The last Democrat who held the White House, Bill Clinton, saw the core of his domestic agenda come to ruin, his political support collapse, and his failure spawn a massive Republican resurgence that made progressive reform impossible for a decade to come. The Democrat who last held the White House before that, Jimmy Carter, saw the exact same thing happen to him.
At this early date, nobody can know whether or not Barack Obama will escape this fate. But the contours of failure are now clearly visible. In Obama's case, as with his predecessors, the prospective culprit is the same: Democrats in Congress, and especially the Senate. At a time when the country desperately needs a coherent response to the array of challenges it faces, the congressional arm of the Democratic Party remains mired in fecklessness, parochialism, and privilege. Obama has made mistakes, as did his predecessors. Yet the constant recurrence of legislative squabbling and drift suggests a deeper problem than any characterological or tactical failures by these presidents: a congressional party that is congenitally unable to govern.
George W. Bush came to office having lost the popular vote, with only 50 Republicans in the Senate. After his disputed election, pundits insisted Bush would have to scale back his proposed massive tax cuts for the rich. Instead, Bush managed to enact several rounds of tax cuts that substantially exceeded those in his campaign platform, along with two war resolutions, a Medicare prescription drug benefit designed to maximize profits for the health care industry, energy legislation, education reform, and sundry other items. Whatever the substantive merits of this agenda, its passage represented an impressive feat of political leverage, accomplished through near-total partisan discipline.
Obama has come into office having won the popular vote by seven percentage points, along with a 79-seat edge in the House, a 17-seat edge in the Senate, and massive public demand for change. But it's already clear he is receiving less, not more, deference from his own party. Democrats have treated Obama with studied diffidence, both in their support for the substance of his agenda and (more importantly) their willingness to support it procedurally.
The tone of the Senate's disposition toward Obama was set from the very beginning. Coming into office during a severe economic emergency, he hoped that Congress would have a bill to jump-start consumer demand ready to sign immediately upon taking office. And most Democrats supported Obama's position, though eleven House moderates defected, while a handful of their Senate colleagues joined with Republican moderates to water down the legislation. Economic forecasters projected that the original House bill would increase employment by 3.5 million. After the Senate rewrote the bill, forecasters downgraded their estimate to just 2.5 million. Moderates regarded their contribution with deep satisfaction.
The stimulus served as a mere precursor to the major battle over Obama's budget, which represents a once-in-a-generation chance for the Democratic Party to reshape the priorities of the federal government--to reduce America's unsustainable carbon emissions and reform its bloated, cruel health care system. Democrats have utterly failed to rise to the occasion.
The first sign of how the Senate would respond came on February 27, when Kent Conrad, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, gave an interview to CNBC. Conrad listed three objections to Obama's budget. First, he opposed a provision to limit tax deductions for high-income earners. Second, he opposed a new cap on crop subsidies to farmers who take in more than $500,000 per year. And, third, he upbraided Obama for not doing more to reduce the budget deficit.
You might think a performance like this--demanding that Obama do more to reduce the deficit while simultaneously opposing his deficit-reducing measures--would have turned Conrad into a punch line. Instead, it launched him as a symbol of fiscal rectitude and encouraged fellow Democrats to follow in his hypocritical wake. Numerous Democrats have since stepped forward to join what news reports have accurately described as a "revolt" against Obama's budget.
Watch TNR senior editor Jonathan Chait discuss this article with TNR editor Franklin Foer: