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Achievements matter


David Brooks has a column today offering a counterfactual scenario in which Obama entered office, passed a massive payroll tax cut instead of the stimulus bill, focused his rhetoric on long-term growth rather than short-term recovery, cut spending, and did a super-popular energy bill rather than the mildly unpopular health-care bill. The idea, of course, is that he and the Democrats would be in better political shape than they currently are.

Like any counterfactual, you could poke holes in this. But instead, let's grant it. Obama entered office in January of 2009, had a long conversation with Future Brooks, and adopted this plan. As Brooks doesn't mention cap-and-trade or a price on carbon, I'll assume this is an energy investment bill rather than a carbon-pricing bill. As Brooks doesn't argue that his plan would've reduced the unemployment rate relative to its current level (and as that would be a very difficult case to make), I'll assume the economy looks pretty much as it looks now.

Maybe, in that world, Brooks is right. Maybe Democrats would be facing a loss of 25 or 30 seats rather than 45 or 50. I could think of reasons that that's not true, but let's say, for the moment, that it is.

What Brooks seems to be offering is a trade: Do less stuff, hold more seats. Now, Brooks doesn't think the health-care bill was a good bill, but Obama does, and most Democrats do. I'm not really sure what Brooks thinks of the stimulus plan's long-term infrastructure investments, but Obama and his team thought they were extremely important to the economy's long-term growth prospects. A universal health-care bill and hundreds of billions in much-needed, long-term investments in exchange for 15 or 20 House seats? Well, what are supermajorities for, if not making that precise trade?

You could say, I guess, that Obama and his team could've gotten more done by doing less in years one and two and then holding Democratic seats so they could continue passing legislation in years three and four. But I'd look at that a bit differently: They spent years one and two working on the issue areas of interest to massive Democratic majorities, like health-care reform and infrastructure investment, and they'll spend years three and four working on things that are of more interest to divided government, like deficit reduction. That is to say, they got everything they could out of the Democratic supermajority, and now they'll actually be able to pivot to the center more easily, as Democrats won't be yelling at Obama to fulfill his campaign promises and do health-care reform.

The odd man out in all this is energy reform, but I'm of the perhaps-pessimistic opinion that a serious cap-and-trade bill never really had a chance. Either way, I'm much more inclined toward critiques of Obama that focus on what more he could have done over the past two years. Saying he could have done less and then he would've been criticized less may or may not be true, but I'm much more worried about failing the uninsured and failing the climate than about failing Democratic candidates running in the 2010 midterms.

Photo credit: By Pete Souza/White House

By Ezra Klein  |  September 3, 2010; 3:12 PM ET
Categories:  2010 Midterms  
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Next: Good news and bad news in the August jobs report


Brooks forgot one thing: In that counterfactual, he would have written a column about how much better off the Democrats would have been had Obama worked on a stimulus bill and done something about health care.

As Jon Stewart put it a few weeks ago when Obama went on "The View" instead of speaking to the Boy Scouts, it really didn't matter what he did - Fox News would still have complained.

Posted by: KenInIL | September 3, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Let's see. On one hand, an appointed commission is exploring alternatives on how to reduce the federal deficit which may influence when and how much Social Security benefits are paid to future beneficiaries. On the other hand, Pres. Obama's economic brain trust may be looking at Social Security payroll tax cuts or holidays. Something doesn't compute.

The 'fiscal conservatives' will run amok spreading fear, uncertainty, and distortion about the financial insecurity of Social Security. And older folks do vote.

Going down the age ladder, apparently youngin's may be having second thoughts. They might not care as much specifically about Social Security but nothing like financial insecurity, pondering an uncertain future in an economy adrift to change one's mind about how to vote.

Posted by: tuber | September 3, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

If you do less stuff in order to protect your majority, what is your majority for?

Posted by: randrewm | September 3, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of such "achievements" by the ruling regime brings to mind a quote from C. S. Lewis, who wrote in __God in the Dock__ that

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

Posted by: rmgregory | September 3, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

The object should be to do the most net good not be elected the most.

I'd rather have my political career ended at one term and do a lot of net good, then have it last decades and do a lot less net good, or net harm.

Getting elected should be a means, not the end.

The end should be to do the maximum net good.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | September 3, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

"The odd man out in all this is energy reform, but I'm of the perhaps-pessimistic opinion that a serious cap-and-trade bill never really had a chance"

Unless you abolish the filibuster -- perhaps Obama will do this in a second term if he gets one. Perhaps that's his strategic plan -- patiently wait till the recession's over and popularity is high and then use that capital for two things things of monumental positive importance, ending the filibuster and making carbon polluters pay for their damage and grave global warming risk.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | September 3, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

rmgregory -

When you speak of 'moral busibodies,' you're talking about the political movement that wants to legislate your uterus, who you can have sex with, whether Terry Schiavo can die, and whether two people actually love each other, right?

Posted by: CarlosXL | September 3, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse


When calculating net good, do you include the harm your opponents will do, when you fail to get re-elected.

Posted by: MrDo64 | September 3, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

rmgregory -

When you speak of 'moral busibodies,' you're talking about the political movement that wants to legislate your uterus, who you can have sex with, whether Terry Schiavo can die, and whether two people actually love each other, right?
yeah, I'm pretty certain he's talking about Democrats.

Posted by: luca_20009 | September 3, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

It's actually a regime of robber barons disguised as moral busibodies. The goal of healthcare reform was to secure great government power over the citizen -- not to guarantee healthcare to a certain number of people.

Posted by: truck1 | September 3, 2010 6:55 PM | Report abuse

Brooks fantasy, that Obama would do a half a...d GEB iimtation and therefore lose fewer seats in the house is justmore republican BS.

George Will has been muttering like that for years, "the democrats would be doing so much better idf they were only OUR Republicans"

Well the pragmatik of the situation is that republicans ruined the economy and nearly ruined the country and now sit around and fantasize that Obama should have been dumb enough to continue their idiocy.

That is why they lost in 2008, and that is why the fantasy of "Big Republican Gains in 2010" is equally unlikely. In the next two months there will be a real political campaign, and a badly gored republican party will try to sell T-Pot, or Crack-Pot Ideas that even they don't accept to the American People. The democrats will sell the cold hard facts, that we were in a big mess in 2009 and we are still cleaning it up, and we would be farther along if the Republicans would stop kicking over the mop bucket, and a damned sight further along if the republicans would actually cooperate.

One is selling fantasy and one is selling reality.

When reality, unfortunate as it is, prevails we will be a whole lot further along in recovery, and there will be just a few fewer Republican stumps in the field to ruin the plowing.

Posted by: ceflynline | September 3, 2010 8:33 PM | Report abuse

"When calculating net good, do you include the harm your opponents will do, when you fail to get re-elected."


And how much worse would (or could) a Republican vote than Ben Nelson would, for a term or two until the economy turns bad on the Republicans and a Democrat gets back in.

If it means in return abolishing the filibuster, or getting a public health insurance option, or single payer, or cap and trade, things that once tried will blow away the false or flawed arguments against them so they become permanent (like Medicare for example), things that will do fundamental, monumental, permanent good, that's worth losing for a relatively short while all the Nelson seats in the senate and House -- easily. Because the great good tends to become permanent with try-and-see, and the bad tends to get exposed as such with try-and-see and be relatively short lived.

Posted by: Richard722 | September 3, 2010 8:40 PM | Report abuse

It's a big recession and it will take time. The last Administration left us with too much federal debt to be able to fight it. We also had to bail out Wall Street. Without that, every citizen in the U.S. would be in bankruptcy court, defending their assets. And it is a part of our moral and religious duty to help poor people with medical problems. But the old way of helping them costs the rest of us much more money than necessary, in our premiums and taxes. Nobody likes helping the undeserving rich or wasting money while helping the poor. But the way forward is NOT to deregulate Wall Street, or to deny universal health care. Let’s not give control of government back to the party that let these problems develop.

Posted by: Lee_A_Arnold | September 4, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

You know what You guys should stop complaining because, one the health care we have now isnt as good as it was supposed to be. also the law has just been signed so give it some time. so if u want to say u have the right to choose tell that to ur congress men or state official. If you do not have insurance and need one You can find full medical coverage at the lowest price by calling 877-882-4740 or check If you have health insurance and do not care about cost just be happy it and trust me you are not going to loose anything!

Posted by: cadynhenry04 | September 5, 2010 2:54 AM | Report abuse

"they got everything they could out of the Democratic supermajority"

False. They did not achieve the advancement of equal rights for openly gay and lesbian soldiers in our armed forces, a policy supported by, in some polls, about 75% of the American people. That is an unforgivable failure.

Posted by: SteveH5 | September 6, 2010 12:17 AM | Report abuse

Gay rights was an ignored issue because there was no money in it, no wealth to redistribute.

Posted by: truck1 | September 6, 2010 8:42 AM | Report abuse

I found Brooks's piece deeply flawed. First, as Ezra points out, focusing on a long-term growth plan would likely have done little to alter our present economic situation. The economy would still be bad, people would still be angry, they'd still be taking it out on the party in power (regardless of responsibility), Republicans would still be crying about unemployment, higher taxes, and deficits (without any serious proposals for dealing with any of them), and the Democrats would still be looking at serious losses. People generally vote their pocketbooks, not issues, so I'm unconvinced Democratic prospects would be substantially different.

And if one thinks some kind of health care reform was necessary both for individuals and the nation, when else could it possibly have been done? It passed my the narrowest of margins as it was. Does anyone think anything of substance would have gotten through going into this election, or afterward when Republicans gain more seats in Congress? The modest health care legislation passed in the Senate only when Specter's switch gave Democrats a brief period of 60 seats to thwart a filibuster, and that lasted only until Kennedy's death which then forced procedural machinations to get what we got. What does anyone think would have gotten through next year when a united Republican opposition will have more than 40 seats?

Whether one agrees with the health care bill or not, it seems to me that Democrats seized the only possible window to get it done. They could have done it faster, and delays hurt them while providing no benefit. But it seems to me that to put it off would have killed it entirely.

So as Ezra argues, if you think health care reform was important, then Brooks's trade would have been a bad one.

Posted by: dasimon | September 6, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

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