With all the attention on the Boston massacre, it was easy to miss the failed votes on gun amendments. With the cloture votes having failed, so have proposals as modest as merely expanding background checks.
Understandably, this has prompted some progressive commentators to question why President Obama couldn’t get this done. I should note at this point that I don’t consider Obama to be as good a negotiator as a campaigner, as many on the left and even a few on the right do. Agreeing to negotiate on the debt limit in 2011 was a mistake. So was the deal at the start of the year that made most of the Bush tax cuts permanent without doing anything about the sequester, which is already doing tremendous damage to the economy.
That said, I don’t see any reason to believe that this outcome was ever going to be different. I’ve seen the historical analogies that supposedly show that other presidents would have gotten it done. They tend to be selective, acknowledging pretty much only the LBJ of 1964-1965, only the pre-court-packing FDR, or they ignore that ending welfare as we knew it was very much one of Bill Clinton’s accomplishments. I’ll do a little analysis of some of these examples that Obama supposedly needs to emulate.
George W. Bush.
George W. Bush has long been an intensely disliked figure by the left and rightfully so. It was he who invaded Iraq, smashed the budget, and while certain presidents before him were also responsible, the 2008 financial crisis happened on his watch. So many on the left admire his political skills. They remember him using the bully pulpit to pass both rounds of Bush tax cuts, getting the Iraq War and Patriot Act approved overwhelmingly, successfully vetoing bills that would have ended the war. Not to mention that he came perhaps the closest of any president to the economic right’s sacred chalice: privatizing Social Security. With this perspective, the idea of the President having limited power doesn’t seem evident to progressives.
Context is necessary, though. The first three of these items happened during Bush’s post-9/11 high or when the polls — believe it or not — showed overwhelming support for the war. If anything, the fact that one of the critical votes for the second round of tax cuts, passed right after Iraq was invaded, was a tie that Dick Cheney broke speaks to presidential limits. So does the fact Bush signed major bills like Medicare Part D and campaign finance reform that conservatives had a tremendously nonplussed take on.
Also note that privatization was a political disaster. The only thing that came of it was the beginning of Bush’s steep decline. Other failures included an energy bill and the outlawing of gay marriage that appears more and more to have been the Christian right’s last shot at it.
Bill Clinton had a lot to learn. In his earliest days, he proposed stimulus and campaign finance reform bills, neither of which became law. It would not be until his first August that he had a major piece of legislation on his record ( the 1993 tax increase, to be exact). And not to disparage it, but the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act passed with the support of many Republicans and the opposition of many Democrats. In other words, if the Republicans were as fearful of primary challenges then as they are now, it would have failed.
And has everyone forgotten Hillarycare? That plan’s failure was often cited during the health care bill of just a few years ago.
True, Clinton won the government shutdown battle and the vast majority of second term negotiations. But he also signed the kind of welfare reform bill that he had vetoed in the past and that had been voted down by congressional Democrats when Ronald Reagan proposed it in 1982. So to say that he could do anything is as historically revisionist as it gets. The documentary American Experience: Clinton puts his post-1994 Republican Revolution strategy as follows: “It was the politics of the possible. Not the things he dreamed of doing but the things he could do.”
But the mythology of Clinton’s skills doesn’t go nearly as deep as the mythology of Reagan’s skills. Yes, he passed big tax and federal cuts despite a Democratic House. But while I fear this being taken the wrong way, we’ll never know how many votes these two bills got only because of the Hinckley assassination attempt, because there was a whole bunch of tax increases in the years that followed. In his second year alone the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 was one of the biggest tax raises in history, and that’s not counting the gas tax hike of a few months later. Other disappointing outcomes for Reagan include amnesty-oriented immigration reform, multiple spending increases despite his veto, and an anti-apartheid bill passed (thankfully, as it goes without saying) over his veto. The only particularly right-wing legislation between 1981 and Reagan’s departure was the Gramm-Rudman budget cuts, much of which were nixed later by Congress and the Supreme Court. So even that outcome was a tad mixed.
And while he did avoid impeachment over the Iran-Contra scandal, there’s some important but small print there in the form of the pulling of funding from the Contras, a couple of those veto-killin’ spending bills, and Reagan’s approval rating not recovering to its former glory until the usual going-away boost.
Some call Obama the left’s Reagan. Although Reagan never really had a “chained CPI” moment (at least I don’t think he did, but a lot of news is made during legislation) and Obama never won anywhere near 49 states, there’s at least a bit of a parallel between both presidents’ questionable negotiating skills despite them being great campaigners. Because I am far from convinced that gun control and sequestration suggest that Obama’s policy defeats will be any worse for the left than Reagan’s were for the right.
I could make the refutation of LBJ as an unbeatable progressive warrior with one word: Vietnam. Why some on the left gush over him is beyond me.
But I should be more fair than that. He was one of the best presidents at getting things done. This was because he had an unusual amount of congressional experience for a President. So he accomplished a great amount in 1964 and 1965.
Thing is, though, that as the war in Vietnam began to destroy his presidency in mid-1966, his legislative agenda slowed down a great deal. To his credit, LBJ did whether the storm of failed midterm elections to prevent a conservative coalition of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats from controlling the House like it did in the early Reagan era, but said conservative coalition did slow the Great Society to a snails’ pace.
Keep perspective in perspective.
That’s enough. I could continue, but my point has been made. My guess is that the reason theses presidents are partially misunderstood is a matter of wishful thinking. We want to believe that the political system is less limited than it truly is. We want to believe that our favored policy can overcome any hurdle with the right messenging. But that’s really not how it works. Usually, the political climate and balance of power are what really count.
My advice to you is to put pressure on politicians who might support your positions and vote at least every even-numbered November. That is how political battles are won.