Fighting the last war

If the problem is that Congress waters down progressive legislation offered by the Administration, complaints about too much centrism within the Administration are rather beside the point.

Matt Yglesias points out a lag between reality and the political strategies favored by some self-styled “progressives”:

To accomplish the things I want to see accomplished, people who want change need to correctly identify the obstacles to change. If members of congress are replaced by less-liberal members in the midterms, then the prospects for changing the status quo will be diminished. By contrast, if members are replaced by more-liberal members (either via primaries or general elections) the prospects for changing the status will be improved. Back before the 2008 election, it would frequently happen that good bills passed congress and got vetoed by the president. Since Obama got elected, that doesn’t happen anymore. Now instead Obama proposes things that get watered down or killed in congress. That means focus needs to shift.

Steve Benen has more.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

15 thoughts on “Fighting the last war”

  1. I disagree. I think the chimera of "60 votes" has blinded the Democratic Senate leadership to the strategies that they could use to pass legislation despite a recalcitrant minority. We would have been better off if the last elections had resulted in a total of only 56 to 58 Democratic Senate seats, since this would have forced Reid to think outside the box (reconciliation, nuclear option, etc). As things stand, the Senate leadership is allowing the most unrepresentative members of the caucus control the agenda.

  2. And, as much as it sucks when you are sure you're right & think you've (finally!) got the upper hand, the heart of politics is compromise. If you ignore this fact, you end up like Ralph Nader – someone I admire, but also someone I blame for the outcome of the 2000 election.

  3. The joke is that the 'relax and enjoy it' people are basically promoting the politics of despair. After the GOP spent 8 years workin' hard to discredit themselves, ending up in a massive financial disaster, and record numbers of Democratic Senators, we're told that not that much is possible.

    As that point, don't expect people to bestir themeselves to help out Democratic politicians – there are movies to watch, and beer to drink, and any money donated is best banked for life's (and the GOP's) inevitable crises.

  4. Barry,

    I'm not sure that "not much is possible" is accurate. How about "you can't always get (exactly) what you want?"

    The latest New Yorker article by Atul Gawande about HCR was quite eye-opening for me. I've been mostly focused on the public option, and not really aware of the all the small pilot programs in the bill(s). As we say in software, all successful projects started as small projects…

  5. I'd also add that I'd like to see some of the 'realists' confront the heart of the liberal critism:

    1) Nobody forced Obama to make appointments which generally seemed to reward those who brought this crisis upon us: Summers, Giethner, Bernanke, a list of others named by Taibbi and a whole bunch more.

    2) Nobody forced Obama to botch healthcare reform by bringing a limp, uh, 'gun' to a gunfight with allegedly Democratic Senators. Get some g-d-d-mn reconciliation on the table, and have a counter. Mark, you know what BATNA means – right now, Obama's BATNA is 'how high, (insert name of 'centrist' Democratic Senator here), except in Lieberman's case, where it's far, far worse (trimmed to keep the post PG rated).

    3) Speaking of that, just WTF is Lieberman doing chairing any committees? The man campaigned for McCain, for g-d's sake. I'd have thought that that would have been the final straw, but I guess I'm wrong.

    4) Right now, with no discipline, Obama has the worst of both worlds – he can't get away with blaming an obstructionist GOP Senate, but that's what has has, for most purposes. I'm going to repeat my self again, because people aren't listening: as far as we can tell, Obama is being repeatedly punked by these Senators; every demand that they have satisfied will lead to another demand, until a bill pleasing to the GOP is the result. And that's if the GOP doesn't decide, after Obama has humiliated himself, to just squash that, too, to make sure that he looks extra weak for the mid-terms.

  6. A third thing – Yglesias: "By contrast, if members are replaced by more-liberal members (either via primaries or general elections) the prospects for changing the status will be improved. "

    Another argument for the abolition of Harvard. If we were able to even maintain current Democratic numbers in Congress in '10, that'd be a noteworthy feat, and would put real, trembling fear into the hearts and bowels of GOP leaders. As it is, the only question is how many do we lose. So Yglesias is basically saying hold on until '12, and hop that Obama has massive coat-tails – not only good enough to make up mid-term losses, but to go far beyond that. IOW, something which happens maybe once a century, and then under extraordinary circumstances.

  7. Barry,

    I 100% agree with you that "as far as we can tell, Obama is repeatedly being punked by these Senators."

    My comments about compromise, and Ralph Nader, are meta.

    But I don't know the whole story. I certainly don't think Rahm Emanuel is a shrinking violet.

  8. Finn says:


    I’m not sure that “not much is possible” is accurate. How about “you can’t always get (exactly) what you want?”"

    I haven't seen too many liberals who are talking about getting exactly what we want, but about getting substantial reforms. A New New Deal isn't on the table, but good healthcare reform and reining in Wall St should be.

    And if I saw Obama working hard to get them, I'd accept that. But I don't see that, as I've said, and as Taibbi has pointed out.

  9. Finn says:

    "But I don’t know the whole story. I certainly don’t think Rahm Emanuel is a shrinking violet."

    Finn, my sincerest hope is that in a year or so, people rub my bett-red face in these comments, and I can ruefully say that nobody beats Obama in the marathon; sprinters just delude themselves. It's like you're facing some really bad news, and you hope that you'll feel foolish later about feeling so bad now.


    1) So far, as far as we can see, the 'centrists' have spent several months (of Obama's critical first year) in a cycel of "demand concession, get concession, repeat". It seems to be that they were negotiating with Obama, and realized that Obama has no credible threat. And please note that Obama didn't repeat Clinton's mistakes – he kept the process in Congress, and brought in the insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Whom, you may recall, made deals with Obama earlier in the summer, and (again, as far as we can tell) broke those deals as Obama showed to have no credible retaliatory power.

    2) If I had $20 for every time some allegedly honest, tough political guy folded when right-wing/corporate intests wanted him to, I'd fly you and me to UCLA to have dinner with Mark – and I'd buy dinner in the best restaurant in LA. Odd, isn't it? It's almost like they were paid off.

  10. I thought Steve Benen had the better of Yglesias, in that he pinpointed the problem:

    "The two obvious explanations happen to be the right ones: 1) for the first time in American history, every Senate bill needs 60 votes, which makes ambitious/progressive policymaking all but impossible; and 2) there are a whole lot of center-right Democratic lawmakers . . ."

    These are both things for which Obama and the Democratic Leadership in Congress can be held accountable. Obama, not the Democratic Left, wanted Lieberman in the Senate and in the caucus. As far as the Democratic Left is concerned, Obama owns Lieberman and is completely responsible for his conduct. If Obama or Harry Reid does not want to answer for the consequences of their terrible political judgment in this matter, then they should eject Lieberman from the caucus, as rank-and-file Democrats ejected him from the Party.

    The filibuster is being used to give the Democratic centrists way too much power in the Democratic coalition. The liberals/progressives are being punked by this rule, and Benen is right, it is, in its present form, a novelty, introduced to make the centrists all powerful. The Constitution says 50 votes are necessary to pass legislation thru the Senate. Anything else is bull. All that is necessary to change the rule, is Biden ruling it unconstitutional on a point of order, supported by a simple majority of Senators present and voting.

    The Democrats could lose several centrists from their caucuses, and be a stronger and more coherent political force. There is no reason to suppose that forward movement requires actually winning more seats. Losing only the right seats might also serve. And, it may be that all that progressives can do is to withdraw their support in relatively conservative states. Let the centrists get elected without us, if they think they should govern without us.

  11. So much for the whole "entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts" thing. "Frequently"? George W. Bush vetoed a whole TWELVE BILLS during his entire two term administration! His very first veto didn't come until July of 2006. The guy literally set a record for the fewest vetoes of any modern President.

    Yup, he was an inhuman vetoing machine.

  12. Dumbfuck, for most of his administration Shrub was riding high on 9/11, with lots of public support, and a Democratic leadership scared of opposing him much.

  13. He was a 'moderate' Republican who relished signing bills that had passed with Democratic votes over the opposition of his own party, and who would sign obscenities like the BCRA even after vowing to veto them. The only thing that limited the damage was that you Democrats were so pissed off at his winning in 2000 that you bit his outstretched hand.

    And if he "frequently" vetoed Democratic bills, how do you describe Reagan's veto habits? Super-ultra-hyper-frequently vetoing Democratic bills? It's nonsense to describe GWB as "frequently" vetoing, when he set a freaking RECORD for not vetoing bills. Just admit that Yglesias is being an idiot, as is so frequent.

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