The Shutdown: Blame Republicans but Watch the Democrats

I wrote an email to my political mailing list on August 21, 2011 entitled “Does the White House have Power?”  At that time, many mainstream Democrats insisted that Barack Obama was an innocent victim of an intransigent Congress, that he ardently supported progressive priorities like a public health care option and higher taxes on wealthy Americans but had little leverage to make those ideas a reality.

Glenn Greenwald thoroughly debunked that claim on several occasions, as my email at that time documented.  I revisit this issue now because the current government shutdown is yet another proof point that the White House has power.  Both the Democratic Party as a whole and Barack Obama specifically exercise that power when they care about policy outcomes.

House Democrats just initiated a procedural motion called a discharge petition to try and end the shutdown without compromising on Obamacare.  The strategy pursued by the White House and Democratic congresspeople during the current Obamacare debate has been not to appease, but to message, over and over again, that fringe Republicans are to blame for the shutdown – Republican demands are unreasonable and unpopular.  Though many journalists predictably pretend that Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame for the shutdown, the majority of Americans recognize the Republicans are at fault.  Obama’s appropriate response to the current Republican demands illustrates that he at the very least could have taken similar action during the original health care debate in the first few years of his presidency and during the “fiscal cliff” debate at the end of 2012.  Instead, as Paul Krugman wrote at the beginning of this year, “he gave every indication of being more or less desperate to cut a deal.”

If Republicans had followed through on their threats in those debates, there would have been some suffering, no doubt.  But there’s suffering because of the current shutdown, and while it’s regrettable, we sometimes may have to stomach short-term loss for long-term gain.  In the current debate, the Democrats are suggesting implementation of Obamacare, a plan originally conceived by Congressional Republicans and the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s and loved by the insurance industry, is worth this short-term suffering.  And it may be – my dad, who helps lower-income people gain access to health care, likes to remind me that Obamacare should improve the lives of millions of people, which is no small matter.  If that’s your mindset, though, you probably should have supported the Republican plan in the 1990s and you should also probably give George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress some credit for Medicare Part D, which, like the Affordable Care Act, expanded coverage to people who didn’t previously have it while enriching private industry.

Whatever your thoughts about Obamacare, make no mistake about this fact: the White House has power.  Obamacare in its current form is exactly what Obama and the Democrats desired.  By their own admission, the Obama Administration didn’t want a single-payer health care plan that would benefit more Americans to become a reality.  Despite his rhetoric to the contrary, Obama worked hard to keep the public option out of the Affordable Care Act.  He pressured progressives like Dennis Kucinich to adopt a more conservative bill while journalists insisted, when Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman were holding up a better bill, that Obama was powerless to influence congresspeople.  In addition, Obama never really wanted higher taxes on the wealthy or prosecutions of white-collar criminals who torpedoed the economy; he’s extremely cozy with moneyed interests.  If he actually believed in the progressive ideals to which he pays lip service, we would have seen a lot more of his current messaging a long time ago.

As Greenwald wrote in the summer of 2011, “[t]he critique of Obama isn’t that he tries but fails to achieve certain progressive outcomes and his omnipotence should ensure success.  Nobody believes he’s omnipotent.  The critique is that he doesn’t try, doesn’t use the weapons at his disposal: the ones he wields when he actually cares about something (such as the ones he uses to ensure ongoing war funding — or, even more convincing, see the first indented paragraph here).”  None of the Democrats’ or Obama’s behavior diminishes the Republicans’ responsibility for the shutdown.  But I hope watching the shutdown saga unfold is instructive for people who over the past five years have repeatedly excused the Democratic Party’s poor policy outcomes as the products of a weak office.

Update: The deal the Democrats eventually got provides further evidence that Obama could have done much, much more during the early years of his presidency.


Filed under US Political System

8 responses to “The Shutdown: Blame Republicans but Watch the Democrats

  1. They’ll fold in the end, right Ben? The Democrats have given no sense of having “cojones” since Clinton’s first budget was passed (and many Democrats lost their seats over that one, despite the good it did) and that was 20 years ago. After 20 years, even of there were a few cojones still floating around your Democrats, they wouldn’t even know what to do with them.
    I would be surprised (in the good way) if they actually get out of this without further dismantling the gov’t. Don’t forget that the Democrats budget is the sequester budget — no room for “domestic priorities” (i.e. helping those in need etc.) here. And this would be a Democratic victory?
    These days, yes. For the cojones-less, at least.

    • I doubt they’ll give away much if anything. I think the evidence suggests that Democratic instances of “caving” are contrived – the Democratic Party generally wants the outcomes they get but they need their base to think they’re well-intentioned. I could very well be wrong, though, and it will be interesting to see how the shutdown situation plays out.

  2. RC

    The difference could also easily be explained by the fact that when Obama was in charge of passing the ACA (which I’m glad your dad has pointed out has been a net benefit), he had to compromise in order to get anything accomplished. Now, stasis works fine for the more progressive outcome, which puts him in a more powerful position.

    I don’t necessarily disagree that Obama is less liberal than some of his talking points and he’s certainly less liberal than some of the people who voted for him hoped he would be. But I do think it’s unfair to assume the worst of someone who has accomplished among the most progressive single policy shifts in the last half-centure.

    • He didn’t have to compromise when he wanted to pass the ACA – that’s exactly my point. He chose not only not to pursue a single-payer system, which he professed support for during his campaign, but also cut a backroom deal to exclude a public option from the bill while pretending he didn’t have the support for a public option in the Senate (he did, as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee demonstrated). The Democrats want progressives to believe they’re fighting for progressive ideals and hamstrung in that fight when in reality they aren’t. Follow the links above for the evidence on those claims.

      I have no problem with you claiming Obamacare is a net positive – in the short term, I agree with that analysis, though it’s impossible to settle the question of whether it will do more harm than a variety of alternatives might have done in the long-term. But are you willing to credit Republicans for most of the ideas in it? And I’d be interested to hear how you consider it one of “the most progressive single policy shifts” in the last half-century.” I think policy that leaves a ton of Americans uncovered and the majority of insurance company profits and practices in place doesn’t qualify as such, and as my recommended article on the “Bipartisan Drive for Austerity” argues, the ACA is a product of both parties’ subservience to moneyed interests. Again, it certainly helps some people in the short-term, but the point is that we’d have significantly better legislation if the Democratic Party and Obama had wanted a better bill to pass.

      • RC

        I read most of most of those articles now — for the second time. I’m still left with the impression that it’s plausible that Obama made the “backroom deal” with private interests in order to get *anything* accomplished. One of the articles excuses Bush’s failure to privatize Social Security because that is something that’s actually really hard to do in politics. As if health care reform isn’t?

        Do I wish we had an even more progressive health care system? Of course I do. But we have a system that should lower costs for everyone by forcing everybody to pay in. Yes, many of those new payers will give increased profits to insurance companies. But at least more people will be covered at all.

        And perhaps more importantly, I think this change is a step in the right direction. As people realize the ACA is actually a good thing, perhaps we can talk about expanding Medicare/Medicaid even more. That, I think, is the path to a single-payer system.

  3. Thanks for reading the articles and for commenting. This type of debate is one of the reasons I was excited to start the blog.

    There are four separate questions here:

    1) Did Obama use the tools at his disposal to try and get a health care bill that included a public option?

    2) Could Obama have gotten a bill with a public option passed?

    3) Is the final bill – the ACA – a step in the right direction?

    4) Does the ACA constitute significant progressive legislation?

    On question 4, I think your answer was: “[W]e have a system that should lower costs for everyone by forcing everybody to pay in. Yes, many of those new payers will give increased profits to insurance companies. But at least more people will be covered at all.” If that’s what you meant, then George W. Bush passed one of “the most progressive single policy shifts in the last half-century” when he signed Medicare Part D. And Republicans and the Heritage Foundation were pushing one of “the most progressive single policy shifts in the last half-century” in the 1990s (their version of Obamacare).

    The answer to question 3 is ultimately one for which we may have separate opinions. I think Sebelius’s acknowledgment that the bill was specifically crafted to prevent implementation of a single-payer system is pretty good evidence for my opinion that the bill will have problematic implications for the future. I think you can marshal a coherent argument, however, in support of the ACA and Medicare Part D – that the expanded coverage benefits outweigh the drawbacks of enriching industry interests and it’s a good foot-in-the-door – and while I disagree with that analysis, there’s no way of determining who is correct.

    On question 2, there’s also some room for disagreement because it’s impossible to definitively answer the question. We are only speculating. There is considerably more evidence suggesting that he could have gotten a public option passed, though, than that he couldn’t. The only real arguments I know to suggest he couldn’t have gotten the bill to pass are:

    a. He says he couldn’t have.
    b. He never had a confirmed 60 votes in the Senate
    c. Presidents aren’t omnipotent. George W. Bush, as you point out, was unable to pass everything he wanted to get passed, including social security privatization. Presidents do sometimes fail to pass legislation even when they try really hard.

    However, here are the arguments to suggest he could have gotten the bill to pass:

    a. 51 Senators are officially on record saying they would have voted yes on a public option.
    b. Obama had a majority in the House.
    c. There was overwhelming public support for the public option initially, and a majority supported it even after it was blasted over and over again in the media. A public option was more popular than the ACA among the general public right up until the final vote on the ACA.

    Is it possible he wouldn’t have been able to pass it despite what’s listed above? Sure – it’s possible. But those facts suggest to me that it wouldn’t have been that difficult to pass a bill with a public option if Obama had tried to do so. After all, Bush slammed through a whole bunch of significant policy – renewal of the Patriot Act, NCLB, tax cuts for the rich, Iraq, etc. – and on the three legislative defeats for Bush Greenwald discussed, two of them he suffered because his own base threw a huge fit about them. Social security privatization was legitimately a defeat, as both Greenwald and you point out, but it lost despite Bush’s best efforts to make privatization happen. Those efforts bring me to question 1.

    Question 1 is the question I am most interested in addressing because it’s got a factual and clear answer. It is also the most relevant to the current shutdown. As I quoted Greenwald on in my post, “[t]he critique of Obama isn’t that he tries but fails to achieve certain progressive outcomes …The critique is that he doesn’t try, doesn’t use the weapons at his disposal: the ones he wields when he actually cares about something.” In the case of the public option, he clearly did not use the tools at his disposal, one of which he is using now. What could he have done (that we know he could have done based on his behavior now and in other scenarios)?

    a. He could have threatened to strip Joe Lieberman of his chairmanships and mounted an intense campaign against Lieberman and Ben Nelson. He could have threatened to withhold Democratic Party money and campaign for their opponents in their next reelection bids, flown to their states to speak to voters, and continued to apply pressure until they went along with public opinion and the other Senators willing to vote for a public option. How do we know he could have used this tactic? Because he used it on progressives like Dennis Kucinich who had originally said they wouldn’t vote for a bill that didn’t have a public option.
    b. He could have “frenzily tour[ed] the country for months” to make his case for the public option. Bush did this for social security privatization, which is why it’s fair to suggest Bush cared about that policy.
    c. He could have made Lieberman, Nelson, and Republicans follow through on their threat to filibuster. Filibusters, like shutdowns, are wildly unpopular. He could have then messaged that the only reason ordinary Americans were suffering was because of the unwillingness of some members of Congress to allow a vote. We know he could have used this tactic because it’s the one he’s using right now.

    There are a couple other things he might have been able to do that are a little less clear-cut, but the above tactics are pretty straightforward. He used none of them.

    Again, you’re right that there’s a chance a public option would have failed even if Obama employed those techniques. I think that outcome would have been highly unlikely, but we’ll never know for sure because Obama didn’t try. That’s patently clear from his failure to take any of the above actions.

  4. C

    Good stuff, Ben! Interesting thoughts all around. I see what you’re saying, that the White House is mounting a stronger offensive for protecting the ACA right now (by refusing to compromise) than it did for including a public option when the ACA was being written. I’d hesitate to equate mounting a strong offensive with having power though. If anything, the fact that the government is shut down now seems to only weaken the correlation.

    I don’t think Obama’s team wanted this kind of battle-to-the-death over healthcare reform, which is why he was so eager to compromise on the public option and other things (remember the soaring rhetoric he came into office with regarding bipartisanship). Basically, I (and probably RC too) agree with you that there were other tools Obama could’ve used to make the ACA more progressive. I think it’s important to keep in mind though that what you’re attempting to build influences what tools you decide to use. In this case, Obama wanted a broadly supported, bipartisan healthcare bill that wouldn’t cause the kind of firestorm that it ended up creating anyway. He didn’t want to threaten Lieberman and have him filibustering at the outset. It’s true that he could’ve used the tactic you describe in “c” because you’re right, he is using it now, but look how far it’s getting him (keep in mind how much stronger a position he’s in now too with an election and Supreme Court ruling backing his position). I don’t think he ever wanted to govern like this, but now he’s being forced to because the House Republicans have overreached.

    • Thanks for the thoughts! I think a number of points that you raise are valid, though I do have some comments on two of them:

      1) “I’d hesitate to equate mounting a strong offensive with having power though. If anything, the fact that the government is shut down now seems to only weaken the correlation.” This point is a fair one, but tactic “c” is based on the premise that unpopular government dysfunction in the short term can cause much more beneficial outcomes in the long term. With respect to the current shutdown, I think we’ll see how much power this tactic yielded. Do the Democrats end up making concessions? And how badly do Republicans lose in the next election? While the causal link for the second question is far from clear, I think the next several weeks will begin to provide us with some answers on how much power this tactic can have. I will stand corrected if Republicans force a bunch of concessions on Obamacare, but if it moves forward unchanged, I believe that’s a testament to this tactic being employed successfully.

      2) “In this case, Obama wanted a broadly supported, bipartisan healthcare bill that wouldn’t cause the kind of firestorm that it ended up creating anyway.” It’s definitely possible that he values good policy but values it less than bipartisanism and not creating a “firestorm.” I would contend, however, that if that possibility is true, it’s still pretty bad. Principled policy outcomes are what I want from a leader, not compromise for compromise’s sake. And Republican and Democratic policy overlap significantly in most realms already even if their rhetoric does not.

      On the “firestorm” piece, he would have to be remarkably dumb to believe after the beginning of his presidency that anything he did wouldn’t create one, and I don’t think he’s dumb. It seems more plausible to me that Republican opposition is a useful excuse for the Democrats when they want to pay lip-service to progressive policy without actually pursuing it – most progressives buy their arguments and support the Democrats as the “better alternative” and those people from whom support is conditional – like moneyed, corporate interests – are the ones the Democrats actually work to satisfy.

      And on the “broadly supported” piece, if that’s what he wanted, the public option would have been the way to go. It had more public support, by far, than the ACA ever had.

      I would contend that the policies he promoted during his campaign are far more important for the lives of Americans than his pledge to work across the aisle, and for many progressives were the core of why we voted for him in 2008. He promised several things he seems to have actively undermined – the public option, an end to tax breaks for the rich, work on the corporate influence in Washington, an end to Bush/Cheney civil liberties abuses; the list goes on. Whatever his motives and intentions, there’s no excuse for his failure to use the tools at his disposal to work for the promises that got him elected.

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