The Californiafication of America
Rich Yeselson is annoyed by Bill Galston's contention that Barack Obama should listen to the concerns of the electorate and begin rapidly slicing the deficit down. Count me with Yeselson on this one: Pollsters generally believe that deficit anxiety is an expression of economic anxiety. People become very concerned about the deficit not when deficits are high, per se, but when unemployment is high, and economic growth is anemic (non-coincidentally, this is also when deficits grow, as tax revenues droop but the government needs to conduct more counter-cyclical spending). What Obama should do, Yeselson suggests, is pass a raft of ambitious economic policies that will address the root anxiety. But he can't:
We are living through the Californiafication of America -- a country in which the combination of a determined minority and a procedural supermajority legislative requirement makes it impossible to rationally address public policy challenges. And thus the Democratic president and his allies in Congress are evaluated on the basis of extreme compromise measures -- supplicating to dispassionate Wise Men such as Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, buying Olympia Snowe a vacation home, working bills through 76 committees and countless "procedural" votes -- rather than the substantive policy achievements of bills that would merely require a simple majority to pass.
It is sheer good fortune that the Democrats had 59/60 Senate seats this cycle and thus were able to pass any stimulus at all, albeit the inadequate one they did. Think about it: With a robust 56 Senate Democratic seats, the stimulus would have failed -- and otherwise, Galston/Brooks would be talking not about Obama’s "going too far," but rather about a "failed Obama presidency." And they would be wrong. What we would be witnessing -- and are still witnessing -- is a failed system of democratic governance. It’s something procedural liberals should be deeply concerned about and should remedy as quickly as possible.
When Obama's health-care reform strategy was floundering, pundits generally blamed it on tactical deficiencies: If only Obama had been firmer with Congress, or more persuasive before the nation. When the bill passes, as now looks likely, it will similarly be attributed to learning the strategic lessons of the past, and negotiating the details skillfully and navigating the politics adroitly.
But it is not any of those things, at least not primarily. Health-care reform almost failed because Democrats had 60 votes rather than 70 votes. And it will probably pass because Democrats have 60 votes rather than 55 votes. On some level, that is how it should be. The primary determinant of legislative action should be electoral majorities, not tightrope diplomacy with the legislature. But 60 votes for is an extreme rarity in American politics. The last time either party controlled that many seats was in the mid-70s. That was not such a problem then, but polarization has become much worse over the past 30 years, so what was once possible with 55 votes, or even 50 votes, is far more difficult today.
Recognizing that change, I think, is the most difficult element of building a case for structural reform. Most people are open to the idea that a political system should adapt in response to radical transformations within a nation's political environment. But change happens slowly, and memories are short. Political scientists recognize that the filibuster has only become central in the past few decades, that political polarization roared back to life after relative consensus in the post-World War II period, that the Senate works differently today because it does so much more. But American politics still looks much the same as it always did -- two parties, three branches, November elections -- and so most people think that these institutions are much as they always were.
October 30, 2009; 12:32 PM ET
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