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Obama's liberal predecessor


Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum are chewing over the hefty bipartisan support Bush got for his various domestic initiatives. The roll call is impressive: No Child Left Behind, the 2001 tax cut, the post-9/11 war resolution, Sarbanes-Oxley, McCain-Feingold, the Iraq war resolution, the 2003 tax cut, the Medicare prescription drug bill and the bankruptcy bill.

To make a bit of a heretical point, most of those cases prove that Bush's domestic agenda was a capitulation to liberalism, not that Democrats were spineless wimps. NCLB and the Medicare prescription drug bill were both longtime Democratic ideas. The problem with NCLB was implementation, and while the problem with Medicare Part D was that its design was a giveaway to drug companies, it was also hundreds and hundreds of billions funneled towards the largest expansions of Medicare since the program's creation. Health-care reform, in particular, would likely be impossible if the prescription drug benefit hadn't been accomplished. There'd be no way to add that money to the bottom line of the bill and pay for everything. Democrats owe Bush a debt of gratitude for tossing that onto the deficit.

Sarbanes-Oxley and McCain-Feingold were, again, bills doing basically progressive things. As I understand it, Bush didn't actually support either bill, but he decided against actually vetoing them. On some level, they represented the administration submitting to Congress and pubic opinion.

The war stuff is, well, the war stuff. Liberalism may have trumped conservatism in the Bush era, but neoconservatism was clearly dominant over both. The tax cuts were free money, and the bankruptcy bill was indefensible. But on the whole, Bush's domestic record is more a tale of co-opting liberal ideas and adding money for corporations than it is a tale of achieving longtime conservative ends.

By contrast, Barack Obama really is pursuing longtime progressive agenda items. There's no analogue to welfare reform on his docket. The administration's grim determination to leverage their uncommonly large majority to achieve things like health-care reform and cap-and-trade is, I think, somewhat underappreciated. The fact that they're not dogmatically liberal in the details can distract from the aggressive liberalism of their vision.

Photo credit: By Susan Walsh/Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  November 24, 2009; 3:31 PM ET
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"There's no analogue to welfare reform on his docket."

So what?

You only have to do it once.

Posted by: gary4books | November 24, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

So all bush's corperate welfare was a progressives dream? You really don't believe this do you?

Posted by: obrier2 | November 24, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

This is not a new analysis, and it's why so many conservatives soured on Bush late on.

It doesn't seem to reflect well on the current president, however, that he's been less successful in pushing a liberal agenda than was his Republican predecessor.

Posted by: tomtildrum | November 24, 2009 4:14 PM | Report abuse

It's laughable to suggest those things are liberal. Liberals fought them.

Posted by: Lomillialor | November 24, 2009 4:23 PM | Report abuse

The Democrats supported Bush when they thought that the voters would react badly if they did not do so. The Republicans are at this point completely unworried about the reprocussions from voters if they do not support Obama on healthcare reform.

Posted by: spotatl | November 24, 2009 4:26 PM | Report abuse

I think what all those bills have in common is that they didn't require any of us to do anything for them. It's easy to vote for items that demand nothing of your constituents.

NCLB? Unfunded. Tax cuts? Easy to put on our national credit card with no program cuts to make them fiscally responsible. Medicare Part D? Again, no one was asked to pay for it. War stuff? Most of us didn't serve and didn't have to pay (indeed, we got more tax cuts). Sarbanes-Oxley and McCain-Feingold? Again, demanded nothing of the voters.

But the hard problems we have today will require us to do things differently. Meaningful health care reform will change the way we use and pay for health care. Meaningful energy policies will change how we use energy and the cars we drive. And responsible fiscal policy will require budget cuts and tax reforms that result in less services and benefits for some and higher taxes for others.

I think the main difference between the bipartisan Bush domestic initiatives and Obama's proposals is that Bush dealt with the easy questions, or perhaps difficult questions in an irresponsible way. Dealing with hard issues requiring hard choices is a much tougher battle, so it's not surprising that they effectively divide more along party lines.

Posted by: dasimon | November 24, 2009 4:29 PM | Report abuse

Again, I'd like to read a post that identifies and analyzes the mistakes made by the administration in this agonizing push for healthcare reform, maybe after this week's obligatory "I'm not too worried about Joe Lieberman -- he'll vote for reform at the end of day because deep down he's really a decent guy" post.

Posted by: scarlota | November 24, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

A liberal agenda is not much good without liberal leadership and, y'know, consequences for the members OF YOUR OWN PARTY who decide to kneecap it.

Posted by: NS12345 | November 24, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Did I hear you say Medicare Part D was a give-away to the drug companies?

So why isn't Obamacare not a give-away to the drug companies, in light of the $80 billion deal that Obama can't walk away (otherwise, no industry group will trust him and nothing can get done on Capitol Hill)?

And even if W. didn't pursue Medicare Part D, some Democrat would in all likelihood, because, as you say, MMA is very much a liberal idea. We all know why W. pursued Part D, so that he could win Florida in 2004.

And you are correct in suggesting that Medicare Part D is one of the biggest entitlement programs that will saddle those very young people (who voted for Obama) with a very expensive bill. Young taxpayers are screwed.

Thanks Ezra for making it easier to point out the fiscal insanity of liberal agenda.

Now where's that ferret economist who believes America can spend its way out of trouble?

Posted by: RandomWalk1 | November 24, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

isn't it ironic (and i agree with ezra) that HCR this time around wouldn't happen if we didn't have the cost boondoggle that is Medicare Part D. Seniors would absolutely kill it. Their response would be something like this:

"We stil have to pay for our prescriptions and you're giving free healthcare to illegals"

Posted by: visionbrkr | November 24, 2009 5:21 PM | Report abuse

"There's no analogue to welfare reform on his docket."

Well, when we get a commission to cut social security, as seems likely, there will be.

Anyway, this post is simply misleading. Next Ezra will say Bush was great on the environemnt, he had the "Clear Skies" act.

Posted by: Hopeful9 | November 24, 2009 5:36 PM | Report abuse

Randomwalk1: "Thanks Ezra for making it easier to point out the fiscal insanity of liberal agenda."

Seems to me that the "liberal agenda" today is to make sure that things are paid for, like wars and health care.

The insanity--and most of our current debt--was with the prior administration, not this one. (Even Bush's Social Security privatization plan had huge transition costs which they had no idea how to pay for.)

Again, the difference isn't liberal-conservative; it's whether to deal with hard problems in an honest way. Admitting that some programs may require higher taxes on some people isn't fiscal insanity; it's fiscally responsible, though reasonable people can disagree on whether it's worth it.

Posted by: dasimon | November 24, 2009 5:54 PM | Report abuse

dasimon and Randomwalk1,

Can we all agree that everything has to be paid for from now on? That is what the American people seem to want.

I'll gladly pay even more in taxes when some liberals agree that their programs need to stop. I've seen ideas of requiring guaranteed employment paid through more taxes on some liberal websites. The insanity on both sides needs to stop so that we all can have a country to live in that isn't owned by the Chinese and others.

Oh and with the troop surge the war is about to become Obama's problem too. I consider myself fiscally conservative so I don't want to pay for it either. I'm all in favor of two options:

Option 1: forcing it to be paid for with taxes (start with taxing Cheney's company, Haliburton some more)

Option 2: don't increase the troops but rather go after what we can potentially do something about (the taliban) with a program similar to what I believe VP Biden suggested of drones and special forces). I think we can all agree that Afghanistan didn't work for Russia so it won't work for us.

Posted by: visionbrkr | November 24, 2009 6:03 PM | Report abuse

"Bush's domestic record is more a tale of co-opting liberal ideas and adding money for corporations."

Oh and Obamacare is not?

Posted by: bmull | November 24, 2009 7:37 PM | Report abuse

visionbrkr: "Can we all agree that everything has to be paid for from now on? That is what the American people seem to want."

Do they? I'm not so sure. It seems to me that people want all sorts of things as long as someone else pays for it (see the S-CHIP expansion that was paid for by raising the cigarette tax). And if everyone has that position, then it's impossible to get anyone to pay for it.

I think Reagan sold the idea that we can have something for nothing, to our long-term detriment. The idea that we are, like it or not, ultimately responsible for what we want out of our government has been lost for over two decades and it will take a great deal of political leadership to restore it.

Our politicians can't be expected to make hard decisions unless we are willing to back them on it. And that will require our political leaders to ask instead "what are you willing to do" instead of just "what do you want." We can want anything as long as we don't have to do anything. But it's the willingness to do something that's the requirement for sustainable government, regardless of which party is running the show.

Right now, I don't see any political leader asking, nor do I see a majority of the public asking that they be asked--though I hope that will change.

Posted by: dasimon | November 24, 2009 8:03 PM | Report abuse

Addendum to my prior post: I do think things ought to be paid for since it's the only sustainable form of government. But I also think there are exceptions that justify running temporary deficits to be paid for later. Now would be a terrible time to pay for the stimulus package and balance the budget; FDR's attempt to do so too early is widely considered to have resulted in killing off a potential recovery during the depression.

But I do wish that those promoting the stimulus had also made clear that we should be prepared to pay it back when things got better. Unfortunately, it's hard to even mention the word "tax" without being pilloried by public opinion these days, even if it's the responsible thing to do.

Posted by: dasimon | November 24, 2009 10:56 PM | Report abuse

The health care bill passed in the House and soon to be debated in the Senate are hardly genuine liberal or progressive. Liberals and progressives want universal health care coverage that is affordable, which prevents any individual or family from going bankrupt from excessive medical expenses, including for long-term care.

Raising taxes on the very affluent and wealthy are the fairest ways to pay for health care reform, not on the backs of seniors with major reductions in Medicare spending. A single payer system or at least a strong public option open to everyone are supported by most liberals and progressives who are ordinary people, not beholden to private insurance companies.

The health care bill that will probably pass Congress by early next year falls well short of these progressive goals. The health care bill is partly needed reforms, but even more a sell-out to private health insurance companies.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | November 25, 2009 12:45 AM | Report abuse

"To make a bit of a heretical point" - sad thing for me to have to copy. Translation: I, Matt Yglesias, and Kevin Drum are part of a religion, where a principal tenet is that George W Bush by definition cannot have done anything I agree with.
Ezra means it as humor, but the humor is based on the translation I gave.

Posted by: MikeR4 | November 25, 2009 8:48 AM | Report abuse

Aprogressiveindependent: you cannot squeeze enough money out of the "very affluent and wealthy" to pay for HCR, as their taxes are already slated to go up next year to pre 2001 levels. The reality is if you want universal health care its going to require middle class tax increases. We can debate if that's a worthwhile trade-off or not, but its the fiscal reality, given the already very dire fiscal situation of the gov't. The tax hikes on the wealthy are already baked into the administrations long-term deficit numbers, and they are still ugly.

Posted by: truth5 | November 25, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse

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