The weak presidency
Via Jonathan Chait, the other other Jonathan* – Jonathan Bernstein, not Jonathan Cohn – has a handy rebuttal to this Greenwald post. Greenwald, whose admirable passion may have gotten ahead of his political science a bit, writes:
What happened in this race also gives the lie to the insufferable excuse we’ve been hearing for the last 18 months from countless Obama defenders: namely, if the Senate doesn’t have 60 votes to pass good legislation, it’s not Obama’s fault because he has no leverage over these conservative Senators. It was always obvious what an absurd joke that claim was; the very idea of The Impotent, Helpless President, presiding over a vast government and party apparatus, was laughable.
Bernstein’s response is worth reading in full. Essentially, though, it boils down to this:
[T]he distribution of votes matters enormously, which is why I link to statistical accounts of the ideological spectrum in the Senate all the time. What they’ll tell you is that all Democratic Senators have voting records more liberal than all Senate Republicans; that most Senate Democrats are quite liberal; but that the 50th Democratic Senator (Baucus, or Tester, or someone like that) isn’t all that liberal, and the 59th Democratic Senator even less so. Moreover, it’s pretty obvious that the dozen or so least liberal Democrats, with one or two exceptions (mainly Joe Lieberman) come from states that aren’t very liberal at all. Add it all up, and the odds are that had Obama staked everything on a strong public option, he could easily have wound up with no health bill at all, no banking bill, 35% approval, a GOP landslide in 2010, and dim prospects for 2012.
All of which is very frustrating for liberals. Pretending that their allies are really their enemies, however, is a particularly self-punishing way of dealing with that frustration.
Liberals often bemoan the mere presence of Blue Dog Democrats and other conservative Democrats in their coalition, but the fact of the matter is the Democratic Party is a Big Tent party right now. The Democrats have fifty-ish solid liberal votes in the Senate, and ten or so tenuous but crucial votes on top of that from conservative Democrats who hail from conservative states. The other road is the small-tent, rife with purity tests and strict ideological discipline – loyal to party through and through. Right now that’s the road the Republicans are on, and it may be a winning strategy for the opposition party, but it’s certainly not workable long-term. For that you need a broad coalition, a big tent like the one Reagan scraped together in the 80’s.
Bernstein is of course correct that the presidency is a largely weak office. In two ways, however, the president actually has a great deal of power. The first is the veto, but that’s only the power to stop legislation from happening in the first place (and without line-item powers, it is rather restricted even there). The veto can’t magic up a public option. It can’t plug an oil leak either.
The second is the power of the presidency over foreign affairs. Perhaps because the president is so tied down on domestic issues, our Commanders in Chief love to flex their foreign policy muscles. Clinton did this in Eastern Europe, Somalia, and elsewhere, but his operations tended to be small-scale. Bush upped the ante significantly.
Obama has, unfortunately, retained far too much of the Bush legacy in his foreign policy agenda. I don’t mean the two wars. What can you really do about the wars? You break it, you buy it. I’m more interested in authorizing assassinations of U.S. citizens, detention of terror suspects without charges or trial, and so forth. On these matters, Greenwald is absolutely correct – the president is anything but weak. Wouldn’t it be nice if the presidency was as weak overseas as it was here at home?
*TNR should seriously consider hiring Bernstein. He’s an excellent blogger and if they did they could put Cohn, Chait, and Bernstein all on the same blog and really mess with peoples’ minds.