Saturday, November 01, 2008

Obama and the Democratic Congress

I pretty much disagree with Matt Bai's article about Obama not being able to control a Democratic Congress. He writes:

If recent history is any guide, however, Obama would need more than raw numbers in his favor. Congressional majorities are, in fact, a lot like corporate profits; they exist on paper, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually there when you need them. Carter, a reformer who won in an equally anti-Republican year, inherited a 23-seat majority in the Senate and a 149-seat advantage in the House — and accomplished little. Working with a narrower majority, Clinton barely passed a budget and then failed to win approval for his health care plan before losing Congress altogether. George W. Bush saw his one-seat Senate majority disappear almost immediately when a member of his own party, Jim Jeffords, defected.

The problem for all three presidents was, in a sense, more cultural than ideological. Carter, Clinton and Bush were all former governors who had not spent enough time in Washington to take the subway without a map; they were of the same parties as their Congressional allies but not of the same club. Each arrived in Washington assuming he’d earned the right to dictate the governing agenda to his party’s leaders, and each soon learned that entrenched Congressional chairmen aren’t especially impressed by inaugural balls. Such outsider presidents tend to display a remarkable indifference to the electoral needs and insecurities that can lead legislators to abandon a president of their own party. In retrospect, for instance, it’s hard to imagine why Clinton pursued a vote on his anti-crime bill, which included new restrictions on handguns, in August 1994, just three months before a lot of Southern and Western Democrats had to face the voters in their districts. A lot of them lost at least partly as a result, and the lesson that Congressional Democrats took away was that Clinton’s vaunted political instincts didn’t extend to helping them.

The problem with this analysis is that it is a facile look at the past. There is a huge difference between Carter and Clinton on the one hand and Obama on the other. Carter and Clinton had Democratic majorities, but those majorities had significant numbers of old-style southern Democrats in them. The realignment of 1980-1994 essentially eliminated those seats. Today, almost all Democrats agree with the central agenda of the party. Bai is someone aware of this but says that the tide of Democrats is likely to bring in more conservative members. To some extent, this may be true. I'm sure that there will be a couple more Heath Shuler types in the House. But who in the Senate fits this description? Democrats are going to win at least 7 Senate seats and I can't think of one of these people who is a conservative. Kay Hagan? Maybe. That's it.

That's not to say that Obama won't have problems setting the agenda. But I think the structural problem that Bai bases his history on has largely disappeared.