Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Legislative Success/Ideological Failure

I'm having a hard time not sympathizing with Kevin Drum’s schizophrenia about Obama:
“I never expected to like everything he did. The reason I'm schizophrenic is that it's almost impossible to get a handle on what he really wants. Did he want a bigger stimulus bill but compromised down because $800 billion was all he could get? Or did he not really want more than that in the first place? Ditto for the public option. Ditto for DADT repeal, which he had to be pushed into supporting this year. And ditto again on financial reform, which is worth passing only because of numerous amendments to the original bill. On all of these issues and more, I don't feel like I ever knew what Obama's real position was. There's a big difference between compromising because politics is what it is and you have no choice, and compromising because the more centrist position is the one you genuinely hold. But Obama never gives me a good sense of which it is with him.”
I don’t need to be told that it sometimes makes sense politically for a president not to be very specific about what his priorities are. But Obama’s beginning to look like he doesn’t have anything but situational priorities. He seems to think that a liberal president’s job is principally a matter of adjudicating conflicts generated by other people’s priorities.  Because he’s willing to ignore the priorities of people appreciably to his right, his technique of presidential leadership has had the effect of moving public policy in a liberal direction at a rate not seen since the 1960s. But its limitations as a way of persuading people who haven’t already made up their mind that things are moving in the right direction is evidenced by Gallup polling showing that the electorate at large is getting more conservative at an unprecedented rate.

Conservatives will tell you that LBJ’s legislative successes in the 1960s set the Democratic Party up for ideological failure the 1980s. Liberals will tell you that conservatism’s recent ideological failures were prefigured by Reagan’s success at pushing his agenda in the 1980s. But can anyone think of a precedent for dramatic legislative success combined with contemporaneous ideological failure?

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