Monday, September 10, 2012

Are the 1980s and 1990s Really That Long Ago?

President Clinton, President Reagan. And if you look at them, you can criticize them for lots of things. They by and large worked their will. On this, President Obama did not.
That's Bob Woodward talking to Diane Sawyer about his new book on Obama and the debt limit showdown.

Both Kevin Drum and Ed Kilgore react by arguing that Things Are Different Today -- it's not right to compare Obama to previous presidents who served during periods in which polarization was less all-encompassing. While there's obviously something to that, my impression is to just say:

Hogwash.

Reagan worked his will? For a year, maybe eighteen months, in which he had a Republican Senate and a conservative majority in the House -- yes, mostly, and impressively. After that? Hardly at all. Are there any significant Reagan initiatives pushed through Congress from mid-1982 on? Not that I can think of. Certainly aren't any federal agencies shut down. Instead of tax cuts, there are a series of tax increases, beginning when Republican Senators worked with Democrats in the House to convince Reagan to accept tax hikes in 1982. After that, his Congressional situation deteriorates -- liberals retake the House in the 1982 elections, and Democrats recapture the Senate in 1986. For the last six or seven years, Reagan is playing defense, and frequently losing (remember, just as one example: Iran/Contra only happens because Congress actually shuts down a proxy war the White House wanted). If Reagan worked his will from 1983 on, his will was very different than what we've been led to believe.

Clinton worked his will? During the two years of unified Democratic government, Clinton did manage to pass a budget plan, but he was famously defeated on a stimulus bill and even more famously clobbered on health care reform. Later, his famous "victory" over Newt Gingrich in the 1995-1996 budget showdown was certainly a political win and was a lot better for Clinton than many of his supporters feared he would settle for, but it's laughable to call the final deal a case of "worked his will." Clinton did get some things from Republican Congresses; they compromised more or less on welfare reform, and he got S-CHIP, and some other stuff...but no one who was paying attention then, or in the 1980s, would think that the White House was overall achieving what the president thought he was elected to do.

The truth is that other than a few very brief periods (FDR in the first couple years, LBJ for eighteen months or so) the president has never "worked his will." It's a ridiculous standard to hold Barack Obama to -- presidents aren't supposed to work their will within the US Madisonian system, and they don't. There's nothing new about that, and you don't need a Tea Party crazies explanation to know that Obama wasn't going to get all he wanted out of Congress. Oh, they certainly made it worse, and may have made the situation somewhat more dangerous (although comparing it to the Cuban Missile Crisis, as Woodward does....er, I already used hogwash, laughable, and ridiculous, so I'm afraid I'm running out). The idea of a president not getting his way, however? That's just normal politics.

37 comments:

  1. All I can say is, "thank you for this". I'm tired of Woodward's BS.

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  2. Reagan did get tax reform.

    However, all he got was his broad vision, and it certainly wasn't due to any pushing from the Oval Office in particular. People who had jobs at the White House played a role, definitely. But, in the end, Rostenkowski was really in the driver's seat on it, and everyone else played important supporting roles.

    In the end, though, I can't score tax reform as a defeat for Reagan, or even a push. That was a win (just not one he really had much to do with).

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    1. I was trying to keep the item short, and tax reform is complicated. Yes, it was to a fair extent a Reagan initiative. But does anyone really think it represented Reagan's "will"? Checking...he mentioned it in his 1984 convention speech, but I'd be surprised if it showed up much, and even at all, pre-1980 (although I wouldn't be surprised if it was in the Heritage proposals in 1980, and if so maybe that counts).

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    2. Jack Kemp, Ryan's mentor, did push tax simplification, which was one tributary of the 86 act. http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/tax-policy/Documents/tres84v1C-8.pdf

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    3. Of course it was Reagan's will.

      George H.W. Bush sat next to Tip O'Neill whisperingly mocking Reagan, as he spoke to that joint session, laying out his supply side agenda. And Bush himself had famously called it "voodoo economics" during the primary. So both the hard Left and establishment RINOs hated supply side.

      I guess you had to be alive then to know this, kids. The Left and RINOs absolutely despised that supply side agenda. It was Reagan and some other forward thinkers who willed that through. It's sorta amusing watching you lefties rewrite history on this site, and writing Reagan out of this. Maybe Mondale did it. ;-)

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    4. @Anonymous (9/10, 2:53 pm) As one who was alive then, the supply side agenda was Reagan's and he moved it very effectively in 1981. Then, from the moment Reaganites said that Social Security was next in their sights, Tip O'Neill led a Democratic counterattack that cost Reagan his de facto House majority in 1982.

      After that, Reagan pretty much failed to "impose his will" on Congress.

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    5. massappeal,

      Correct about most of that, but it wasn't SS that cost the GOP in 1982; it was the massive Reagan recession.

      (Just as the very successful Reagan recovery got him re-elected in 1984).

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    6. Actually, Reagan called that the Carter recession, and the electorate agreed with him, as was confirmed in the 1984 presidential election.

      The 1982 election was a typical first term incumbent offyear, particularly considering Reagan's huge coattails in 1980 (the 1986 Senate election confirmed this as well). 1982 didn't really give indication of much... unlike the 2010 shellacking, for example.

      I'm still amused at how you lefties rewrite history on this site. ;-)

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    7. As are we at how an incumbent's party losing seats in a bad economy in one year (1982) means nothing, but how an incumbent's party losing seats in a bad economy in another year (2010) is an indication of everything.

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    8. Actually, it was the Paul Volcker recession, generated by the Federal Reserve in order to stanch inflation.

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    9. The 1982 election was a typical first term incumbent offyear ... unlike the 2010 shellacking, for example.

      The Republicans in 1982 actually lost a larger percentage of the popular vote than the Democrats in 2010 did. (Specifically, the margin in 1982 was 55-43%, compared with 51-45% in 2010.) The reason it translated into fewer seat losses was purely structural. The 1982 House Republicans were in the minority to begin with, and hence they had far fewer seats to defend than the 2010 Democrats did.

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    10. Well, I'd agree that the 2010 shellacking had structural elements, as in the Left had recruited a bunch of normal sounding candidates in 2006 and 2008, all of whom proceeded to vote for Bailouts, Porkulus, Cap and Tax, and ObamaCare. So they got shellacked, in the most devastating congressional shellacking in 3/4 century, as the electorate rejected them.

      And you can't compare electoral totals between years 1982 and 2010, as the political landscape has changed remarkably since then. In 1982, Blue Dogs were not the exception, they were almost a norm (and they meant it, unlike Rahm's imposters), and in fact they were referenced as the Boll Weevils in this era. So you might expect a wider gap during a first offyear election back then, unlike today, when a smaller electoral gap is to be considered a blowout.

      As I say, Reagan's coattails in 1980 were huge, and many of the House seats won were marginal, and subject to swing back next election. The 1982 offyear was absolutely unremarkable, then, historically speaking, unlike the 2010 shellacking.

      Again, I'm amused at the constant lefty revisionism on this site. ;-)

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  3. Lest you be caught in the same trap - here are a few additional synonyms.

    Absurd
    Nuts
    Nonsense
    Bunk
    Drivel

    and, if you want to lend a bit of a nostalgic feel, there are always

    Bladerdash
    Poppycock

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  4. President Clinton, President Reagan. And if you look at them, you can criticize them for lots of things. They by and large convinced Beltway gasbags like Bob Woodward that they worked their will. On this, President Obama did not.

    Fixed.

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  5. Oh, and the "debt limit showdown" was initiated by Obama, which is why it's viewed as his loss. He was the one who willed and insisted on everybody gathering together, with him at the head of the table. He was the one who willed and insisted on that stupid golf outing. He was the one who then stood up and squawked "Don't call my bluff, Eric!".

    You lose when you will and set yourself up to lose, and that's what this political neophyte did last Summer/Fall. He was lucky that some older political hands were there to slap him upside his thick skull and get him out of that mess. He was sitting on Gallup 38 and falling by the end of that fiasco... a dead man... thanks to his own foolishness. Withdrawing from that own goal may have come too late, and the jury is still out on that one, 'til November at least.

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    1. @Anonymous (9/10, 3:00 pm) Just for the record, Pres. Obama wanted a "clean" debt ceiling vote---just like all his predecessors had. It was Congressional Republicans who insisted on linking the debt ceiling to spending cuts.

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    2. Just for the record, Obama was borrowing 43 cents of every dollar he was spending, and wanted to spend even more. Nobody in history was ringing up debt faster than Obama, and that historical precedent has to change, as the public well understood.

      He refused to recognize that fact, and that's what drove him down to Gallup 38 this time last year. We'll see in a couple months if he pulled out of that stupidity in time.

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    3. I suppose you're assuming the entire 62% who did not approve of him at the time were doing so for the same reasons you did.

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    4. (did meaning, of course, did not)

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    5. The polling data is available for your review, and I'll give you a hint: The guy yammering "Don't call my bluff, Eric!" had his bluff called, and the Gallup 38 approval rating was pretty much what he lost that hand. Now we're testing whether it busted him. We'll flip the cards in November.

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  6. Agree completely with this post. Presidential power ain't what it's cracked up to be (which I guess is a brief summary of Neustadt.) The exception is war. The President is in unique position to spark war fever. That's been Republican presidents lately, and it may not always hold, but it has in the past. G.W. worked Cheney's will pretty well after 9-11 with the Patriot Act, Pentagon budgets and Iraq. There's also a quicker war weariness, so Reagan couldn't hold on to support for the Contras, an episode so tragically absurd that it seems forgotten.

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  7. One more thing. Obama just repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which Clinton was forced to institute in the first days of his presidency when he couldn't work his will to end gender discrimination in the military. And then there's the healthcare bill, which at one point was so popular that he waved a pen in a State of the Union address and threatened to veto it if it didn't meet his standards. He never got a bill. It took Obama to get it passed, against the same powerful forces that defeated the Clintons bill.

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    1. In the spirit of our host, I'd suggest that last part should be amended to "it took the 2009-2010 Democratic party to get it passed, including Obama, Pelosi, Reid, the Congressional caucuses in both houses, and the broader party network including outside groups".

      A whole lot changed in between 1993 and 2009--not least the fact that Democrats very likely "learned" from 1993-1994 that a failed health care effort means an electoral disaster.

      Which they got anyway, of course, so who knows what caused what either time.

      Anyway, Obama wasn't Clinton, but Pelosi wasn't Foley, Mitchell wasn't Reid, and the Democratic caucuses were probably different in their ideological compositions as well. (I don't know for sure.) The Republicans changed too, and so did the political landscape. I think one of the valuable points of this blog is to caution against attributing too much to any one factor.

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    2. Oh--and it was a different bill, too.

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    3. Also, Obama was able to get the insurance industry on board. As I recall, Clinton got the larger insurance companies behind him, but the smaller ones ran a public campaign against the bill.

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    4. Xenocrypt makes an excellent point. Obama had some advantages Clinton didn't have. Any analysis of who did better given their opportunities is going to be complicated.

      And Scott does to, but that's one that IMO really was about smart presidenting: Obama realized he needed to get at least some of the major interests on board, and Clinton mostly didn't.

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    5. And don't forget the Louisiana Purchase, the Nebraska Cornhusker, the Florida Squeezin's et al. ;-)

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    6. I didn't mean to imply that Obama deserves any more credit for health care legislation than Clinton does for his successes. By the same token, no less credit either.

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    7. I don't know if all of the differences were advantages for Obama. My guess is that the Republicans and Democrats were both more unified. Obama had more votes in the Senate, as Ezra Klein pointed out--but the Republican Senate caucus, and the customs of the Senate, might have been different for Obama. I'd like to know more about how many House dems knew they were in vulnerable seats in 1993-1994. (The Democratic majority had a lot of McCain seats in 2009/2010.) And as Klein also mentioned there was the financial/economic crisis. It's all very interrelated and complicated. You'd have to have a lot of really deep and careful reporting and analysis to try to compare Obama's decisions to Clinton's.

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    8. But more broadly--I certainly agree that, while Clinton is a brilliant man and a popular ex-President who enjoyed two fairly easy wins and a good economy, the idea that he was some kind of wizard who never lost anything and always outsmarted everyone is crazy and unrealistic. You can recognize and evaluate his accomplishments without basking in this myth. But after his big speech I see a lot of the latter. Not like I'm an expert on his Presidency though.

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  8. Presidents always look bigger and more powerful in retrospect. So did kings, in their day. This is one reason why it was always better in the old days!

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  9. Yeah, to tack onto what Captain Future said, if you look at health care reform, repealing DADT, student loan reform, restructuring GM, and everything contained in the stimulus (including creating an alternative energy industry where little existed, Race to the Top, etc.), it looks like Obama "worked his will" more effectively than either Clinton or Reagan. Of course, these accomplishments happened during unified Democratic control, but I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

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    1. What you said... sorry didn't see this before I added my own, lol.

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  10. One wonders whether or not this is a problem -- 1) of perspective and 2) of expectations.

    With perspective, for Reagan the AWACs vote absorbed lots of time and attention. And it was a big victory for him. Important policy? Not especially looking back. I think the tax reform fight mirrors the health care fight though it was one in which both parties saw an interest. I think you just cannot compare instances like this and like with FDR or LBJ with a bipartisan effort to work out things where each side has a stake (fewer corporate loopholes, lower corporate taxes for example).

    In terms of expectations, I think again, Obama has a big problem. The sense that 60 votes was what was needed when prior to this administration one could pass legislation without a supermajority makes the comparison misleading. On Clinton its just plain silly. I mean if someone can get impeached for what he did, that should be a pretty good backdrop on how successful he is at "working his will."

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  11. Spot on analysis. For what it is worth, Obama did pretty much "work his will" until 2011. The stimulus, ACA and Dodd-Frank were all significant legislation that are pretty much along the lines of what he campaigned on. Having remembered the Clinton presidency quite well I find it laughable that he "worked his will."

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    1. Well, climate is a pretty major exception. And he failed to get some of the second (or third, or whatever) stimulus he wanted in 2010). And the extension of the Bush-era upper-tier tax cut rates was a solid loss for him. Gitmo was a loss. Then there's the deficit; your guess is as good as mine what "his will" is on it, but if he really wanted a grand bargain, he sure didn't get it.

      It was a very successful two years, but certainly not everything he wanted.

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  12. It is funny to hear Bob Woodward hail Clinton. Read The Agenda -- it's pretty damning. And it basically makes the same argument: Clinton accomplished some things, but he was disorganized and folded on a lot of things. Not like those people from the good old days. Really silly, when you think about it.


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