It May Be A Weird Institution, But It’s Our Weird Institution

Matt Y notes that Felix Salmon notes two posts. David Roberts at Grist (on cap and trade):

Republicans have settled on a strategy of blanket opposition to both the health care and climate legislation. This obviously isn’t in the best interests of the country; it’s not even obviously in the narrow self-interest of many Republicans. Nonetheless, a combination of increasing ideological rigidity, lack of new ideas, and sheer cussed habit has taken the Right completely out of these debates, except as rock-throwers and gear-grinders. They’ve decided that Democratic successes on either of these major initiatives could fuel further electoral losses, and that’s their worst fear.

It didn’t have to be this way, and many people I talked to evinced genuine surprise at how it’s turned out. The climate bill strategy, for instance, got rolling in December, way back pre-Obama stimulus plan. It was designed around the assumption that in the wake of Obama’s historic win and efforts to reach out across the aisle, a few Republicans could be peeled off.

That didn’t work out. And it can’t be overstated how much unified Republican opposition is shaping things. The debate is entirely between Democrats, entirely along regional lines, and “moderate” Democrats (i.e. those hailing from carbon-intensive districts) have been accorded enormous power. Witness Boucher’s triumphs in the House.

In the Senate, there are maybe two Republican yes votes—the last moderates standing, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins from Maine. That means to get cloture, Dems can lose no more than two votes from their own caucus. Meanwhile, there are far more than two senators on the fence (at best) or likely nos (at worst): Mary Landrieu (Louisiana), Evan Bayh (Indiana), Ben Nelson (Nebraska), Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor (Arkansas), and several others.

And John Gapper at Financial Times (on financial regulation):

The US administration has clearly decided that it simply cannot get any large-scale consolidation of regulation through Congress, given the vested interests involved. But that makes its response to the financial crisis seem more like a whimper than a bang.

Salmon then says:

How did Obama manage to spend all his political capital so quickly? Did it all go on the stimulus bill? Wasn’t the whole point of bringing Rahm in as chief of staff that he could work constructively with Congress to pass an ambitious agenda? And isn’t Obama himself the first president since JFK to have entered the White House from the Senate? I’m not sure when everything went wrong here, but I fear that the damage is now irreparable — and that Obama’s agenda is going to be severely scaled back as a result.

To which Matt Y responds:

The American presidency is a weird institution. If Barack Obama wants to start a war with North Korea and jeopardize the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, it’s not clear that anyone could stop him. If he wants to let cold-blooded murderers out of prison, it’s completely clear that nobody can stop him. But if he wants to implement the agenda he was elected on just a few months ago, he needs to obtain a supermajority in the United States Senate.

Josh Patashnik responds to Matt:

I don’t really see how this makes the presidency a weird institution–what it means is that presidential campaigns are very strange creatures. The reality is that we have a system of government in which domestic policy is by and large set by Congress. You might think this is a good thing or a bad thing–I tend to think it’s a good thing–but it certainly isn’t a new thing; it’s the way the system has always worked. In a more rational world, presidential campaigns would focus exclusively on questions of foreign affairs, judicial appointments, how to run the administrative state, and so forth. Voters would laugh off the stage any presidential candidate pledging to reform entitlement programs or labeling herself the “commander in chief of the economy,” and no campaign would bother putting out, say, detailed proposals for health care reform. It would be almost as ridiculous as a candidate running for the House of Representatives on a platform of overturning Roe v. Wade (though, come to think of it, I guess that happens a fair amount too).

Matt responds to Josh:

I think this goes a little bit too far, but I basically agree. In particular, when it comes to domestic policy we spend way too much time discussing the ins-and-outs of candidates “plans” and too little time talking about how they envision interacting with congress. During the general election, it was extremely difficult to picture what a McCain administration would actually look like given that a Democratic Congress was essentially inevitable. And during the Democratic primary, debates between the candidates often seemed to presuppose that sheer force of will could get a health reform bill enacted. Meanwhile, I don’t recall the candidates in either the primary or the general having anything interesting to say about minor things like China.

Big Tent Democrat at Talk Left:

Yglesias has this wrong. The American Presidency is only weakened on policy when Democrats hold the office. This is, in part, because the Left Flank of the Democratic Party is incredibly ineffectual.

I once thought that the Left blogs could help to change that. But it seems there is much more interest in being Charlie Cooks and Stu Rothenbergs or in engaging in food fights with the Right blogs and Glenn Beck than in shaping the policy of the country .

Between the two posts above, Yglesias has another post up about the American system:

Now of course Texas is also a big state (though at 7.81 percent of the population it’s a lot smaller than California) and there are small states (like Vermont and North Dakota) that have two Democratic Senators. So the point here isn’t a narrowly partisan one, though the wacky apportionment of the Senate does have a partisan valence. The point is that this is an unfair and bizarre way to run things. If you consider that the mean state would contain two percent of the population, we have just 34 Senators representing the above-average states even though they collectively contain 69.15 percent of the population. The other 66 Senators represent about 30 percent of the people. If the Iranians were to succeed in overthrowing their theocracy and set about to write a new constitution, nobody in their right mind would recommend this system to them.

James Joyner responds:

Probably not — but we might have been better off recommending something like that to the Iraqis.  Some form of strong federalism or even confederalism makes a lot of sense in cases where states are comprised of geographically bound subgroupings with a strong sense of separate identity and history of autonomy.

The problem in the United States is that our current system no longer reflects the reality on the ground.  Most of us are now highly mobile with no strong sense of place-related identity.  Most Californians or New Yorkers or Virginians probably just think of themselves as Americans and only incidentally as residents of their states. This is least true, however, in the less populated states, which tend to be comprised of residents with intergenerational roots and therefore much more provincial.

1 Comment

Filed under Environment, Executive Branch, Go Meta, Legislation Pending, The Crisis

One response to “It May Be A Weird Institution, But It’s Our Weird Institution

  1. Interesting posting. If you are interested in federalism, you might be interested in my post on it. See:

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