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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Obama's Liberal Moment

Last week, the Washington Post ran a front page story on the Obama administration's legislative strategy.

Senior members of the Obama administration are pressing lawmakers to use a shortcut to drive the president's signature initiatives on health care and energy through Congress without Republican votes...

The shortcut, known as "budget reconciliation," would allow Obama's health and energy proposals to be rolled into a bill that cannot be filibustered, meaning Democrats could push it through the Senate with 51 votes, instead of the usual 60. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both used the tactic to win deficit-reduction packages, while George W. Bush used it to push through his signature tax cuts.

Yet Senator Obama writes this in The Audacity of Hope:

There's an instructive story about the negotiations surrounding the first round of Bush tax cuts, when Karl Rove invited a Democratic senator over to the White House to discuss the senator's potential support for the President's package...[The senator] suggested a few changes that would moderate the package's impact.

"Make these changes," the senator told Rove, "and not only will I vote for the bill, but I guarantee you'll get seventy votes out of the Senate."

"We don't want seventy votes," Rove reportedly replied. "We want fifty-one."

Recently, I noted my concern that the President is willing to engage in tactics he made a name opposing. This Washington Post story indicates this is not limited to rhetoric, but extends to legislative maneuvers as well.

Why has the President adopted such a highly partisan posture, one he was decrying just three years ago?

The following graph might help answer this question. It outlines the median ideological scores of the House and Senate from 1932 to 2008 (-1 is liberal, 1 is conservative). It runs from FDR to George W. Bush. It shades periods blue for liberal government (both chambers have a liberal tilt and there is a Democratic President), red for conservative government (both chambers have a conservative tilt and there is a Republican President), and purple for an ideological mix (one chamber or the President is of a different ideological bent than the others).

Ideological Scores.jpg

This graph likely understates the extent of ideologically mixed government. The median senator is not the critical vote in the upper chamber. Instead, the 60th (filibuster) senator is. Thus, practically speaking, the Senate has been more moderate than pictured here.

Notice the historical power of Southern Democrats. Though Democrats held the House from 1954 to 1994, an alliance between Republicans and Southern Democrats could often check liberals.

Clearly, "realignment" has some explanatory power, but it oversimplifies a great deal. Overall, there are not really extended spans of liberal or conservative government; instead they are more like moments, lasting a few cycles until they are "corrected" by the other side.

Scanning to the present day, we can appreciate why Senator Obama would plead for bipartisanship in The Audacity of Hope. That book was written during the most conservative government in more than 75 years. Additionally, the GOP seemed by then to have over-reached. Preaching the virtues of bipartisanship was smart politics for an ambitious Democratic pol in 2006.

But notice the leftward swing in that year's midterm, which was extended in the current Congress (not pictured in the graph). Add in a new Democratic President, and the country is now in another liberal moment.

Three observations about these moments are relevant.

They have been short. FDR's moment basically lasted six years - the longest of all. Johnson and Clinton's were extremely brief, followed by conservative "corrections."

They have not necessarily yielded policy innovations. FDR won major programmatic changes, as did Johnson. However, Carter had nothing to show for his moment, and Clinton had little.

They have been rare. Not reducible to the grand ideological march of history - they have been partially contingent on historical events, like the Great Depression and Watergate.

So, President Obama has a unique opportunity. He cannot presume that it will last long, that it will assuredly yield significant changes in policy, or that he'll have another chance.

Thus, bipartisanship is of little political use to him now. As a rallying cry against the Bush administration, which pulled the policy needle to the right, it was extremely helpful. However, not any more. When the "old categories" suddenly give you an opening, why "transcend" them? Why court the other side, which will only slow you down and moderate your programs? Instead, the politically savvy move is to do exactly what Obama has done: stuff bipartisanship, see how much you can squeeze out of Congress before the next "correction," and get your name into the history books.

I expect politicians of both parties to do this. Their commitment to bipartisanship is typically situational: they praise it when they're in the minority, then forget it when they're in the majority. Of course, Obama promised to be above politics as usual. That's why he pursued his party's nomination against Hillary Clinton, whose experience was greater but who had the "taint" of politics on her. Obama didn't have the taint, and assured us he never would.

So much for that.

-Jay Cost