Thursday, September 24, 2009

David Broder Gets It Wrong

Stephen Griffin

Time out from war powers (to which I will eventually return) to examine the latest column from David Broder, appearing in today’s WaPo. I should note his analysis of the Obama administration’s policy difficulties is taken from an article in National Affairs by William Schambra which I haven’t read. Here I am concentrating on what Broder regards as important in Schambra’s article.

What strikes Broder is Schambra’s idea that Obama hopes to tame large-scale social problems through rational policy analysis rather than narrow politically-driven decisions designed to accommodate interest groups. In this respect, Obama is a worthy successor to the progressive movement, which hoped to use social science to tame the ills of society. Broder says, “Historically, that approach has not worked.” The problem? Schambra says it is the Constitution itself, “which apportions power among so many different players.”

Broder sees Obama’s policy rationalism on energy, health care and other issues as running squarely into the local and interest-group orientation of members of Congress. He concludes: “Democracy and representative government are a lot messier than the progressives and their heirs, including Obama, want to admit. No wonder they are so often frustrated.”

I see multiple problems with this reasoning, both historical and constitutional.

Broder gets off the track first in his characterization of the progressives. They were a hard group to define, but they laid the basis for important elements of our current polity by opposing the mass political parties of their day and promoting associations and a group-based view of society. In other words, they helped promote the interest group state, the state Broder thinks Obama is opposed to. There is also a good argument that progressives were genuinely trying to recapture something of the spirit of the public interest that animated the founding generation and thus the Constitution itself. The Constitution protects state and local interests by making representation in Congress based on districts and states. But the original purpose of this design was less to allow modern interest groups (which, after all, did not exist in the eighteenth century) to roam free in congressional lobbies, than to protect liberty and promote the public interest.

You could read Broder’s column and forget that Obama was elected from an essentially national constituency. If the purpose of the Constitution was to protect local interests, as Broder and Schambra would have it, why would it allow for the election of a national leader? Did Obama suddenly turn to rational policymaking after he was inaugurated? If not, and if the American people were attracted to his way of making policy, why would it run against the grain of the Constitution for Obama to try to implement the policies he ran on?

The effect of Broder’s analysis is to place Obama and his policy wonk administration outside the boundaries of our wonderfully complex constitutional structure. But this is nonsense. Many Americans elected Obama because of his policy orientations and rational approach to government. No great truths of democracy or representative government are revealed here. In fact, as Sandy urges, we might take a page from the progressives and make constitutional change part of the contemporary agenda. Among other points, the progressives helped make the Senate more democratic through direct election. More can be done here by eliminating the filibuster, for example. Obama hasn’t raised these sort of structural issues, but he should. The policy process in Congress is badly broken, partly as a result of influence by the interest groups progressives helped to create. We can’t solve our problems by going back to progressivism. But neither can we avoid its very mixed legacy for our political system.

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