Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Question for Indignant Liberals

I’ve gotten a lot of intelligent and impassioned push-back from liberal readers for confessing (e.g., here, here and here) that I don't share, and can’t quite fathom, their indignation at the way Republicans have opposed the Democratic agenda since Obama’s election. It’s not that I support Republican opposition on public policy grounds. But I'm unable to summon up the conviction that Republicans ought to be ashamed of themselves, not only for being pigheaded, but for being civically irresponsible. Since when do opposition parties have a civic obligation not to oppose the other party’s legislative agenda?

Here’s another way of putting my point that came to me in the course of a running exchange with an anonymous commenter on this post.  It turns on a little recent political history.

On the morning after Bush’s reelection in 2004, it looked like he’d won a surprisingly strong mandate that extended not only to the way he was prosecuting the Iraq war, but to making good on his promise to move us toward an “ownership society.” The first step Bush planned for us to take down that path, and the principal legislative priority of his second term, was creating self-funded private Social Security accounts as to which each taxpayer and his family would be the exclusive beneficiaries.

Like most liberals, I thought that was a bad idea. The point of Social Security was to insure every working family against the vicissitudes of a volatile economy. To the extent Social Security was privatized, daunting risks would be put back on the shoulders of people who lacked the wherewithal to insure against them privately. Granted, a system with private accounts could conceivably raise the expected rate of return on Social Security contributions and mitigate the political risk to younger workers that a future Congress will cut their benefits by giving them each a property right to the money in their private account. Those advantages had induced some Democrats, including one as influential as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to express cautious support for the idea of partial privatization in the 1990s. But to the extent Social Security was privatized, contributors would have to bear the substantial risk that their expectations would be disappointed by a down market when they were obliged to liquidate the securities in their private account.

Of course, blanket opposition or abject acquiescence weren’t the only options open to Democrats. They could have accepted Bush’s open invitation to compromise by letting Republicans have modest private accounts in exchange for an increase in the rate of payroll taxes for higher income-tax brackets, or a widening of income-base to which the present rates apply, means-testing benefits, etc. Yet congressional Democrats refused the invitation to negotiate for at least two reasons: first, they feared that consenting to even small private accounts would put them on a slippery slope to an ownership society; and second, they sensed Bush was politically vulnerable because he’d misinterpreted his electoral mandate.

I remember being pleased to see Democrats united in intransigent opposition to the Bush plan and not being bothered seeing some Democrats retract their prior support for private accounts. In hindsight, I can’t help being mighty impressed by the political acumen of the Democratic congressional leadership. You might even say that the political defeat they administered to Bush was his Waterloo.

I’m sure everybody knows by now where I’m heading: As far as civic responsibility goes, how is what Republicans have done to Obama over the last two years any different from what the Democrats did to Bush in 2005?


Anonymous said...

Bush had a smaller mandate than Obama and more opposition to his SS reforms in his own party.

Anonymous said...

It's no different. Same s@$t, different day.

Osama Von McIntyre said...

Since you asked:

1. Bush did NOT have a manadate on Social Security: I believe he mentioned Social Security privatization only 3 times during the campaign, and two of them were before conservative groups. Obmama made health care reform central to his campaign agenda.

2. Democrats opposed SS privitization, and made it an election cudgel in 2006, true. But they did not manifestly lie about the proposal in the same way that conservatives have misrepresented HCR (no SSN death panels, threats to have Democratic governors sue to block implementation, etc.)

3. Democrats were not simultaneously engaged in a concerted effort to portray Bush as illegitimate (although the 2000 election had given them every right). What is the Bush-era equivalent of a "birther?"

4. The Republican campaign of rejectionism has been pretty much universal since Obama took office: no significant initiative has had more than 3 Republican votes; and every appointee has required an unnecessary and prolonged fight. In point of fact, the Democrats pushed back hard on ONE issue in Bush's eight-year term.

The Republican strategy has been to push back on EVERY (significant) issue: to render the administration ineffective and impotent, and to hope that the average voter's understanding of political process is paltry enough to assign Obama the blame for inaction. And this at a time of national crisis, unprecedented in scale since the end of the Second World War.

Other than these issues, I'll agree that the situations are exactly the same.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Von McIntyre,

I think nearly everything you've said is wrong. I'll take your points in turn.

1. I recall Bush campaigning continually about private SS accounts both in 2000 and 2004. He brought it up prominently in the third debate with Kerry. (

2. Lies are in the eye of the beholder. Democratis have been scaring seniors by falsely claiming that Republicans would take away their SS checks for years.

3.You're joking right? Democrats didn't try to undermine Bush's legitimacy? How about Barbara Boxer's frivolous motion not to certify the 2004 election results, or the repeatedly discredited charge that the Bush administration lied about Iraq intelligence. And by the way, the Bush-era equivalent of a "birther" is a 9/11 "truther," you know, the guys with the theory that Howard Dean thought was "interesting" when he was the Democratic presidential frontrunner.

4. The Democrats only pushed back on ONE Bush proposal? ANWR? The prescription drug benefit? Offshore drilling? Unprecedented filibusters of judicial nominees? (I could go on, but you get the point.)

Osama Von McIntyre said...

Well, we're clearly shouting across a partisan divide, but I will respond nevertheless

1. Mandate I cannot find any precise citations on the web, but he certainly did not make Social Security privatization central to his 2004 campaign (the campaign was dominated by Iraq and gay marriage). No reasonable case can be made that Bush's narrow election victory constituted a mandate to revamp social security.

Privatization was barely mentioned during the campaign, but continually mentioned for the four or five months afterwards, as Bush went balls-out advocating for it in national addresses, town hall meetings, and the like.

2. Lies There are lies, and there are representations... The elimination of Social Security has been a staple of movement conservatism further back than Goldwater. And Democrats have made protection of Social Security an important part of their "brand." Making claims about the inferable intentions of your opponents has always been political fair game.

I am talking more specifically about lies about objective fact: Claims that Obama is a Marxist (or Muslim, or secret terrorist sympathizer), or that Global Warming is a conspiracy concocted to increase the size of government, or that Obama was born in Kenya, or that the Health Care Reform bill provides for "death panels," or that the financial reform bill is a banking sector "bail out," or that the stimulus bill had no effect on the economy... these are lies.

I don't consider it inappropriate to sow apprehension about political opponents. But sowing misapprehension is cynical, and harmful to the social fabric.

3. Legitimacy No, of course I'm not joking. Boxer voted to delay (not deny) certification to highlight voting irregularities in Ohio: but the certification vote was 267-31 to reject the objection. Not exactly a match for the concerted denialism of the current Republicans.

And when, exactly, had the charge that the Bush Administration misrepresented the intelligence on Iraq been "discredited?" And they may reflect on the legitimacy of the war pretext, but the Democrats never engaged in a wholesale campaign to undermine, in the public mind, the right of the president to legally hold his office.

4. Opposition Democrats opposed many of the measures you list on their merits, but exerted party discipline on only one issue: Social Security.

To illustrate, here are the vote totals for the measures you listed, and then Obama's signature initiatives.

ANWR drilling: Seven Republican senators voted to protect ANWR, and three Democrats voted not to.

Medicare Part D: The final vote was 54-44, with 11 Democratic "yes"s, and 8 Republican "no"s

The Stimulus: 60-38 (with 3 Republican votes).

Health-care reform: 60-40, party line

Financial reform: 60-39 (with 3 Republican votes)

Judicial nominees: I wonder what you mean by "unprecedented?" There have been more filibusters by Republicans in the last two years than ever before in American history--by a considerable margin. GW Bush had 86.8% of his judicial nominations approved. Clinton had 84% of his, and Obama only 42.8%.

I never proposed that a party has the obligation to support and pass the bills of the opposition. But the Republicans have pursued, since Obama's election, a party-wide rejection of all of his signature bills, with the occasional exception of the two New England Republican senators, and the now-Democratic Arlen Specter.

They have done more filibusters, more private holds, and more procedural delays than any Congress in history. They have made ad-hominem attacks on the President that are absolutely unprecedented in the last century.