan. All credit to Obama for getting the treaty approved without Kyl. Thank you, Mr. President.

  • Doug on June 27, 2011 9:37 PM:

    "What's the difference in working hard to get from 49 to 51 and getting from 58 to 60?" taritac @ 3:17 PM

    9. And in politics, the amount of effort required for each additional vote increases geometrically.
    Especially when, unlike in the NY State Senate, there were NO "moderate" Republicans to be wooed/cajoled/convinced in the US Senate thus increasing even more the "value" that could be placed on the vote of any recalcitrant Senator's.
    It seems to me that what President Obama is "much more interested in", is getting legislation passed that improves the lives of the people of this country. I'm not going to argue that the legislation passed was perfect and solved all the problems addressed by each Bill because that's just not going to happen. Ever.
    The first Civil Rights legislation was in the 1860s, the next wasn't for another century and is STILL being added to and amended. Social Security was incomplete when first passed. The list is endless and why people such as you continue to take such a simplistic view of extremely complicated actions never fails to amaze me.
    AFAIKT, the meme is: since the legislation that WAS passed didn't meet all your criteria, the only possible explanation is that the PRESIDENT either didn't want the legislation in the first place or else was so afraid of angering Republicans and recalcitrant Democrats that he backed off.
    Because everyone knows, whatever the President wants, the President gets...

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