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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> January 2010

Obama Versus Alito

What to make of the mini-controversy arising over Justice Alito's apparent "not true" retort to Obama's comment about the Court during the State of the Union address? I have a few thoughts.

The political context is important. The Supreme Court is the weakest branch in our system. There are a few reasons for that.

(1) The Supreme Court is the only court created by the Constitution. The rest are the creation of Congress. The Congress also posseses the power to regulate the Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction.

(2) The Judicial Branch is the only one that lacks a kind of republican legitimacy. It's purely appointive. That matters in a society where all power flows from the people. To appreciate the implications of this, think of how powerful a President is when he is new in office. This is thanks in large part to the fact that he was just elected, i.e. the people have recently spoken. There's a freshness that he possesses. But after a few years when the public mood changes, yet he's still in office because of that old election, his mandate seems a little stale. The Court is perpetually in an extreme version of the latter case, never having to stand before the people.

(3) The Judicial Branch lacks the power to enforce its rulings. At least on a federal level, it requires the President to execute its rulings, and it requires the Congress to foot the bill. Historically, this has hindered its capacity to make policy. As Andrew Jackson once famously said, "Mr. Marshall has made his ruling. Now let him enforce it!"

The political weakness of the Court leaves me thinking that both Obama and Alito behaved inappropriately. My attitude is that it's like the big kid picking on the little kid in the schoolyard. The big kid should leave the little kid alone. Should the big one decide to take on the weakling, anyway - the little kid should just keep his mouth shut because there's nothing he can do about it.

First, Obama. Granted that he disagrees with the Court's decision, and this disagreement stems from legitimate differences of opinion, the fact remains that it is a good thing for the country that the Supreme Court is so well-regarded. Obama of all people should know this. He talked about the "trust deficit" the country has in its public institutions. There is no trust deficit as regards the Supreme Court. People trust it!

Yet this good reputation is not a guarantee. It could be damaged; indeed, considering the Court's dependence on Congress and the President, as well as its separation from the people and its inability to see its pronouncements through to their intended effect, its public standing is quite vulnerable.

Thus, I think it was inappropriate for the President to take a shot at the Court in the way he did. The Court's solid reputation is a public good for the country, and it should not be tampered with, especially over a case such as the one in question. It seems to me that if the Court had rendered a judgment that was truly beyond the pale - akin to Dred Scott - I wouldn't mind if the President took a shot at the Court. But on a campaign finance ruling? That strikes me as irresponsible and short-sighted on the part of a President who wants people to trust their government. It becomes even more irresponsible when one recalls that he blasted the Court right to its face. That particular level of disrespect sends a message that is not conducive to keeping the Court's good reputation intact.

Second, Alito. I'm sure he regrets what was an impetuous response. Obama should not have been so critical because the Court's reputation is important yet fragile. For the same reason, Alito should have kept his counsel. Obama has a republican legitimacy that Alito lacks - and it is politically not smart for a Supreme Court justice to disagree openly with an elected official such as Obama. This is the political equivalent of David going up against Goliath, and this time there is no guarantee that the Lord is on the side of the little guy! Politically, it would be advisable for the whole Court to show up at the next State of the Union address, to listen attentively without any reaction, and to make sure that this mini controversy becomes nothing more than a footnote in the annals of history.

Now, to be clear, I don't think that this whole dust-up is going to affect the Court's reputation. Still, these are the kinds of actions that could affect the Court, especially if they happen again. From my perspective, the best way to secure the good reputation of the Court is for it never to happen even once. So, shame on Obama for picking on the Court, and shame on Alito for not just taking it in stride. Both of them should have recognized that the Court's reputation is tremendously more important than the particular case in question.

Altogether, I'm much more troubled by Obama's comment than Alito's response because Obama is so much more powerful than Alito. I wish the President would appreciate the effect his words can have, and the possible negative consequences that come from attacking the Court in such pointed language (and right to its face!). It is a very positive thing that the Court has a good public reputation. It's due in part to the hard, smart work of many people who have served on the Court over the decades, but it also depends upon the Congress and the President allowing it to remain outside the political battlefield. The Supreme Court is not the Republican House caucus. It should be left alone, unless of course it clearly behaves inappropriately, which it obviously has not in this case.

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-Jay Cost

Obama's Strange State of the Union

Was last night's State of the Union address the sort we'd expect to be delivered by a President:

-whose job approval is under 50%,

-whose party is historically overexposed in the upcoming congressional elections,

-whose party was unable to hold a Senate seat in one of the bluest states, previously held by the party's most iconic post-war leaders,

-whose major domestic initiative has just crashed-and-burned as a consequence of that failure,

-and who heads into a midterm election with unemployment close to 10%?

I'd say not.

Implication: either this White House knows more than the rest of us, or it knows less.

Any takers for the "more" side of the ledger?

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-Jay Cost

Could Nancy Pelosi Lose Control of the House?

At its essential level, a political party is an extra-governmental conspiracy to control the government. Our constitutional system disperses power across three branches, two chambers of Congress, and federal, state, and local levels. The parties are centralizing forces, trying to unite all governmental power under the party banner. They accomplish this task when conspiring officials across the government coordinate their activities with others whose views are similar.

To be successful, a conspiracy requires a shared belief among the conspirators that their interests are linked - something to the effect of, "Whatever happens, we sink or swim together." This is really the only glue that binds a political party together. American party structures are very weak; partisans participate in the "conspiracy" only if they believe it will help them in the long run.

For some time, it's been clear that the efforts to pass the health care bill have tested the Democrats' ability to conspire. With the bill's apparent failure, stories abound suggesting backbiting among party leaders across branches of government. This was the report in a recent Politico story:

President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be all smiles as the president arrives at the Capitol for his State of the Union speech Wednesday night, but the happy faces can't hide relationships that are fraying and fraught.

The anger is most palpable in the House, where Pelosi and her allies believe Obama's reluctance to stake his political capital on health care reform in mid-2009 contributed to the near collapse of negotiations now.

But sources say there are also signs of strain between Reid and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and relations between Democrats in the House and Democrats in the Senate are hovering between thinly veiled disdain and outright hostility.

Senate Democrats are mad at House Democrats. House Democrats are mad at Senate Democrats. And everybody is mad at the President. This is not the mark of a well-functioning conspiracy!

But things could get worse. House roll call votes from late in 2009 suggest that there might be a backbench revolt brewing that could undermine Democratic control of the government.

Remember, the Democrats control the House only because they can muster the needed 218 votes to pass legislation or execute procedural maneuvers. That's the essence of the House conspiracy. But, again, it's an entirely voluntary one. If Blue Dogs, moderates, or at-risk members start defecting in large enough numbers, and Pelosi can't pull in the needed half-plus-one of the chamber - she loses effective control of the legislative appartus.

By the end of December, there was a surprisingly large number of backbench defections. Let's run through a list of the big ones from June onward.

Democratic Defections.jpg

These were all partisan votes in that Republicans mostly voted against the Democratic leadership. Two of the bills - HR 2454 (cap and trade) and HR 3962 (health care reform) - were high profile pieces of legislation that attracted a lot of attention. But the rest did not garner nearly as much focus, and several of them are downright obscure. And yet the number of defectors was still high.

It's striking to see 29 Democrats defect on a concurrent resolution providing for the adjornment of Congress. Or how about 39 Democrats defecting on a bill "to permit continued financing of government operations." That's an increase of the debt limit. How could so many vote against it? After all, the House voted through all the spending that required an increase in the debt limit. Yet Pelosi could only muster 218 Democrats to do what absolutely, positively had to be done!

This is the mark of a partisan conspiracy that is in some jeopardy.

All of these bills passed, defectors aside. Yet the concern for Democrats should be that, as we approach the 2010 midterm, the number of defectors begins to hit 40 or more. That will happen if Democratic backbenchers sense a need to put more distance between themselves and the leadership. In that case, the Democrats will need Republican votes. They got enough on cap-and-trade, but the GOP caucus might not be so amenable in the future.

Something like this happened in the summer of 1994. Rich Lowry referenced it on the Corner recently. What happened was that, in the course of passing President Clinton's crime bill, the Democratic leadership suffered huge defections on what should have been a worry-free procedural vote. Michael Barone offers a recap in the 1996 Almanac of American Politics:

[T]oo many Democrats, lulled by the widespread assumption in Washington that Hillary Rodham Clinton's healthcare package or something like it would inevitably pass, failed to separate themselves from this increasingly popular program until it was too late.

That moment came, ironically, when Democrats were poised to push through a piece of legislation they thought would make them widely popular, the 1994 crime backage. But the House and Senate leadership, trying to please the liberals in their own caucuses who wanted social work and gun control measures more than the large majority of voters who wanted tough law enforcement and punishment, put together a package that House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich could portray as "social work" and "pork." All but 11 Republicans voted against the rule to consider the crime bill, while 58 Democrats, most of them opponents of the control measures insisted on by liberals, voted no also. The Clinton Administration and the Democratic leadership tactic of keeping liberals happy and using their whips to bludgeon enough moderate Democrats to produce 218 votes had definitively failed.

Ultimately, Democrats won enough Republican votes to pass the crime bill. Yet this simple procedural vote exposed a deep crack in the Democratic foundation, as the party leadership was no longer able to keep 218 members together on crucial votes.

If something like this happens in the 111th Congress, what would be the result? Simply put, the Democrats would lose effective control of the House. Nancy Pelosi would continue to be Speaker, top Democrats would still hold all of the key committee chairs, but they would be unable to legislate on the hard stuff. They could still get things like HR 4474, the "Idaho Wilderness Water Facilities Act," passed through the House - but on anything with a whiff of controversy, she and the leadership could be in trouble.

This is something to watch for as we enter an election year with continued high unemployment, a marginally unpopular President, and an economy experiencing only a tepid recovery. It could be a challenge for Speaker Pelosi to keep 218 of her partisans together, and retain effective control over the legislative process in the House of Representatives.

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-Jay Cost

What Does Obama Do Now?

Presidents make political mistakes. Every last one of them. This is an inevitability. It is a rule of political life in the United States of America.

Barack Obama has made some mistakes in the last year. He misjudged the mood of the country. He misjudged the capacity of Congress to legislate with a decent respect for the national interest. He misjudged the extent of the recession - how it would affect unemployment and ultimately the public consciousness.

Tonight's result in Massachusetts is the first price he pays for his political mistakes. It will not be the last. Republicans may or may not take back the House of Representatives next year, but they are set to make big gains in the lower chamber. Only the hardiest of Democratic partisans doubt this, and even they are starting to come around.

No President is beyond making such miscalculations. Many great men have made substantially worse judgments. Thomas Jefferson pursued a short-sighted foreign policy that damaged American interests in a futile attempt to punish Britain and France. James Madison - the father of the Constitution - put the nation into the War of 1812, something for which it was grossly underprepared. Abraham Lincoln tolerated incompetent generals for too long, doubting his instincts and giving only meek exhortations to confront the enemy more aggressively. Franklin Roosevelt thought his landslide reelection in 1936 gave him leave to reshape the Supreme Court and purge his party of dissenters. These were great men to whom we have rightly built stately and impressive monuments. But they were still men, and they made big mistakes.

The real test of a President's mettle is not whether he makes mistakes, or falls into traps of his own making. Again, that's inevitable. Instead, the test of a President is how he handles the jam once he has gotten himself into it. Does he continue to do the same thing, hoping against hope that somehow, someway doing the same-old same-old will yield a different result? Or does he recognize that he has made mistakes, try to learn from them, and ultimately make adaptations? That's the mark of a superior political talent.

Frankly, I don't know what Obama will do next. His political biography is so slender that none of us really do. Looking back on Bill Clinton's remarkable comeback in 1995-96, none of us should have been very surprised. He pulled off exactly the same feat several times before - bouncing back from losing his reelection bid for Arkansas governor in 1980, then bouncing back after scandal during the 1992 primary. But Obama is a mystery, though he has written two autobiographies about himself.

Democrats should hope that he makes adjustments, that the latest bluster from the White House is just that. Politico reports one senior advisor as saying, "This is not a moment that causes the president or anybody who works for him to express any doubt. It more reinforces the conviction to fight hard." Democrats should hope that this is just aggressive talk designed to buy the White House time to figure out what to do next. If the President really thinks this, they are going to be in a mess of trouble for the rest of his term, for it would mean that he's too stubborn or arrogant to make needed adjustments. It would mean that a comparison to Jimmy Carter is more apt than a comparison to Franklin Roosevelt.

Frankly, all of us should hope that this is just bluster from a typically blustery White House. Barack Obama is going to hold his office for the next three years regardless of whatever happens in congressional elections in November, regardless of how well he governs, regardless of where his job approval numbers go. Let's hope that this untested, young, inexperienced fellow the country elevated to the highest office in the land has the good sense to recognize the message the Bay State sent last night, to understand that messages of similar intensity will be sent in November, and to direct his staff to make necessary changes.

Watch Obama carefully for the next few weeks. How does he react to this Senate defeat? What does he do about health care? Does his message shop change its typically aggressive posture? Answers to these questions are going to teach us a lot about the still-mysterious person who currently holds the office of President of the United States.

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-Jay Cost

The Political Blunders of the Obama White House

If Scott Brown should defeat Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts special election tomorrow, it will be a fitting metaphor for the political trajectory of President Obama's first year in office. A year ago Democrats were talking about Obama as the next Franklin Roosevelt, and suggesting that they were on the cusp of an enduring majority. Today, they are struggling to hold Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat.

Coakley will rightly get most of the blame should Brown actually pull off what once seemed to be an impossible victory. Yet much of the responsibility will have to rest with Barack Obama, who has guided his party so poorly that it is having trouble making an appeal to voters in Massachusetts.

To put it bluntly, the Obama White House has been politically inept in the last year. It has made serious miscalculations, and today it is paying a price.

Ultimately, the reason for these errors goes back to the greenness of the Commander-in-Chief himself, who lacked executive experience and had little first-hand knowledge of the way Washington functions. He put together a team too full of Chicago strongmen, campaign hacks, and sympathetic "Friends of Barack." Accordingly, he and his executive staff were ill prepared for managing the government. This led to three significant political blunders.


#1. A Lack of Bipartisanship. Nobody (except perhaps Obama's spinmeisters in the White House) would deny that the President has not been post-partisan. The typical response from the left has been: (a) the Republicans are too crassly political to compromise with; and/or (b) the two parties are now so far apart that there is no middle ground. The problem with this argument is that it fails to account for the near total absence of bipartisanship. Granted that polarization has reduced the number of gettable Republican votes - it surely has not reduced it to zero. Republican legislators like Mike Castle and Susan Collins are fewer in number now than in years past - but such members are still there, and Obama has been hard-pressed to win them over on anything of significance.

An absence of bipartisanship has created two serious problems for the Obama White House. First, it has left the Democratic Party solely responsible for all major legislation - which in turn means that the Democrats have taken on a greater share of the political responsibility for the state of the union. Bipartisanship would have brought Republicans into the governing process, and thus given Obama and his Democratic allies some cover.

Second, it has led to a predictable rise in partisan bickering, which Independent voters hate. If public opinion polling on the Massachusetts Senate race is correct, it will be Independents who swing to Brown in big numbers, which means they'll join Independents in Virginia and New Jersey in voting Republican. If Democrats cannot win back at least some of them, they will suffer major losses in November, 2010.

#2. Installing Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid as de facto prime ministers. A common hobby of political commentators over the last year has been to compare Barack Obama to past presidents. At this point, it's pretty clear who he isn't like - and that's Woodrow Wilson (ironic, considering his background is so similar to Wilson's). During his first year in office, Wilson took an active role in managing the government. He reinstated the practice of delivering the State of the Union in person. He also was a frequent visitor on Capitol Hill, especially when he fought to keep the Senate from gutting his tariff reform.

Obama, on the other hand, has been content to let Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid handle the difficult task of legislating while he hangs back. His lack of involvement in the process has prompted many cries from Democratic legislators that he engage more fully.

His congressional allies are right. Obama has not been involved enough. Congress is not well suited to the task that Obama gave it. It is not a national legislature. Instead, it's a legislature where representatives from the various parts of the country convene. That's a crucial distinction, for it means that there is nobody in Congress who is ultimately responsible to the whole people. Congress has governed in a predictable way - handing out far too many special favors to wavering legislators and privileged interest groups. Congress often resorts to this tactic to stitch together a winnable coalition, but the process makes a mockery of the national interest.

Only the President can claim to represent the national interest, and it's his responsibility to guide Congress in a way that reflects it. Obama has failed to do that. He's let Congress legislate by its own lights, and the process has not been pretty. We talk about legislative "sausage making," but this has been sausage making akin to The Jungle. Accordingly, the public has lost confidence in the government to handle the many problems facing the country.

#3 Pursuing an agenda that doesn't fit the times. I'm talking about health care reform here. For decades, Democratic Presidents have dreamed of comprehensive reform of the nation's health care system. So, it's no surprise that President Obama wanted to try his hand at this, especially considering the outsized majorities his party has in Congress. In itself, this was not a mistake.

The mistake comes when we view this pursuit in context. Namely, 2009 was not a good year to focus the government so intently on health care reform. The public wanted a greater focus on the recession, but it didn't really get one. All it got was a hastily constructed, wasteful stimulus bill that was built on the assumption that unemployment would top out at 8%. As unemployment skyrocketed and the recession dragged on, watching the Senate Finance Committee debate insurance co-operatives and Cadillac taxes made it appear that the government was out of touch.

Additionally, the pursuit of health care reform was difficult to square with a public that has become increasingly deficit conscious. Very few people believe that these reforms will be "deficit neutral," and for good reason. This is a massive new entitlement program the Democrats are proposing, and our existing entitlements cost way more than initial projections, and more than we can today afford. One need not be a policy wonk to suspect that the Democrats' math is more than a little "fuzzy." This would likely not be a concern if the government were running a surplus or just a small deficit. But the 2009 deficit topped out in the trillions. That is bound to make voters wary of new, expensive entitlement programs.


These mistakes are all problematic by themselves, but take them together and they become much more powerful: the White House has pursued a partisan agenda and condoned congressional cronyism while ignoring the demands of the public. Martha Coakley's lousy campaign is a big reason why Ted Kennedy's seat is in peril. So is the high unemployment rate. But so also is this. Combined, these mistakes have created a very bad impression.

White Houses make mistakes. Presidents are often inexperienced when they come into the job. They often appoint high-level staffers who are ill prepared to guide the President to success. Corresponding political failures like these are fairly common.

The important questions moving forward are: how will the President respond? Will he acknowledge that his team has made mistakes? Will he correct the way his White House does business? Or will he continue to plunge ahead without recognizing his own faults?

It's inevitable that Presidents run into political trouble - and the kind Obama faces today is not terribly unique in the history of the executive branch. The real test of a President's mettle is not whether he encounters problems, but how reacts to them. As we move forward, I will be watching the President's response to political setbacks just as closely as I'll be watching the unemployment numbers. I think both will determine the course of our politics for the next several years.

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-Jay Cost

No, Seriously. There Are No Permanent Majorities!

Last year around this time, as the liberal world was flush with excitement over the upcoming inauguration of Barack Obama, I dedicated much of the space on this blog to arguing that the new Democratic majority would not be permanent.

I listed a lot of reasons for this, but my biggest argument was that it is very difficult for a single party to govern this country to the satisfaction of its broad, diverse populace. And sooner or later, when the majority party screws up, the other side gets its opening.

Steve Kornacki, writing on his blog this week, suggested that this is exactly what is happening in Massachusetts. He argues that Massachusetts drifted out of the GOP's reach around 1994 when it became dominated by "southern/religious-based conservatism," but now that the Democrats are totally in charge, the GOP finally has an opening. Here's his key graf:

[W]ith Republicans locked out power in Washington, swing voters in Massachusetts -- and every other blue state -- are, for the first time since 1994, ready to blame their problems on Democrats and use the GOP as a protest vehicle. And with 10 percent unemployment, voters have a lot of anger to vent.

This is exactly right. When the country is angry about the state of the union, and it feels that it's time for a change, it will vote for the opposition party as a "protest vehicle." Why? Because in our two-party system there is no place else for the people to go. They might not like the opposition, but it is a choice between them and the status quo.

This is why I'm not a big believer in the "Yeah, but the Republican brand is tarnished" meme that's been floating around out there. I think that could help the Democrats some, but the country tends to take a slightly jaundiced view of both parties to begin with. Neither party could ever credibly claim to have clean hands. As Madison wrote in Federalist 51: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."

If it's a choice between the status quo and an opposition party that has disappointed in the past, sometimes circumstances demand the opposition. Historically speaking, that's simply a true statement. There have been multiple periods in our country's history when the people have swung back and forth between the parties, casting about for somebody - anybody - who could manage public affairs competently. The most violent swings came in the 1880s-1890s as the country struggled through the latter phases of the industrial revolution, but we saw a more recent one in 1974-1982. In both periods, neither side had given the people much reason for confidence, but that did not stop them from using both as "protest vehicles."

Ultimately, this is what dooms a majority party. Sooner or later, it's going to find itself having to deal with voter anger when times turn tough. When that happens, the country will get behind the opposition. Sometimes this happens quickly. Sometimes it takes a while. But it always happens. The only exception comes in the early period of the country when the Federalists were essentially destroyed, but one-party Republican rule did not last, beginning to break down during the War of 1812 as factions within the Jeffersonian Republicans began to differentiate themselves.

Plus, it's important to keep in mind the flip side. The minority party, recently pushed to the sidelines, is not content to stand still. It's struggling to redefine itself, change its strategy, find a way to acquire the majority. Why? Because that is its purpose. Political parties are engaged in an inexorable pursuit of majority status. What we're seeing in Massachusetts is a good indication of what a minority party is prepared to do for that goal. Should he gut out the victory next week, Scott Brown is ultimately going to disappoint the national Republican base. He will want to be reelected next time, which means he'll situate himself well to the left of most of his fellow Republicans. Yet he's raking in dollars hand over first this week. Republicans everywhere know that Brown will be a moderate, so why are they so giving him so much cash? Because he's one more vote closer to the majority (and, more immediately, an end to the filibuster-proof majority that party-switcher Arlen Specter handed the Democrats). Ideological diversity is a problem for a party to worry about only after its returned to the majority. Until then, few on the Republican side will complain about a little adulteration if it hastens the party's return to power.

This is not some sort of new dynamic. Indeed, if you scan the political history of the United States since 1824, you'll see it play itself out again and again. Parties in the majority have trouble hanging on while the opposition gets more crafty in its efforts to climb back to power. That's how American politics works. That's what we're seeing this year.

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-Jay Cost

Is Health Care Reform A Sure Thing?

David Dayen over at FireDogLake has a clip of Emanuel Cleaver giving a less-than-bullish account of the prospects of health care reform in the House:

As Dayen notes, the math is not a slam dunk for House leadership.

Consider the following.

The bill earned 220 votes the first time around. Yet Robert Wexler has resigned. That puts the total support at 219.

Let's assume that the new bill will lack Stupak language on abortion - a reasonable one, I think. That would lose them Joseph Cao, the sole Republican supporter. Bart Stupak claims that he has 10 to 12 Democrats who would walk away then, too.

Assuming Stupak's number is correct, that puts the bill at 206 to 208, with 218 needed for support. The House leadership would have to find 10 to 12 supporters among the 38 Democrats who voted against it late last year.

TalkingPointsMemo has been keeping careful track of these members, and they have found four who are still nays, seven who are "keeping their options open" (TPM's phrase), and just one "leaning yes." The one leaning yes is Jason Altmire, who appears to have attracted a serious Republican opponent for his western Pennsylvania district. He also voted against the rule for debate and amendment on the original bill. He also didn't vote for it when it was in Education and Labor. These are the sort of things a member does when he's looking to build a track record of opposition. So color me skeptical that he's actually leaning yes.

If TPM's count is correct, and my math is not terribly off the mark, it suggests that Pelosi and the Democratic leadership would have to attract 10 to 12 of the nay votes. Here's the list of those whose votes are still conceivably gettable, from TPM. "BD" indicates a Blue Dog, "F" indicates a freshman:

John Adler (D-NJ): F
Jason Altmire (D-PA): BD
Brian Baird (D-WA)
John Barrow (D-GA): BD
Dan Boren (D-OK): BD
Rick Boucher (D-VA)
Allen Boyd (D-FL): BD
Ben Chandler (D-KY): BD
Travis Childers (D-MS), BD
Artur Davis (D-AL)
Lincoln Davis (D-TN): BD
Chet Edwards (D-TX)
Bart Gordon (D-TN): BD
Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD): BD
Tim Holden (D-PA): BD
Larry Kissell (D-NC): F
Dennis Kucinich (D-OH)
Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL): F
Frank Kratovil Jr. (D-MD): F, BD
Betsy Markey (D-CO): F, BD
Jim Marshall (D-GA): BD
Jim Matheson (D-UT): BD
Charlie Melancon (D-LA): BD
Michael McMahon (D-NY): F
Walt Minnick (D-ID): F, BD
Scott Murphy (D-NY): F
Glenn Nye (D-VA): F, BD
Colin Peterson (D-MN): BD
Mike Ross (D-AR): BD
Heath Shuler (D-NC): BD
Ike Skelton (D-MO)
John Tanner (D-TN): BD
Gene Taylor (D-MS): BD
Harry Teague (D-NM): F

Scanning this list, it's easy to tick off a bunch of people who are going to be all but impossible to win over: Boren, Artur Davis, Edwards, Kratovil, Kucinich, Melancon, Minnick, Shuler, Taylor come instantly to mind. I'd put some more on that list. Eliminating the Stupak language is not going to help them when one looks at the places where most of these people come from. 19 of these members are from the South. And if we cross-reference this list with CQ's ">chart of "McCain Democrats," we find that 25 of them hail from districts that voted for John McCain for President, some by very large margins. That's important because, for as unpopular as health care reform is nationwide, we should expect it to be less so in these districts. On this point, it's worth noting that a recent Public Policy Polling survey of Larry Kissell's North Carolina district produced some cross-tabs that suggest a yea on health care reform is harmful. Voters who (correctly) believed he voted against the bill in November were more likely to support him than those who (incorrectly) believed he voted against it.

Also, we're assuming that Kucinich is the only one who votes nay because the bill is not liberal enough. So far, I haven't heard a credible threat of defection from another progressive member, though Dayen suggests it's a possibility.

There are many factors that should help Obama and Pelosi pick up some of these nays. Eliminating the public option might make it easier for many of these moderates to vote yea. Stupak might not actually have 10 to 12 votes. Pelosi might have had some votes in her pocket should push come to shove (although probably less than the number who are really committed to Stupak language - otherwise she would not have acceded to his demands in November). Three of these members (Baird, Gordon, and Tanner) have announced retirement plans, so they might be disposed to vote with the party now that electoral pressure is gone. Others might be planning to retire but have not yet announced it, giving her more possible votes. Above all, the political pressure on these members to support the bill will be tremendous - and even if they are actually hurting their electoral prospects by voting for the bill, you can bet the White House and the House leadership will make a very strong argument that this will help them. See, for instance, Ben Nelson's pre-Christmas negotiations.

Still, I think it is far to hasty to say that this reform is inevitable. Minimally, the margin in the House is going to be razor-thin either way. We know that for sure, which in turn suggests that we shouldn't take final passage for granted. Emanuel Cleaver apparently isn't.

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-Jay Cost

The Real Barack Obama

When President Obama indicated that he had no problem with secretive House-Senate negotiations on health care - there was outrage from several quarters. Rich Lowry wrote that it's a sign that Obama is "insincere to the point of cynicism." Peter Wehner suggested that this broken pledge "annihilates...the belief that he embodied a new, uplifting kind of politics." Outrage was not confined to the right. CNN's Jack Cafferty ripped Obama's openness pledge as a "lie," and the whole affair pushed C-SPAN from its usual role as sideline observer to active participant.

Outrage aside, was anybody surprised by this broken pledge? After all, this is the President who promised to find a campaign finance agreement with John McCain, then never tried. This is the President who said that the old ways wouldn't do, then staffed his new administration with Clinton era retreads. This is the President who promised a post-partisan era, but waited less than a week into his new term to initiate a "message war" against his political opponents.

Politicians break their campaign promises all the time. It's part of an age-old electoral strategy: promise everything to the voters during the campaign, and leave the worry about breaking them for the next election.

What's noteworthy about President Obama is that his campaign acknowledged this bad habit, then earnestly pledged that he would be so very different. The sounds and images of his campaign - from the chants of "Yes We Can" to the stage for his convention address to the artwork - suggested that the country was about to elect somebody more special than Rutherford Hayes or Hillary Clinton or Warren Harding or John McCain. Barack Obama wasn't like other politicians. He was superior.

This is what he said when he announced his presidential campaign in Springfield, Illinois in February, 2007:

I know there are those who don't believe we can do all these things. I understand the skepticism. After all, every four years, candidates from both parties make similar promises, and I expect this year will be no different...

That is why this campaign can't only be about me. It must be about us - it must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams...This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.

By ourselves, this change will not happen. Divided, we are bound to fail.

But the life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible....

As Lincoln organized the forces arrayed against slavery, he was heard to say: "Of strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought to battle through."

That is our purpose here today.

That's why I'm in this race.

The implication of this rhetoric is clear. Most candidates overpromise then underdeliver. That's precisely why we need Barack Obama. He will be the next Abraham Lincoln, an extraordinary leader who will not only bring peace and prosperity, but will restore our sense of common purpose.

Since he burst onto the national scene years ago, people have wondered who is the real Barack Obama? What makes him tick? What's the true story?

The answer should be clear by now: he's just a politician. There's no secret, hidden mystery to the 44th President. He's not a crypto-communist nor is he the next Abraham Lincoln. He's a politician just like any other. He said what he thought he needed to say to get into office, now he's doing what he thinks he needs to be do to stay there. If that creates problems for 2012, he'll cross that bridge when he comes to it.

Hats off to him for a near-flawless execution of an audacious campaign strategy. Since nobody knew anything about him, why not claim the mantle of Lincoln? Nobody could point to a governing record to suggest that he was not in fact a leader for the ages - so why not claim to be? Other pols promise the sun, the moon, and the stars in the sky, but Barack Obama would do them one better: he'd promise the eschaton. Not only would an Obama administration grow the economy and end the war, it would reclaim the meaning of citizenship!

This strategy was either cynical or arrogant, depending upon whether the President really thought he could do all these amazing things. Let's hope he didn't. Let's hope he was being cynical, for at least it would suggest the President's sense of himself is not wildly out of proportion to reality.

To function well, this country does not require great leaders who will reclaim the meaning of citizenship, but it has use for good ones who can leave things a little better than when they found them. History has shown that good leaders are often cynical, crafty politicians who are motivated by their own ambitions. Our superior system of government expertly links their private interests to the public good, and thus can bring out the best in them.

But if this President is so vainglorious as to believe his campaign's claims about his greatness, we have reason to worry. With problem piling up on top of problem, the last thing we need is a leader so hopelessly enamored of himself that he actually presumes to be the next Lincoln.

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-Jay Cost

Could Howard Dean Primary Barack Obama?

Matt Bai recently penned a somewhat confused essay that attempts to argue that Obama is a bona fide progressive, but not really a populist (which apparently for Bai comes down to little more than differences in tone). Yet in this piece he inserts an intriguing aside.

A year into Obama's presidency, it is no longer inconceivable, if still unlikely, that he could face a challenge within his own party in 2012, especially if Democrats suffer sizable losses next November. (When Howard Dean made a point of trying to scuttle health care reform altogether, was he simply trying to get a better bill, or was he setting himself up as a populist insurgent?)

The tossaway quality of these lines makes them so interesting. It's as if this is what people are talking about. Are they? I don't really run in the same circles as writers from the New York Times Magazine, so I don't have a clue. Yet I did notice that Politico has a generally sympathetic entry on "The resurrection of Howard Dean." It also mentions a possible 2012 challenge of the President. Just as you need two data points to have a trend, you need two MSM articles to have a meme!

So, it's worth asking on this cold January day: could Howard Dean primary Barack Obama?

Of course he could, but nobody should expect him to topple the President. If Theodore Roosevelt couldn't successfully primary Howard Taft in 1912, what hope does any insurgent have, especially one who lost out to John Kerry?

Now, the nomination battle has changed quite a bit in the 98 years since Teddy took on the Big Lub, but the following is most definitely true. Incumbent presidents who were elected to office were often denied their party's re-nomination in the 19th century (the first loser being the drunk, incompetent Franklin Pierce in 1856), but it is a very rare occurrence these days. And by rare I mean it hasn't happened in over a century.

The power of selecting the next nominee has generally fallen to the people - via the primaries and caucuses - but make no mistake: the party establishment still has a dominant role, and an incumbent President almost always has the establishment on his side. That makes him near impossible to defeat - you have to go back to the corruption of the Gilded Age or the political breakdown of the antebellum years to find incumbents who couldn't secure the support of the insiders whose jobs depend on the incumbent's continued success.

That's not to say Dean (or somebody) wouldn't try. It's just to say that if he has any sense in his head, his goal wouldn't be to become the 45th President. When Pat Buchanan took on George H.W. Bush in 1992, I doubt his purpose was actually to become the next President. More likely, it was about making public the dissatisfaction a faction within the Republican Party was feeling by 1992.

That points to what makes these primary contests so noteworthy: they are more a symptom of failure than a cause. If a President cannot lock down all the major parts of his own party, and instead must slug it out in a primary - it's a sign that he's going to have trouble building a majority coalition in the fall. Taft, Carter, and Bush all lost their general election contests after beating back big time challenges for the nomination. So did Hubert Humphrey, LBJ's stand-in in 1968, after Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy launched insurgent candidacies for the White House.

This is probably why we're seeing talk about Dean about the moment: many progressives are frustrated with the course of the Obama administration to date. There are hairline fractures in the Obama coalition. It's improbable that progressives would ever seriously challenge its structural foundations. They are also the most partisan Democrats, and thus would never aid the Republicans. But if Obama should find his job approval ratings in Carter or Bush territory come mid-2011, i.e. he's doomed anyway, a progressive candidate like Dean could conceivably challenge him.

I'd say the probability of Obama having to face a serious challenge from Howard Dean or anybody in 2012 are about as good as the probability that the Pittsburgh Pirates will have a winning season by then. Put it in the 5-10% range.

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-Jay Cost