Thursday, January 21, 2010
Obviously these Democrats can't, but Ezra Klein, who does write well, frames the question nicely:
Democrats spent most of 2009 with 60 votes in the Senate and about 256 in the House. They had a popular new president who was following a disastrous Republican administration and a financial crisis. The opposition party was polling somewhere between foot fungus and spoiled meat. You don't get opportunities like this very often. The Senate majority, in fact, was larger than either party had enjoyed since the 1970s. And what have Democrats accomplished?
Well, not much. You can see a list here. A stimulus that was too small. Ted Kennedy's Serve America Act. Credit card regulations that were largely an acceleration of rules the Federal Reserve was going to impose anyway. I guess they almost passed a compromised health-care bill, but you don't go down in history for almosts.
True. But the reason is not just perseverance or lack thereof (as Ezra suggests later in the post). Health care "reform," especially left to the Congress, was a giant bet, but not just in the obvious political sense that it might turn out to be very unpopular. It was also a huge commitment of resources. Legislative resources. You cannot do everything, so if you choose to invite 535 people to debate the restructuring of 17% of GDP in the middle of an economic crisis, you ought to expect that the effort will suck up just about all the leadership's bandwidth. Successful or not, the choice was always going to be between health care "reform" and a long list of other worthy projects. Like a corporate executive team that distracts itself with a massive acquisition, the Democratic leadership just was not able to do much else once it committed itself to Barack Obama's highest priority.
Of course, there being so few experienced executives in the Democratic Party, they were unlikely to worry that managerial resources might be their most pressing limitation.
Speaking as a Democrat I am frequently frustrated by the party's organization like a herd of cats set on fire, but there is another take here. If I am a Democratic president to the left of my Congress, the surest way to paralyze them (and prevent the ramming through of initiatives I don't like) is to give them a project. Did they (against all odds) do it correctly? I am a great leader for giving them a task in the service in the American people. Did they mess it up? I'm just the executive, I guess the voters had better take it up with their congressman.
It takes an awful lot of spin to allege that the President was in control of this dynamic.
The country elected a man with almost no executive experience, no legislative accomplishments, and no demonstrated political skill on the big stage. The country suspended disbelief and went to bed with hope, thinking that when the new day arrived he would show himself to be a natural master of these things.
He wasn't. His only card is a speech with a bit of Chicago style persuasion thrown in. He thought, I believe, that the speech was so good, that no one would challenge him and his ideas, and that the Congress and the country (and the world) would fall in love and in line as he marched down the street twirling his baton.
And so rather than leading Congress, he left it to them to realize his vision. It must have been convenient that the leaders in Congress would take it to the left, which was to the left of what he promised the electorate and to the right of where he really wanted to be. Must have seemed workable.
In turn the Democratic leaders in Congress were seduced and deluded by their majorities. That malady has affected Republicans in the past as well. Given a chance at last to have it their way, a way that looked to the public as something quite different than what they voted for, the leaders of Congress lost sight of the fact that their way was strongly supported at best by about 25% of the electorate. No matter.
It was a majority bender. Not only do they look like they are supremely out of touch with the country, they look like they don't have a clue about how to run a government.
Part of the problem, of course, is that behind the party curtain, there are more or less incompatible factions. This is in my view the real reason for bipartisanship: real majorities are very unstable if within one party alone. The decision to screw the Republicans was not smart this time. The Republican decision to stick together was.
So far, the "solid B+" can only be rationalized as grade inflation. The President has shown himself to be a poor leader, a poor politician, and a poor executive. He is in real danger of being a one term President.
Right now, his party in Congress is not going to save him. Those on the left from really blue districts risked their street cred with their constituents by spending so much time on health care that not only didn't provide single payer, but didn't provide anything. They will move back hard left to protect their district franchise. The Republicans have little incentive to help out when they are committing collective suicide. So his majority is effectively gone.
The President may think that a speech will save him and God knows he will try. But he really has only one option to save his presidency. He has to move to the right, clearly and quickly. He started that a bit at the Nobel awards, and the Afghanistan surge, but that is not enough.
His real problem is that he can't move right with Nancy as Speaker. If he really has executive ability and political skill beyond the little amounts he is credited with, he will engineer the tire tracks on her forehead and he will do it quickly. As John Mitchell once said, "Cut your losses son. If you gotta eat shit you don't want to nibble at it. Do you?"
If he doesn't, the Republicans will run against big government, obscene deficits, lax homeland security, and Nancy Pelosi. And, they will run the table.
The truth is that neither party can govern because they can't address the core issue that is bankrupting this country: exploding middle class entitlement spending, and particularly social security, medicare, and medicaid.
Bush and the Republicans ran up $5 Trillion in debt over eight years. Not to be outdone, Obama and the Democrats are shooting for $3 Trillion more in the first two years of the Obama administration.
Until we get a grip on entitlement spending we are destined to keep lurching angrily between Democratic and Republican majorities.
The demographic time bomb is ticking away as baby boomers approach retirement. The social security trust fund entered deficit in 2009; it was supposed to continue in surplus until 2017. Faced with catastrophe, Obama is doubling down on the New Deal social spending that is driving this crisis.
The U.S. Treasury has to float $2.2 Trillion in net bond issuance in 2010 to Obama's spending spree. The entire world provides demand for about $400 Billion in net U.S. Treasury issuance. The rest is going to be "bought" (read: printed) by the Federal Reserve. 2011 will be even worse, and 2012 will be worse still.
We've seen this before. In Weimar Germany, in Argentina, and in Zimbabwe. This ends in the collapse of the dollar.
Anon at 12:48 is spot on. The math is ineluctable. "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
Our big political fault line lies between those who get government checks and those who pay for them. Neither party truly represents the latter. "Those who get government checks" includes many corporations and many Republican vested interests.
We can balance accounts through much higher taxes, but that will kill any chance of our growing our way out of the problem. Over 30 years, 4.0% growth does wonders. We'll be lucky to just flatline for the next 10 years.