Blame Congress

So here’s Bill Maher doing this thing and directing it at Obama.  I think it’s good that Obama get some real criticism from his left, but still I just have to my roll my eyes on this one.

Particularly with the whole “this isn’t what I voted for” schpeel.  Bill Maher should have done his homework.  If he had read (like I did) both Obama’s autobiography but more importantly his political manifesto book Audacity of Hope, he would have known that Obama is a very cautious reformer.  Obama likes all sides to play things out in front of him, wait to the direction turns in his favor and then insert himself into the mix.  That’s his MO. Maher is pissed that Obama isn’t Edwards.  Well, I suppose he should have voted for Clinton in the primary (maybe he did?).

Maher also should have read David Leonhardt’s brilliant piece on Obama’s economic outlook prior to the election.  And/or Cass Sunstein’s piece calling Obama (correctly) a University of Chicago Democrat.  Having done so would have allowed one to predict almost to the T how Obama was going to react to the financial crisis–seeing it as a banking crisis and therefore requiring a bank bailout.

The US discussion of politics assumes so much in the way of dishonesty and falsehood from our politicians.  But if you actually read their writings, look at their (where applicable) legislative/executive histories, and read profiles of their personalities, the truth comes out in the wash.  Politicians–particularly through a grueling primary/general election campaign like we now have–reveal who they are.  They communicate how they will be for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.  e.g. McCain’s history–and certainly his campaign–clearly revealed that he was not much interested in day to day running of affairs and we could have expected four years of insane internicine sibling rivalry and dysfunctional behavior from his staff and administration.  Come on, VP Palin?

Same with Obama.

As a wise friend of mine says, when someone shows you who they are, believe it.

At the end of the day, I just don’t believe people really change all that much.  Not really fundamentally.  Politicians least of all.  They change their positions on things sure, but they don’t change really who they are and how they operate at a fundamental level.  Whether John Edwards was the 2004 Second Coming of Bill Clinton Centrist or the 2008 Neo-Left Wing Populist, he was still a raging narcissist.

Which means in the final analysis, Obama is never going to be the guy Bill Maher wants him to be.  I happen to think that’s a good thing, but either way that’s the reality.

But deeper than Maher’s disillusionment–for which I think he has pretty much no one to blame but his own naivete–is a more problematic element.  Namely the lack of any calling out Congress and putting everything on the President.  In this sense, at least Maher is honest–he doesn’t care about The Constitution or the rule of law or the separation of powers.  He wants a popular charismatic strongman who will push through the agenda Maher wants to see.

Maybe that’s too harsh.  (Maybe it’s not).  He wants, he says, Obama to be Bush and not care so much about his image and ram through his agenda come hell or high water. Except as I remember it, that’s a pretty poor historical understanding.  Bush had a totally 100% subservient and highly disciplined GOP in charge of Congress from 2000-2006.  Obama unfortunately (for him) is, as Will Rogers said, a member of no organized party.  He’s a Democrat. Just a little Constitution 101.  President Obama is the Executive.  He executes the laws passed by the Legislators.  If they don’t pass some laws, he (and those who support him) are just plain s–t outta luck. And it’s not because Obama is spending too much time on TV. He’s not all powerful; he’s in charge of one of the three branches of federal government.  If the Congress doesn’t do its job I don’t know how you can blame Obama for that one.

To give Obama some credit where it’s due for the moment.  He started off the health care debate basically saying here are some broad principles I would like to see and here are things I will vote for (and implicitly here are things I would veto), but the rest is up to Congress. That’s their job.  Well unfortunately the Congress is run by fools who have long forgot how to do their job–if they ever knew how–so now he’s had to have a talk with Congress and tell the little boys and girls over at Congress how to play like grown ups.

The simple fact is that the Democratic Congress has no effective leadership.  More disturbingly it is because we have three branches of government and one has completely abdicated its role.  Spading and neutering is good to help control the pet population; it’s not so good when it’s self-inflicted by the US Congress.  If there are not three legs planted to the ground, the stool will not stand. The GOP under Bush did stuff but basically just took marching orders from the President, but they didn’t have co-equal branch status.

The current congressional crop can’t even get themselves up in the morning to just be the President’s lackeys.  Cuts into their tee time I suppose.

The Democrats in Congress need an enforcer.  [The only guy they had to fill that role in the House is now the Chief of Staff.]  I mean seriously–whose gonna be afraid of Dick Durbin, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and/or Steny Hoyer?  It ain’t happening.  As I said the other day for the Ds/libs out there I feel for ya.  Honestly I do.

If Maher wants to be constructive he should aim his fire where it more pointedly belongs:  at the Democrats in Congress.  Otherwise his call is an unconstitutional imposition of presidential power, further expanding beyond its proper bounds, the role of the Executive.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

28 thoughts on “Blame Congress

  1. Favorite excerpt: “In this sense, at least Maher is honest–he doesn’t care about The Constitution or the rule of law or the separation of powers. He wants a popular charismatic strongman who will push through the agenda Maher wants to see.”

    Amazing insight.

    Once you start seeing that in people who start yelling for a political philosophy, you can’t unsee it… and you start being unable to tell the substantive difference between Maher and Dobson beyond the god they choose to worship.

    (Pity that only one of the two has “Separation of Church and State!” yelled in his face on anywhere near a regular basis, however.)

    Anyway, brilliant essay. Brilliant insight.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • I think you are dead right about Congress. I do think what Maher was doing was a bit of a rhetorical sleight of hand. Who cares if you attack Democratic Congress? No one.

      I think thsi was less about Obama and more about those people who are complacent and think Obama is something he is not. I saw it as a “lazy Americans get up off your ass and demand what you want from your golden boy.” That doesn’t play quite as well if you attack Congress, since no one cares much about them.

      I do think though you have a point. Obama is exactly the president I thought he’d be. That doesn’t mean we should abdicate our duty as citizens to push him.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • Tyler,

        Excellent points. Still, if pressure is put on the President–I’m fine with that it’s part of our system–at some point though he has to say ‘well call your Congressperson.’ At some point it’s up to them. Not him.

        But you’re right nobody cares about attacking Congress bc no one cares about Congress. Which is to my mind part of the problem.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • I suspect that no one cares about congress because there are precious few that feel that their “representative” truly represents them.

          Had Congress not limited membership to 435 in 1911, I suspect that more people would care about Congress. Doing the math comparing the ratio then to the ratio now, we’d have 1325ish Congressmen today… which, I suspect, would improve one’s feeling of representation and, by extension, how much one would care about Congress.

          Also, I suspect, the 17th Amendment had a whole bunch of unintended consequences that resulted in less representation for The People as well (but that’s another rant).

            Quote  Link

          Report

            • Fellas

              Whoa…radical! lol

              I like this idea about the expansion of the House, although the House feels so unwieldy and don’t you run the risk of getting even more hacks in their.

              I wonder if there’s a disconnect between who supports what and from where. So lots of people support some form of government health care. Are there enough of those people in the Blug Dog Democrat districts? I’m inclined to say, if anything, its evenly split which allows the Blue Dogs to vote against the Dem majority “safely.”

              This gets to a concern I’ve long had with the Democrats — that they are more a coalition of loosely connected interests as oppposed to a real progressive party with a single vision. Can we be mad at Dems when say the 8 senators who voted against an amendment that would actually stem the tide of foreclosures was the right vote (for their right-leaning constituency)?

                Quote  Link

              Report

  2. Your description of the United States Congress is apt. Instead of a collection of statesmen, we have a gaggle of inept, craven egomaniacs. The last administration seems to have completely etiolated the Congress, and they seem perfectly content to abide in their weakened, ineffectual state.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  3. Maher has always self-identified as a libertarian. His seeming turn to the left has been the product of the utter failure of the Bush administration and the lack of any coherent positive agenda that conservatives have been able to come up with in the last decade. I think your analysis here ignores that American elections are a binary, and you don’t always vote for someone out of a conviction they’ll do all the right things– only that you think they’ll do better than the other candidate.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • While I hesitate to disagree with anyone’s self-identification (it’s like the whole “are Mormons really Christians” thing), when a self-identified libertarian starts talking about the things the federal government ought to be doing and it does not focus on “less”, one suspects that one self-identifies as libertarian for reasons related to the ability to say “I’m neither Republican nor Democrat” pithily rather than for reasons related to traditional libertarian philosophy.

      Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.

      But he’s using the word in such a way that (I suspect) intends associations that many won’t necessarily catch while, at the same time, sends associations that (I assume) aren’t necessarily intended.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • You clearly missed Bill Maher’s point over the last however many years: there are some problems that are so large that private business will never solve them. CO2. Health Care. He’s pretty clearly a civil libertarian and a bit of an isolationist.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • I maintain that it is possible to have caught Maher’s point without, in fact, agreeing with it.

          But I am not the libertarian police and would disagree with someone who claimed to be such.

          That said, I don’t think that my original post painted an inaccurate picture… even if (clearly!) Maher’s point is that CO2 is a problem so big that only the Federal Government can tackle it.

            Quote  Link

          Report

          • Why can’t a “libertarian” want the government to do more? I have a good friend who wants the government out of education, health care…Wants his taxes cut to nothing…But wants the government to provide police, fire and national defense. As Mitch Hedberg once said: “Chicken is the other white meat. You gotta think about it from the Pork’s perspective.”

              Quote  Link

            Report

            • Libertarians don’t say “nobody should be doing X!!!”

              They say “if the government is in charge of X, they’ll just screw it up.”

              When “libertarians” say that they want the government to do more, I assume that they mean “more than what the government is doing now”.

              At that point, it’s useful to ask “huh?” of the person claiming to be libertarian.

                Quote  Link

              Report

  4. Freddie,

    Sure of course a person (I did this) votes for someone as hoping they will simply be better than the other guy (or gal), not perfect. But I still think if Maher had done his homework he would have known basically what he was getting. But if all someone followed in the election was Hope and Change, etc. then I could see how they would be disappointed.

    I still think to fall into that is to fundamentally misread how power works in the country–particularly on the domestic front.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • Bush said a lot of things, but made his business on the back of Tom Delay whipping egregious bills through the house by one vote. Obama said a lot of things, but it was not inconceivable that he would blast bills through congress that were popular with the public but not with lobbyists who control so many of our congressmen.

        Quote  Link

      Report

  5. I think Nancy Pelosi provides fairly effective leadership for Democrats in the House, but admittedly there isn’t an obvious Senate equivalent to her. I think Chuck Schumer would do a better job, but I think that part of the problem is that a lot of the Democrats in Congress are holdovers from the Clinton era, in which one could be a Democrat in good standing while whoring oneself to special interests. The progressive movement has yet to really capture the Democratic Party. I wonder if it will.

    But in general this analysis seems about right to me. Reminds me of The Wire: the people who get elevated are the ones who toe the party line and don’t make waves. Then again, America hasn’t really valued grand debates for some time–it’s been more about just getting things done without all that damn talk and deliberation. Sound familiar? In a lot of ways, our political culture reflects our actual culture. This is no accident.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • Lev,

      Thanks for the comment, good point. That’s a good differentiation between House and Senate. In the end the House has the votes. And they can get it through. but yeah Senate is much tougher.

      The de facto now regular practice of filibustering anything (60 votes now instead of 50) has really been an un-democratic move. It’s really hurt the ability to pass anything of substance in the Senate. Why the Democrats don’t make GOP actually filibuster it out and then play them in the media for thwarting the people’s will I have no idea. Every time a member of the GOP opens his/her mouth they suffer. What better way than to have them keep talking for a long time?

        Quote  Link

      Report

  6. Chris–you’re absolutely right. The critique of Congress is on the mark, but it’s wrong to just blame this on the unique perfidy of the current occupants. What we need is honest-to-god institutional change, especially in the Senate. Ryan Avent had a solid piece about this recently.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  7. As for the make-them-filibuster argument–it’s actually a lot more challenging for the parties being filibustered than for the ones doing the filibustering. Basically, the Democrats would have to keep a bunch of people on the floor, while the Republicans would only have to have the one person talking; if the Democrats had few or no people there, the Republican speaking could make a quorum call and once the chair recognized the absence of most people, all action would be suspended. I’m not totally up on the details–parliamentary procedure is outside my usual orbit–but there is a reason besides cowardice, altho that probably plays a role as well. Again, focusing fire on institutional rules makes most sense.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  8. Sorry to interrupt, but I thought this was a crap post. Apparently, since we should have known that Obama would either back away from or disavow much of his campaign stances on civil liberties, torture, and an aggressive economic policy coupled with strong regulation, we should content ourselves with the warmed-over, compromised post-election reality. And lay a lot of the blame on Congress for not saving Obama from turning into a hack. I guess if you’re comfortable with what Obama proposes to do (ie tinker around the edges with our foreign and economic policy of the last 30 years since it’s been SO successful) then giving him this kind of free pass makes sense. Unlike George Bush, who famously said that his only moment of accountability was the election, I think we ought to hold our leaders responsible for their crappy choices whenever they make them.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • Scott,

      Well I don’t think he has backed away from much from hi stance on torture, civil liberties, etc. And certainly on foreign policy he’s doing exactly what he said he would do: draw down in Iraq, up the ante in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He would be open to discussions with regimes we haven’t talked to but it would be a cautious (what he sees as) sensible way of going about it.

      I remember him saying last summer he was not opposed to all military trials only the kind the Bush administration had. He said on the campaign trail he would not totally disavow state secrets but that he thought Bush used it too frequently and hamhandedly.

      Again if all people heard was Hope and Change then I suppose they feel like he has betrayed them. I poured over his website’s policy proposals (I think I nerdly read every single one of them), all of his major speeches during the campaign, and this is what was in those. He is doing pretty much everything he said he would do–if you looked in the right spots. He didn’t emphasize that aspect of things during the campaign to be sure. Where he used more fuzzy, vague, feel good language. But I don’t really expect differently from politicians. I don’t feel like he lied, since the information was freely available on his website, in his book.

      The health care plan he’s pushing now is exactly the same one he said he favored during the primaries/general election.

      I don’t know what else to say on that front.

      I think to the degree that things aren’t getting done they aren’t getting done because they involve a great deal of domestic policy. And domestic policy I think should be ruled by the Congress. They have to pass laws. Maybe Obama isn’t pushing hard enough on them to get things done or using his bully pulpit to shame them into some action or something.

        Quote  Link

      Report

  9. You know there’s something very Roman about the whole deal. The Senate/Congress jealously guards its patrician closeness to the center of power but is more preoccupied with personal gain through position and connection or positioning for more power than with legislative leadership.

    More and more it seems like the popular American idea of democracy is to demand/promote some sort of plebiscitary strongman.

    With regards to Maher’s complaints, as much as the President’s MO is slow, steady, and with with the wind – not against it, I wonder if he believes that Presidents can actually succeed this way. Clearly he does, but historically, Presidents’ grow weaker not stronger over the course of their administrations. So what is he waiting for to break his way?

    To which we have to wonder, if Obama isn’t willing/able/ready to expend political capital on things like DADT, Healthcare, etc…, when does he think he’ll be able to?

    Next year? Not likely. With an even more Democratic Senate…you know more than the mostly filibuster proof one they currently have?

    The Democrats have the votes. They just don’t have their house in order. So again, blame Congress. But blame the President for not even trying and counting on the future to be easier than today.

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *