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Misremembering the Past

I'm going to quote pretty much this whole post from Nick Beaudrot because it's really, really, really good:

It's simply not meaningful to compare the present circumstances to those faced by Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt when it comes to bipartisanship. To repeat myself, "providing health care for uninsured children by taxing tobacco, which is the political equivalent of a baby flying a fighter jet while holding a puppy wrapped inside an American flag, only got nine Republican votes." Meanwhile the Great Society programs arose at the height of partisan depolarization, and Roosevelt faced a less oppositional GOP that had been shellacked in the previous two election cycles. Here's a graph from Keith Poole's Polarization talk:


Barack Obama faces partisan polarization not seen since Woodrow Wilson was president. We really need to look at the records of late 19th century Presidents — McKinley, Benjamin Harrison, Chester Arthurr, and so on — to see how often they managed to forge bipartisan consensus. Considering that was the era of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" politicking, my guess is that consensus wasn't very common.

Two things have happened over the past few decades. First, the filibuster has come to occupy a central role in the United States Senate. A body that used to require 51 votes now requires 60 votes. Second, we've exited an aberrant era of relative consensus and entered a period of intense polarization.

It has not always been like this. We used to agree more often, and it used to matter less if we disagreed. And even in those relatively favorable circumstances, the system was resistant enough to change that it took an economic collapse or the death of a popular president to enable much in the way of rapid action. Now we have less agreement and it's easier for a small minority to block change. It's not clear that progress on hard problems is even possible.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 25, 2009; 6:04 PM ET
Categories:  Government , History  
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You're titling a post that misrepresents the SCHIP debate in a pathetic way "Misremembering the Past?" And you're doing this non-ironically?

Posted by: kenobi1 | August 25, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

A good "progressive" intent can lead to many tragic results which take many decades to remedy.

It was Progressive President Theodore Roosevelt who first championed public health services as one way to achieve eugenics goals (marriage licenses were the other). During the pandemic of 1918, mass vaccination was authorized. Later, in Buck v. Bell, vaccination policy was used to substantiate eugenics-oriented reproductive medicine policies. Word of the American eugenics efforts spread worldwide. The German Nazi party cited them, built upon them, and began mass extermination of Jews, homosexuals, and others. After World War II, a devastated England created the National Health Service as part of its rebuilding efforts: at the same time, Truman and Eisenhower proliferated nuclear weapons while McCarthy ruthlessly investigated "un-American activities". In 1969, Loving v. Virginia nullified eugenics-related marriage laws. In 1976, Ford ordered mass vaccination in an effort to prevent the spread of Swine Flu. During the Swine Flu debates, many states decided to stop sterilizing mentally retarded citizens as authorized by Buck v. Bell; yet even today, the citizens so sterilized have not been compensated.

It IS tragically unwise to misremember the past. I can think of a few million people who would have preferred a little more disagreement over death and dismemberment.

To hear someone say "We used to agree more often, and it used to matter less if we disagreed" is tragic.

Posted by: rmgregory | August 25, 2009 6:47 PM | Report abuse

I find rmgregory's "vaccination = eugenics" screed to be a bit disingenuous. At least I hope it's disingenuous. If it's not, it's awfully creepy.

Posted by: constans | August 25, 2009 6:53 PM | Report abuse

More than two things have happened in the past few decades, some of them cultural. The majority of Americans have little sense of the difference between right and wrong. Democracy fails because the culture has adapted to ruin it. So-called democratic governments have never really been very democratic; I suppose we all know it. But since Reagan, anti-democratic forces have gotten stronger. One of the things they did to gain that strength of course was to capitalize on the weaknesses of their (not-very-feisty) opposition since the 80s.

Look at Ezra Klein. He's a relativist of the first order. Wouldn't know how to fight to save his life. And he's one of the best democrats there is.

Posted by: NealB1 | August 25, 2009 7:11 PM | Report abuse

Yeah stupid leftists always saying Obama should get together with Republicans to do healthcare!

Oh, wait I'm sorry it was Obama'a plan to do bipartisan healthcare while the left said the Republicans are not going to agree to anything. All this proves is how badly the Whitehouse has screwed this up from the begining.

Posted by: endaround | August 25, 2009 7:58 PM | Report abuse

The problems most recently are the left has become more left and the right has become more right.
We used to have three places to get our TV news. There are a gazillion now. And people tend to only listen to those they agree with these days. There's no real discourse - there's just shouting down the other guy. We don't really consider the other side. We just go to blogs, etc, where we agree with everyone. And so then people lambaste the other side, everyone agrees, no one thinks the other guy's argument is relevant.
It's horrible. And getting worse, considering what's happening to newspapers, etc.
There are not only two sides to every issue. There are many more. But all we have are two parties who have entrenched themselves (check out write in candidate laws wherever you live). People don't go into government to 'serve the people' anymore - they do it to serve themselves.

We don't have choices at the polls. More and more people are becoming independents because both the dems and repubs have no idea how to govern. But again, there's no choices, given the laws they've passed to keep only them in power.

And that's the last point. We don't trust anyone anymore. The idea of asking a candidate a question about every single scenario is ludicrous. It's absurd. Yet we seem to want to do it. I think it's because we don't really trust any of the candidates (a little exaggeration, but still) - to do the right thing. We expect them to do the thing they are getting paid to do (i.e., by lobbying firms, etc) - not the right thing for the American people. It's a sad state of affairs for all of us.

And I'm a complete optimist. Usually.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | August 25, 2009 8:34 PM | Report abuse

So, Ezra... how do you know that polarization makes it harder to pass legislation, rather than the reverse? That is, if I, as president, succeed in getting stuff passed with bipartisan majorities, then Poole's measure will show that, during that time period, partisanship was less. Poole only measure votes -- if Obama somehow got things passed with large majorities, Poole would show that year as less polarized. You can't use vote-based measures of partisanship to predict how likely bipartisan bills will be -- they measure the same thing.

Posted by: Ulium | August 25, 2009 9:34 PM | Report abuse

When you hear someone complain about the filibuster, you're hearing from a someone whose ideas can't even appeal to a mere 60% of United States Senators.

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | August 25, 2009 9:41 PM | Report abuse

Politics is like anything else in life. Over time the powerful become more powerful. Then an asteroid hits and it starts all over again.

Posted by: bmull | August 25, 2009 9:54 PM | Report abuse

"I find rmgregory's 'vaccination = eugenics' screed to be a bit disingenuous. At least I hope it's disingenuous. If it's not, it's awfully creepy."

Uh... actually, it's a quote from a [still valid] decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. See Buck v. Bell (274 US 200 at page 207) for "The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes."

Agreed, it's awfully creepy... but that was my point.

Posted by: rmgregory | August 25, 2009 11:30 PM | Report abuse

I disagree. Wyden-Bennett has strong bipartisan report on health care. The main stakeholder who does not support this compromise legislation is Obama. A true cap & trade system, which operates functionally the same as a carbon tax except slightly less efficient, was supported by both Obama and McCain in the campaign. Yet Waxman-Markey is a special interest, command & control bill.

There are compromises to be had. Unfortunately, Obama is too wrapped up in his special interest constituencies to seize them.

Posted by: Dellis2 | August 26, 2009 8:56 AM | Report abuse

Dellis: Wyden-Bennett bipartisan?

You are aware that the Republicans (and probably some of the Democrats) supporting that bill are doing it for political cover, right?

If you're going to oppose health care reform, it's useful to be on the record as supporting some sort of bill.

The reason why it hasn't advanced more in Congress has nothing to do with Obama, whose approach to health care reform has been hands off. It's because we already know that Wyden-Bennett clearly does not have the support to pass, and certainly not the support of more than one or two Republicans.

Wyden-Bennett is a decent policy, but it's too disruptive to the current system to have any chance of passing. If you think support for Obama's plan is low, try polling "get rid of everyone's employer-based insurance and have everyone find new insurance on the individual market."

Posted by: dstr | August 26, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

This post would be more meaningful if the Democrats weren't also divided internally on health care.

Posted by: tomtildrum | August 26, 2009 10:22 AM | Report abuse

I have seen op-ed after op-ed and many public statements from the GOP sponsors of Wyden-Bennett that they support Wyden-Bennett. I think we should take these statements at face value, and not attempt to ascertain hidden motives to the GOP senator sponsors. Wyden-Bennett is largely a bipartisan variation of the McCain campaign proposal to weaken the employer-based system. It would be rare indeed for a bill's sponsor to vote against the bill.

Posted by: Dellis2 | August 26, 2009 10:32 AM | Report abuse

"It would be rare indeed for a bill's sponsor to vote against the bill."

Haha. Not as rare as you think. Remember how practically all Democrats signed up as cosponsors for the Employee Free Choice Act back in 2006, even the moderates? If that meant that they actually intended to VOTE for EFCA, the bill would have passed months ago.

They signed up as cosponsors simply to attract labor support, knowing that it wouldn't pass anyway, because at the time there just weren't enough Democrats in the Congress to pass it.

Since Wydenn-Bennett is a proposal that has almost no chance of becoming law, it's easy for people to sign up as cosponsors of it to create a moderate image, and create a sense that they're in favor of some form of health care reform, even as they filibuster any practical attempts at reform.

I believe that Ezra has posted on exactly that. It might be at the old American Prospect site. A Republican (I forget who), who was listed as a cosponsor for Wyden-Bennett basically stated that he wouldn't actually vote in favor of it if it came up for a vote.

Posted by: dstr | August 26, 2009 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Progress on hard problems? Easy rum.

Posted by: Dermitt | August 27, 2009 4:52 PM | Report abuse

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