Monday, July 21, 2014


At Salon, Thomas Frank, imagining Barack Obama's presidential library denounces the president for being (in Frank's words) "ineffective and gutless." Frank seems to regard Obama's right wing opposition as a paper tiger that easily could have been vanquished, and he sees Obama's failure to do so as proof that Obama never wanted to accomplish much of anything except to help fat cats get fatter:
Why, the visitors to his library will wonder, did the president do so little about rising inequality, the subject on which he gave so many rousing speeches? Why did he do nothing, or next to nothing, about the crazy high price of a college education, the Great Good Thing that he has said, time and again, determines our personal as well as national success? Why didn't he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got? Why not a proper stimulus package? Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?

Well, duh, his museum will answer: he couldn't do any of those things because of the crazy right-wingers running wild in the land. He couldn't reason with them -- their brains don’t work like ours! He couldn’t defeat them at the polls -- they'd gerrymandered so many states that they couldn't be dislodged! What can a high-minded man of principle do when confronted with such a vast span of bigotry and close-mindedness? The answer toward which the Obama museum will steer the visitor is: Nothing.

In point of fact, there were plenty of things Obama’s Democrats could have done that might have put the right out of business once and for all....
And on and on in this vein. Ed Kilgore responds:
Put side, for the moment, the bizarre and ahistorical assertion that it's possible to "put the right out of business once and for all." Let's look at the claim Obama and his defenders had to inflate the power of the opposition ... to excuse the failure to vanquish it and advance a far more progressive agenda than was actually offered.

There is this institution called the U.S. Senate. Even after two big Democratic cycles in 2006 and 2008, Republicans held 40 seats, enough given absolute unity and a single Democratic defection to thwart anything the majority party attempted, under rules ripe for abuse that neither Barack Obama nor Harry Reid invented or imagined. Just a year after Obama took office, Republicans won a special Senate election and obtained the power to block absolutely any Democratic measure.
Even that understates what Obama was up against. That implies that he had a 60-vote majority in the Senate for a year. He didn't -- he had one for six months.

Recall that Al Franken was elected to the Senate in 2008 by a margin of just over 300 votes; he was declared the winner after a battle that went on for eight months and, of course, included unsubstantiated Republican allegations of Democratic voter fraud. The result was that Franken wasn't sworn in until July 7, 2009 -- six months after the rest of the Senate's freshman class was sworn in.

Democrats had 60 votes for exactly 51 days because Senator Ted Kennedy died on August 26. His replacement, Paul Kirk was sworn in on September 25 and held the seat until February 4, 2010, when Republican Scott Brown officially took his place.

Total number of days with 60 votes: 184.

(And not even 184 consecutive days -- there was a month's gap in there.)

And this was a Democratic Party that included Blue Dogs such as Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, whereas the GOP imposed rigid party discipline. Frank sneeringly declares that at the Obama library "the terrifying Right-Wing Other will be cast in bronze at twice life-size, and made the excuse for the Administration's every last failure of nerve, imagination and foresight" -- but no major party has acted like this in America in living memory, with no negative consequences except perhaps an inability to win future presidential elections.

The power of organized right-wing opposition is real; Obama has made plenty of mistakes, but his failure to roll over these guys is not his fault.


Philo Vaihinger said...

Just so.

No idea what got into Frank's head.

Tom Hilton said...

The Green Lantern Theory of Politics is what got in Frank's head, as far as I can tell.

Danp said...

And how many times did they wheel Robert Byrd's corpse into the Capitol to vote during those 184 days? Not too many...

Yastreblyansky said...

Another thing in 2009-2010 was the debt hysteria that infected so many Democrats in the Senate and "liberals" in the high-class media. Obama's enemies were bad enough, but his supporters included Max Baucus. I was reminded by this nice thing from Kilgore.

Anonymous said...

Danp beat me to it, but yeah: to get the 60 votes, they had to get Byrd to the Senate. He was in poor health, so this was not easy. Fortunately he made it there for the ACA vote in December.

Steve M. also didn't mention the break over the holidays.

I've heard my dad say that Obama had all the levers of power for 2 years! That's what watching Fox will do to you.

In hindsight, you can say that maybe the Dems should have pushed harder to get Franken seated sooner or should have crammed more legislation in 2009, but that would have looked pretty bad at the time. Dems assumed (wrongly) that they'd get more in the long run by playing semi-nice. (of course, there were some fools like Rahm who wanted to give up on the ACA after Brown won the MA Senate race. Wotta maroon.)

Really, the biggest mistake was taking the eye off the ball in the Brown/Coakley race. They should have found a better candidate than Coakley or at least should have spent some money on better consultants and more Obama campaigning. If the Dems had held that seat -- which they should have -- they would have had several more months to get things done. Alas.

Anonymous said...

Every one of these pundits just assumes that Democrats are monolithically in agreement and happily await orders from the President. I don't remember that part. I remember the part where corralling wayward _Democrats_ was the key feature of every high-profile battle in Washington _when Democrats had the majority_. I remember confrontations with Landrieu, and Lieberman, and Nelson, and Stupak, and Kucinich, and Mike Ross. I remember people like Boxer and Feingold being gun-shy about taking a hard line on undoing the Bush tax cuts. Frank has been playing the woulda-coulda-shoulda game for years. And what it always boils down to is "You're doing it wrong" and "Everyone I know agrees with me," ergo "It ain't that hard," ergo "If you can't figure it out, you must be taking a dive." Tiresome, and then tiresome some more.

Unknown said...

I can't believe I am saying this, but I think that some wing nuts really got one thing right. Some liberals were indeed looking at Obama as a messiah figure who would fix everything. Never mind reality and the fact that he doesn't control the senate or hour or judiciary.

What else could explain the desire to pin everything bad that happened on Obama even though there was nothing he could do about it?

The worst part is there are several legitimate complaints about what Obama messed up (e.g. Not focusing on judiciary appointments enough) but out left wing thought leaders se super lazy and only believe right wing ideas.

Anonymous said...

@Unknown, I don't think that's it. I think instead it's this: people on the liberal-to-left side of politics LOVE finding ways to prove they're disenchanted, disillusioned, and so forth. That helps them/us confirm their anti-authoritarian streak. "See? Told ya he was gonna fuck it up." Expressing a moment's satisfaction is being a sellout or a quietist. Anger and disaffection are the order of the day, every day. It's wearying, but it runs deep in the lefty psyche.

Victor said...

'What's the Matter with Thomas Frank?'

Too many DC MSM Green Room visits?

Never Ben Better said...

When faced with the levers of power:

Rightwinger: "Power! Yippee! Grab it and go for it!"

Leftwinger: "Power? Ick! How do I know where it's been? Don't touch it; you might get some of that on you!"

Anonymous said...

@Never Ben Better: did you actually read this post? If so, I don't think you really got it.

Never Ben Better said...

Yes, I read it, and yes, I got it. Did you miss this line? "And this was a Democratic Party that included Blue Dogs such as Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson" -- and a bunch of other lily-livered Democrats who, rather than stand behind the President and help him fight for more legislative wins while they could, ran away from him as fast as their triangulating little legs could carry them. If the Democrats had shown even half of the unity and determination the Republicans did and do, we'd have gotten a hell of a lot more accomplished during that narrow window of real power.

The unprecedented Republican opposition is the major problem; the gutlessness of many in the Democratic party is not, however, without a share of the blame.