The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait writes about “Why the Democrats Can’t Govern”:
The last Democrat who held the White House, Bill Clinton, saw the core of his domestic agenda come to ruin, his political support collapse, and his failure spawn a massive Republican resurgence that made progressive reform impossible for a decade to come. The Democrat who last held the White House before that, Jimmy Carter, saw the exact same thing happen to him.
At this early date, nobody can know whether or not Barack Obama will escape this fate. But the contours of failure are now clearly visible. In Obama’s case, as with his predecessors, the prospective culprit is the same: Democrats in Congress, and especially the Senate. At a time when the country desperately needs a coherent response to the array of challenges it faces, the congressional arm of the Democratic Party remains mired in fecklessness, parochialism, and privilege. Obama has made mistakes, as did his predecessors. Yet the constant recurrence of legislative squabbling and drift suggests a deeper problem than any characterological or tactical failures by these presidents: a congressional party that is congenitally unable to govern.
George W. Bush came to office having lost the popular vote, with only 50 Republicans in the Senate. After his disputed election, pundits insisted Bush would have to scale back his proposed massive tax cuts for the rich. Instead, Bush managed to enact several rounds of tax cuts that substantially exceeded those in his campaign platform, along with two war resolutions, a Medicare prescription drug benefit designed to maximize profits for the health care industry, energy legislation, education reform, and sundry other items. Whatever the substantive merits of this agenda, its passage represented an impressive feat of political leverage, accomplished through near-total partisan discipline.
Chait may be frustrated by the current situation, but not surprised. That a Democratic Congress would pose problems for Pres. Obama’s “too much, too soon” agenda could have been predicted from the history of presidents elected on Hope and Change about every 16 years since WWII.
But Chait’s ignorance of history does not stop there, as his review of the Bush era demonstrates. The Bush tax cuts were passed on partisan votes, but the rest of his examples fall apart on examination. The first war resolution passed with broad bipartisan support. The Iraq war resolution passed the Senate by a vote of 77-23. The Medicare prescription drug program passed the Senate by a vote of 55-44, but 11 Democrats voted in favor and nine Republicans voted against it. The 2005 energy bill passed the Senate 74-26, with help from then-Sen. Barack Obama. The No Child Left Behind Act, on which Pres. Bush collaborated with the likes of Sen. Ted Kennedy, passed the Senate 87-10. To the extent that partisan leverage was involved in the passage of these items, it was largely in terms of pressuring conservatives to expand the size and power of the national government.
Chait’s lack of grasp of history leads him to argue that the key to Democratic success is for Congress to blindly follow Pres. Obama, to project the image of strong leadership. What history ought to teach him is that focusing on the immediate economic issues matters, and barring a foreign policy crisis, not much else does matter.