by Lambert Strether, cross-posted from Naked Capitalism
One man quote machine Drew Westen had an Op-Ed in Pravda the other day that included the following passage:
Obama’s administration made three crucial errors that enabled the Republican obstructionism that has tied his hands for the past two years, with GOP leaders shooting down any idea — even if it’s one of their own — that might have helped the president strengthen the economy.
Got the D talking point? “R obstructionism.” Why, it’s positively Truman-esque! I’ll list two of the “errors” Westen lists; the third, on health care, isn’t relevant to this post:
Obama’s first mistake was inviting the Republicans to the table. … The second mistake was squandering the goodwill that Americans felt toward the new president and their anxiety about an economy hemorrhaging three-quarters of a million jobs a month.
Today, Kevin Drum responds in Mother Jones (and again I’ll quote the response only to the first two “errors”).
[T]hese three “errors” are so ahistorical that they make me crazy. First: Obama had to invite Republicans to the table. When he took office Democrats didn’t have a filibuster-proof majority. Second: Obama couldn’t get a bigger stimulus. The evidence on this score is voluminous. Whether he wanted a bigger stimulus is an open question, but it’s also moot. He just didn’t have the votes. …. [L]ife in the White House is pretty difficult when you have to constantly concern yourself with getting a couple of Republican votes, or, at best, the 60th most liberal Democrat — especially when the 60th most liberal Democrat is a self-righteous showboat like Joe Lieberman or a Nebraska pol like Ben Nelson.
Either Drum’s sense of history is defective or he’s a lot younger than I thought, and missed a lot that the rest of us noticed at the time. Let’s set the wayback machine to 2005, back in the days of the second Bush administration. Does anybody remember “the nuclear option”? The Washington Monthly‘s Steve Benen explains:
For several years, the “nuclear option” has had a fairly specific meaning. The strategy is procedurally complicated, but the gambit is about finding a way around Senate Rule 22, which says 60 votes are needed to end debate, and 67 votes are needed to change the rules of the chamber. The nuclear option is intended to change the rules with 50 votes — instead of 67 — to, in effect, make filibusters impossible.
That’s the beauty part, the veritable kryton: Changing rules that require a super-majority with only a majority. (The “nuclear option” was originally defined as applying only to judicial nominations) As it turns out, from a 2004 Harvard Law Review article by Martin Gold and Dimple Gupta, late of Covington & Burling, in 2004, one advocate for the principle of majoritarian rule changes was none other than Senate Majority Leader Harry Byrd:
[I]t is my belief—which has been supported by rulings of Vice Presidents of both parties and by votes of the Senate—in essence upholding the power and right of a majority of the Senate to change the rules of the Senate at the beginning of a new Congress.
Now, the good folks at Covington & Burling came up with a different scenario from Byrd’s, in the context of judicial nominations. Pravda summarizes:
[T]he scenario most widely expected among senators in both parties is that [Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist] would seek a ruling from the chair — Vice President Cheney, if it looked as if the vote was going to be close — that filibustering judicial nominations is out of order. Assuming the chair agreed, Reid would then object and ask that the ruling of the chair be tabled. Most Republicans would then vote against the Democratic motion, upholding the ruling. Then the Senate would move to a vote on Owen, and a precedent will have been set that it takes 51 votes, not 60, to cut off debate on a judicial nomination. … “If Bill Frist asks for a ruling from the chair from Dick Cheney, of course Cheney will rule in his favor,” Graham said. “What are the Democrats going to do, appeal to the Supreme Court? There’s no place for them to go. That’s the power of the majority.”
In the event, Frist never pulled the trigger. The “Gang of 14″ Senators… Oh, traded Arlen Spector for a player to be named later, and the Republicans got their “up or down” votes on their judicial nominees, which is what they wanted. So, perhaps, deterrence worked. But what was the threat, exactly? One Senator [Obama] rose to speak on April 13, 2005:
What they don’t expect is for one party – be it Republican or Democrat – to change the rules in the middle of the game so that they can make all the decisions while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet. The American people want less partisanship in this town, but everyone in this chamber knows that if the majority chooses to end the filibuster – if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate – then the fighting and the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse.
Of course, Byrd would have changed the rules at the beginning of the game, when the Senate bootstrapped itself. So if majoritarian rule-making is an issue of principle for this Senator, it’s not for that reason. What seems most under threat to this Senator is “comity”: An absence of “bitterness” and “fighting.” Be that as it may, we can be sure that Senator or one-time Senator knows the drill on how to abolish the filibuster; they have at least two scenarios to follow. (Byrd’s would have been ideal oh, right after a Presidential inauguration.)
Fast forward to 2012. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promises to use “the nuclear option”if the Ds are relected (“I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”)
REID: They’re filibustering until we have to change the rules.
[ED] SCHULTZ: But you’d change the rules…
REID: Oh, we could have done it in the last Congress [(!!)]. But I got on the Senate floor and said that I made a mistake and I should have helped with that. It can be done if Obama is re-elected, and I can still do it if I have a majority, we can do it with a simple majority at the beginning of the next Congress [Byrd's scenario].
SCHULTZ: Think the President will go along with that?
REID: You damn betcha.
The bottom line is that “Republican obstructionism” is entirely of the Democrat’s making. What Reid (and Obama) want — or say they want — to do in 2013, and butchered doing in 2010, could and should have done in 2009, immediately after Obama’s inauguration. Republicans would have had no ability to obstruct had Obama and the Democrats not deliberately given them the power to do so. The gridlock is a gridlock of choice.
And look at the outcomes: A miserably inadequate stimulus package, no jobs program to speak of, a health care plan written by the health insurance companies and first implemented by a Republican, and on and on and on. Why, you might almost think the Democrats wanted to drown government in a bathtub! (Oh, wait…)
Were Obama and the Democrats stupid, or evil? I don’t know. If they were stupid, “nobody could have predicted” that the party that impeached Bill Clinton over a blow job wouldn’t play nice. If they were evil, what we see is what we get: The policies that are in place are the polices the Democrats, and Obama, want to see in place. Most days, I go with evil.
To return to our “progressive” antagonists, and their talking points. Both miss the point, as is so often the case with D factional battles: Westen disinforms because he misses the most “crucial error” of all**: failure to abolish the filibuster. Drum disinforms when he writes: “When he took office Democrats didn’t have a filibuster-proof majority,” because he ignores or suppresses the “nuclear option” which, again, was just as available to the Democrats in 2009 as it will be in 2013.
NOTE ** “Error” implies Westen’s going with stupid.