Thursday, September 06, 2012

Can Woodward connect the dots?

Sandy Levinson

In a Washington Post article about Bob Woodward's forthcoming book on the debt limit crisis, Woodward is quoted as writing the following: "It is a fact that President Obama was handed a miserable, faltering economy and faced a recalcitrant Republican opposition. But presidents work their will — or should work their will — on important matters of national
business. . . . Obama has not.”

This is a quite remarkable statement, assuming, among other things, a certain level of presidential omnipotence at least with regard to "important matters of national business." Why would one believe that, particularly in a constitutional system that generates perverse incentives for the congressional opponents--the "recalcitrant Republican opposition"-- of a president to deny him any accomplishments that could prove useful in a re-election bid? Mitch McConnell never dissimulated about his major priority as the leader of Senate Republicans: It was always (and exclusively) to defeat Obama in 2012.

I had the opportunity to appear on a panel with Woodward and Bernstein several years ago at the University of Texas as part of a program celebrating the fact that the "Watergate files" of those two reporters are housed at the remarkable Harry Ransom Center at UT. I suggested that one major explanation for Nixon's impeachment troubles was the simple fact that Democrats controlled Congress (particularly the House of Representatives, which also explains Clinton's impeachment in 1998). I went on to make some of my familiar (to this audience) arguments about the importance (and defects) of our constitutional structure. George W. Bush was basically given a free pass by Congress because, during the crucial years 2003-2007, Republicans controlled Congress, so there was no oversight.

In response to my arguments that we may be drawing some wrong lessons from Watergate with regard to explaining why Nixon suffered his fate and that we should think about constitutional reform, Woodward commented that "We conduct politics under the Constitution we have, not the Constitution we wish we had." That is, of course, absolutely correct. But I wonder if Woodward has forgotten his own insight. That is, Obama was playing the game of politics under a radically dysfunctional Constitution that limited what he could do. He may well not be the world's greatest negotiator; he may well have been too arrogant with regard to his own abilities, both criticisms apparently leveled by Woodward. But why does he think that that more skill and humility would have mattered, given not only the mad-dog character of the Republican leadership, but, more to the point, the structural imperatives generated by our Constitution to destroy, as much as possible, the capacity for achievement by an opposition president?

Madison was right in Federalist 51; it's simply, as Daryl (no relation) Levinson and Balkinization contributor Rick Pildes pointed out several years ago, that "ambition," in the modern American political system, is linked almost infinitely less to institutional loyalties than to partisan ones. The debt ceiling fiasco fits their model perfectly. Alas....


I suppose the question is whether the case Woodward makes shows Obama as victim of "recalcitrant Republican opposition," or hubris, or something else. I look forward to the book in any case, and having not read it yet, I cannot make the same judgments that Levinson makes.

Somehow, during the two plus centuries of our Republic, every President with one or both houses of Congress held by a majority of the opposing party has been able to enact legislation supported by the American voters.

Mr. Obama's problem is not a sudden failure of the Constitution's checks and balances, but rather that all of his major policy proposals (except maybe Dodd/Frank, which nobody understands) were and and are opposed by pluralities or majorities of the American voters.

Those same voters rewarded the "recalcitrant" GOP minority for their opposition with the House and half the way to a Senate majority.

Then, the newly elected "recalcitrant" GOP House gave in on the popular side shows like the "temporary" "stimulus" tax rebates and partial FICA suspension.

The interesting items in the preview of the Woodward book is that congressional Dem and GOP leaders fairly rapidly started treating Obama like a nuisance third wheel and Obama's hostile stereotyping of the business leaders he used as props. The former may also have a great deal to do with why Obama cannot enact bipartisan legislation.

Pelosi pushing the mute button so she could negotiate a deal with Boehner while the President obliviously pontificated on the phone is classic. Jimmy Carter II.


"Obama was playing the game of politics under a radically dysfunctional Constitution that limited what he could do."

NO! Obama was limited in what he could do by his own arrogance and naievete, not by the Republicans or our Constitutional system. He inherited 1) record congressional majorities in both houses; 2) near-record personal popularity for a new president; and 3) an economic disaster that - much like 9/11 for Bush - could have been used to push through nearly anything he desired. He was, in other words, all powerful. So to blame his failed presidency on the filibuster or stubborn Republicans when he had a filibuster-proof majority for much of the two most important years of his term doesn't make a lot of sense.

Dare I point out that the debt limit fiasco took place after the November elections, when the Democrats lost the House. Anyone who denies the reality of "recalcitrant Republican opposition" is literally delusional, given that that requires, among other things, ignoring what Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.) was proclaiming as his central goal. Obama may very well have made his own contributions, but one of them was his failure to recognize how truly oppositional the Opposition Party had become.

"He was, in other words, all powerful." He was God? I don't think so. FDR had historical majorities. Obama had to compromise to pass the stimulus, there not being a filibuster proof majority most of the time for various reasons and then only for part of one term.

I'm sorry if the comment was satire. One hopes so.

I have to think Andrew's comment was satire. Obama never had "record Congressional majorities"; not even close. Nor did he have a "filibuster-proof majority" in the Senate. And "all-powerful" leaders don't need those aids in any event.


Opposition parties are always recalcitrant and desire to have the voters to fire the majority. McConnell's comment that he wanted to work toward firing Obama is just refreshingly candid, but not at all unique.

Opposition parties are not stupid, though. If the President proposes legislation supported by a majority of the voters, the opposition will try to shape, but will not block it. You cannot win the desired electoral majority by opposing legislation supported by a majority of voters.

The GOP caved on every issue which was popular with their constituents such as the Obama tax rebates and FICA suspensions and opposed Obama on everything that was unpopular, which was pretty much the rest of his agenda.

Our constitutional checks and balances were designed to limit the exercise of government power to enacting policies which a solid majority of the people support, not to vote in a ruling party to do whatever they damn well please, the people be damned. Our checks and balances appear to be working largely as designed.

Your beef is with the majority of voters who do not support your preferred policies and the elected representatives who actually follow the will of their constituents.

I am not sure reporter Bob Woodward has as much access to planning sessions in the legislature as he does in the executive branch.

During post 9/11 days, it was interesting to see how much Woodward was prepared to publish as the executive pursued a tangential version of what Clinton had sought with respect to interbranch balance of power with the legislature.

Clinton's own management of the then fairly nascent executive order and Federal Register modes of executive rule...explored carefully in Kagan's famous HLR study of the executive's independence...also to large extent was a rivalry payback projected forward in time from the Watergate incident, the very moment of Woodward's journalistic advent.

Without going too far into the thickets, it's probably fair to add to these interbranch reflections the recent Boston Review article entitled Empty Benches from prof Karlan, which examines the current presidency's troubles with congress in the area of judge nominations.

Besides the exponential increase in EOs during W Bush's first 6+ years in office, there has been a parallel unmatched frequent invocation of the filibuster for the Obama administration to manage.

It's all quite parliamentary tactilely, which feature I am fairly sure pleases prof. Levinson. I'm happy we have only two parties doing this, however. Two political parties dividing spoils afford more strength than compromise rule in parliamentary systems, or so I had opined longsince...

Then there is the matter of regulating the economics field. Dereg! The Republican motto. Debt ceiling...!Dereg!

Regarding the post above, concerning the "Conference on American Conservatism"; Reading the list of attendees, am I correct this is being held in much the same spirit the AMA might hold a conference on leprosy?

The inclusion of the eponymous Carl Bogus is never a good sign...

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Brett's off-thread comment suggests he recently laid his hands on the classic "How To Build A Better Vocabulary" by Nurnberg and Rosenbloom. Perhaps Brett's choices for the cast of the "Conference on American Conservatism" would have included the "eponymous" Bush (George W.) or the "eponymous" Dick (Cheney).

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Shag, in my experience people just aren't very good at understanding nuance in positions they despise. While I don't recognize the names of all the participants in that event, the names I did recognize suggest that it's likely to be something between a farce and a hate-fest. And yet, thought to be a serious inquiry by the participants...

And Carl Bogus, if you're familiar with his work in the area of firearms, escaped being genuinely eponymous only by chronological accident.

On thread I would say that Presidents are not all-powerful, but neither are they completely impotent. This President has pursued with some vigor policies in the area of energy, (Gulf drilling moratorium, blocking the Keystone pipeline, and so forth.) which could easily have been predicted to raise the cost of energy, and thus depress the economy. Scarcely surprising when he chose an energy secretary who stated he WANTED higher energy prices.

Making things better can be challenging, but the universe cooperates with the man who just wants to ruin things.

Sandy misses a major problem of Nixon's, which Clinton was free from, and Obama, too, which explains why Nixon had to leave office, while those two do not have to worry about being driven out of office: He wasn't corrupt enough.

By which I mean, corrupt enough to employe the Plumbers. Not corrupt enough to destroy instead of partially wipe tapes. Or just claim they'd been lost. Corrupt enough to have things to cover up, not corrupt enough to be resolute in his stonewalling. Corrupt enough to do evil, not corrupt enough to avoid hiring people like Dean.

Subsequent administrations have learned the lessons of Watergate: If you stonewall, don't stop. Don't hire people who might have attacks of conscience. They can't subpoena records you make sure not to generate, like phone logs. Don't do a half-way job of being corrupt.

We'll never have another case like Nixon, I expect, because today's corrupt administrations have him as a warning to not cut corners, to do a thorough job of it.

Brett concedes that he was searching in the "woodpile" of participants in the "Conference on American Conservatism" and selecting Carl Bogus for "nuance." I am familiar with Bogus' text on the Second Amendment giving credence to its introductory Militia clause that was basically ignored by Justice Scalia with his "law office" history.

"On thread," Brett states:

"Sandy misses a major problem of Nixon's, which Clinton was free from, and Obama, too, which explains why Nixon had to leave office, while those two do not have to worry about being driven out of office: He wasn't corrupt enough."

Who is the "He" in the last sentence? Surely it wasn't Nixon, who was more than corrupt. Is Brett referring to Clinton, to Obama, or both? If so, Brett applies a broad brush smear, perhaps his efforts at more "nuance."

Brett continues:

"Subsequent administrations have learned the lessons of Watergate: If you stonewall, don't stop."


"We'll never have another case like Nixon, I expect, because today's corrupt administrations have him as a warning to not cut corners, to do a thorough job of it."

What about Reagan's Iran/Contra and the pardons that followed? What about Bush/Cheney with their "Curveball" as proof of WMD in Iraq to justify the invasion of that nation? Who can forget the "eponymous Colon" Powell's UN speech in support of the WMD lies?

As for Brett's accusation of "today's corrupt administrations," he can continue his search of the woodpile, but some of us know what he is really, really looking for. Conservatives have tried to untie themselves from Nixon/Agnew ever since Watergate. Ever since the Bush/Cheney 2008 Great Recession, conservatives currently brush their eight (8) inglorious years under the rug with the current "R-MONEY/R-AYN 2012" ticket. Conservatives have both long term and short term memory problems. But Brett is there to continue searching through the woodpile, ....

[Note: I credit Chris Rock as the source of my "eponymous" counters to Brett:

"You know the world is going crazy when the best rapper is a white guy, the best golfer is a black guy, the tallest guy in the NBA is Chinese, the Swiss hold the America's Cup, France is accusing the U.S. of arrogance, Germany doesn't want to go to war, and the three most powerful men in America are named 'Bush', 'Dick', and 'Colon'."]


The "Conference on American Conservatism" is yet another attempt by left to far left academics to understand the center right America outside of the ivory towers.

I suspect they will have no more success than in the past. We live in two completely different worlds.

Brett and Bart: You are staggeringly ignorant of the actual biographies of the people in the conference.


Educate me.

Are any of the participants in the conference a genuine libertarian or conservative who would vote for Paul Ryan or celebrate the Tea Party as a movement for good in the nation?

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It's beyond me why anyone considers Woodward an analyst or even a potent observer of the scene. He isn't even a decent reporter any more; he sold out objectivity for access some time ago. His opinions on why things happen are now worth no more than anyone else's, and not as much as those who know what did happen.

I don't dispute jpk's point really but he is just serving as a prop here for the OP's arguments.

As to the Constitution we "have," yeah, the Constitution we "have" doesn't force various things going on now. It might allow it, but just like it didn't "force" Clinton (or even Nixon, if that ever came about) being impeached, it doesn't force some of the stuff going on now.

Such fatalism is unconvincing.

my comment was not satire. Let me explain: 1) Obama's biggest failure was that he failed to turn the economy around 2) He failed to turn the economy around mostly because his stimulus package failed to fill the demand gap created by the recession. 3) His stimulus failed to fill the demand gap because it was too small and poorly designed 4) It was too small and poorly designed not (mainly) because of Republican recalictrance/procedural hurdles created by the Const. (as Prof. Levinson's post would suggest), but rather because that's the stimulus package that he preferred. How do we know this? He and his advisers said so. Behind the scenes accounts show that he and Geithner and Sumners and orzag wanted a stimulus that was no bigger thn what he got (while Romer wanted bigger); likewise, his public comments at the time warned that the stimulus shouldn't be too big because the public debt was a concern. So he failed on the economy because of his own mistake, not because of Republicans (okay they later blocked his JOBS act ...). Likewise, when it comes to financial regulation - he could have attached tough conditions to the bailouts that would've reformed Wall St once and for all - he and Geithner chose not, this was his own mistake. Likewise Afghanistan, he couldve pulled out - he didn't, this was (and remains) his own blunder. The list goes on and on - he blew it, let's not make excuses for his pathetic performance.

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Andrew, he was not "all powerful," nor did he have "record congressional majorities" ... he barely had a filibuster proof majority for a handful of months (Franken came in then Kennedy died ... it was like two months).

The stimulus package was cut back to gain Republican votes. It wasn't planned to be the only one but the filibuster made more efforts realistically impossible. The same applies to any long term Wall St reforms. To have staying power, it would have to be set in laws that Congress would pass. With Wall St friendly Dems alone, this was far from easy to do.

Putting aside that "he" is not the only one who passes legislation here (is Congress chopped liver? if those grand majorities pushed for more, what, was he going to veto them?).

He ran on expanding the war in Afghanistan. Sure he owns that. But, he very well was limited by Republicans and the system in place and did not have record majorities and his "near record" popularity is at best a bit of an exaggeration [it had a very short shelf life, for one thing) too.

It's a given Obama is (with apologies to a local author) a centrist and like FDR at times, more restrained that perhaps warranted economically. But, it is wrong to put so much blame on him and assume God-like powers that are simply not there.

est), but rather because that's the stimulus package that he preferred. How do we know this? He and his advisers said so. Behind the scenes accounts show that he and Geithner and Sumners and orzag wanted a stimulus that was no bigger thn what he got (while Romer wanted bigger); likewise, his public comments at the time warned thWindows 7 professional product Key
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