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Farewell!

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> August 2010

Farewell!

Dear Friends,

This is my final entry for the Horse Race Blog here at RealClearPolitics. Starting later this week, I will begin work at The Weekly Standard.

I'd like to thank John McIntyre and Tom Bevan for the opportunity to contribute to this outstanding site. Five years ago, I was struggling to produce an insignificant proposal for an indifferent dissertation committee at the University of Chicago when I received an enigmatic invitation to meet John for lunch at the Wishbone on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. Little did I realize at the time that I was being interviewed for a job, let alone one that would alter my professional trajectory forever. And so much for the better! I am forever in the debt of John and Tom for the opportunities they have offered me, for their generosity in always giving prominent placement to my columns, and for the trust they have had in me to write about whatever was on my mind.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. It's time for a change, and I am moving on. I wish everybody at RealClearPolitics all the best. And while I'll no longer be a contributor here, I shall remain a regular and devoted reader. And a friend.

Finally, I would like to thank my readers. It is a rare privilege to write about American politics for a living, and it would not be possible without your continued support. Thanks so much for following me for all these years!

All the best,
Jay Cost

Health Care Reform Has Endangered the Democratic Majority

This Politico piece by Jim VandeHei, Alex Isenstadt, and Mike Allen got a lot of play last week:

Top Democrats are growing markedly more pessimistic about holding the House, privately conceding that the summertime economic and political recovery they were banking on will not likely materialize by Election Day.

In conversations with more than two dozen party insiders, most of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly about the state of play, Democrats in and out of Washington say they are increasingly alarmed about the economic and polling data they have seen in recent weeks.

They no longer believe the jobs and housing markets will recover -- or that anything resembling the White House's promise of a "recovery summer" is under way. They are even more concerned by indications that House Democrats once considered safe -- such as Rep. Betty Sutton, who occupies an Ohio seat that President Barack Obama won with 57 percent of the vote in 2008 -- are in real trouble.

There is no mention of health care reform in this piece. The economy is referenced several times. So is the President's inability to control the narrative. Even the Ground Zero Mosque is mentioned as a reason why the House is now in jeopardy. But not health care.

It has become conventional wisdom that the decline of the Democrats has mostly to do with the economy and little - if anything - to do with health care. This is Jonathan Alter from Saturday:

Health-care reform was seen by many cable chatterers as shaping the outcome of the November midterm elections but almost certainly won't. Nor will the flap over the planned mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero. To make sure, Obama defended the constitutional principle at stake, but backed off on the specific siting. Why get tied down by another hot-button distraction, especially one that keeps the Muslim story alive in ways that help no one but the media? The collapse of the Greek economy, by contrast, is an example of something real, not hyped by cable news, whose reverberations first spoiled Obama's PR plan for a "Recovery Summer" and now could sink the Democrats in the midterms.

So, Greek economy, yes. Health care...no?

This meme is wrong. The Democrats' control of the House did not become tenuous recently. At best, some of the more immediate warning signs - e.g. individual incumbents like Betty Sutton now appear to be in jeopardy - have manifested themselves recently. But there has been a real danger of losing the House for some time, a danger that predates "Recovery Summer" and goes back to the health care debate.

First of all, the fact that the health care bill is no longer the topic du jore does not mean it is no longer an issue. The real questions are whether the health care bill moved voters away from the Democrats, and whether those voters have since moved back now that the debate is over. The answers are yes - the debate moved voters away from the Democrats; and no - the voters have not come back.

Here is the 2009-2010 track of the RCP generic ballot average:

Generic Ballot.jpg

This metric historically has a Democratic tilt, yet it showed the two parties at parity a year ago. That was, you will recall, after Democratic incumbents were excoriated at town hall meetings all summer. Only about 40% of people supported the bill at that point. With the President's late summer speech to Congress, the Democratic generic ballot numbers ticked up, but the GOP pulled back to within even of the Democrats by mid-November, when the House was debating the bill.

All of this happened during the Third and Fourth Quarters of 2009, when GDP finally turned positive then jumped up by 5.0%.

It is very hard to win the House of Representatives when you lose the House popular vote. And the polls have suggested for a year that Democrats were in danger of doing just that.

It is also very hard to win the House of Representatives when Independents bolt to the other side en masse. Republicans and Democrats split Independents in the 2004 House elections. In 2006 they went for the Democrats by 18 points. They went for the Democrats by 8 points in 2008.

In Gallup's most recent polling, President Obama won the approval of just 40% of Independent adults. That's deep in the danger zone, and the President has been in trouble with Independents for some time. Independent adults have given him less than 50% approval in the Gallup poll since November, 2009. Again, that's when the economy was growing and the health care debate was on the front page. And that is among all adults. Among likely voters, Rasmussen found around that time that 60% of Independents disapproved of the President's performance, with 45% strongly disapproving.

We can also point to the 2009 off-year gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, which occurred during the health care debate. Democrats suffered massive defections among Independent voters, bringing Republicans to victory in both states. Something similar happened in the Massachusetts Senate election. Republicans do not win New England Senate seats by bringing the conservative base out to the polls! Scott Brown is a United States Senator today because Independents in the Bay State were unhappy with the course the national government had been taking.

Partisans on both sides tell themselves stories about why they're up, why they're down, and why the other side is where it is. These stories usually contain at least a grain of truth, but they also help encourage ideologues in the face of an impending rejection by the electorate. Democrats ignored the political problem of health care in the fall and winter - arguing that Martha Coakley and Creigh Deeds were bad candidates, that voters had been turned off by the health care bill because of the process, and that they would come around once the many benefits kicked in. Now, they're pointing to the economy as the only significant reason why the party is in trouble.

It would be difficult for any strong partisan to admit that such an accomplishment was so deeply unpopular. Yet the polling is pretty unequivocal on the relationship between the Democrats' fortunes and the health care bill. It was during the health care debate that the essential building block of the Democratic majority - Independent voters - began to crumble. It was evident in the generic ballot. It was evident in the President's job approval numbers. It was evident in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

Reconstructing the Democrats' meme, we can fairly say that the economy is a huge problem for the party. Of this, there can be no doubt. We can also say that the stalled recovery denied the Democrats a chance to win back the voters they lost over health care. But the process and passage of health care reform were crucial elements in the story. That's when the party started losing the voters it needs to retain control of the government.

-Jay Cost

Will Money Save the Democrats?

Reid Wilson, our former colleague and now the editor-in-chief of the Hotline On Call, had an interesting column today explaining "why Democrats will keep the House."

He offers four reasons.

(1) Democrats have so far raised more money.

(2) Money facilitates turnout.

(3) Money facilitates opposition research.

(4) Democratic voters will come home, as they did in PA-12.

Each of these points has some validity, but in each one Wilson is over-stating his case. Let's take them in turn.

(1) Democrats have more money. Wilson is pointing to an advantage that the Democrats have, but he has mis-framed it. In The Politics of Congressional Elections, Gary Jacobson writes:

Campaign spending is subject to diminishing returns; the more dollars spent, the less gained by each additional dollar. Congressional incumbents usually exploit their official resources for reaching constituents so thoroughly that the additional increment of information about their virtues put forth during the campaign adds comparatively little to what is already known and felt about them...the extent to which voters know and like the incumbents is unrelated to how much is spent on the campaign. The situation is quite different for nonincumbents. Most are largely unknown before the campaign, and the extent to which they penetrate the awareness of voters - which is crucial to winning votes - is directly related to how extensively they campaign. The money spent on nonincumbents' campaigns buys the attention and recognition that incumbents already enjoy at the outset of the campaign

This is a crucially important point, for it suggests that Wilson incorrectly frames the effect of money. What matters is not so much the dollar advantage Democratic incumbents have over Republican challengers, but whether Republican challengers will have raised enough to "penetrate the awareness of voters." That remains to be seen.

Also, expect the Democratic money advantage to be diminished somewhat as business PACs and others primarily concerned about access in the 112th Congress begin shifting dollars to the Republicans. Additionally, expect enthusiastic Republican donors to start identifying the most promising candidates over the next few months. The Democrats enjoyed a similar uptick in their fortunes in 2006. That is inevitable as a party appears headed to transition from minority to majority.

(2) Money facilitates turnout. I think that turnout operations add less value than party insiders like to claim. Mostly, they contact voters who were already going to vote. All that money for turnout might have been useful in New York City in the 1870s when Tammany Hall could get you to vote by offering you a job. But nowadays the parties cannot do anything like that. Ultimately, you vote for purposive reasons, i.e. because you want a better world. The parties can help influence you on that count, but their effectiveness is overstated by insiders and pundits generally, and by Wilson in this instance.

Additionally, we're talking here about the marginal turnout effect of the dollars that the Democrats have raised, but Republicans have not. Is that really going to make a difference between majority and minority status?

Final point: Republicans appear by every metric to be much more enthusiastic than Democrats. Does the GOP really need to spend as much as the Democrats on turnout this cycle? I'd say no, and that instead they can direct their resources to persuading Independent voters - who usually swing elections and who are currently R +11 in the Gallup generic ballot (compared to D+18 on Election Day, 2006). I disagree with the conventional wisdom that midterms are "base elections." Like all elections, they hinge on the unaffiliated vote.

(3) Money facilitates opposition research. Easily the weakest point in the piece, Wilson writes: "If Democrats spend the money early to portray Republicans as unacceptable alternatives, and to frame races as contests they can control, they will be using their monetary advantages to the fullest." Will this sink the occasional Republican candidate? Of course. Will it be sufficient to stem a Republican tide? Of course not.

(4) Democratic voters will come home, as they did in PA-12. If PA-12 was the average congressional district, Republicans would have little chance of taking the House. However, a few salient points about that race:

(a) Democratic registration vastly outpaces Republican registration in the district, meaning that there were more Democrats who could come home.

(b) 255 congressional districts voted for George W. Bush in 2004, but PA-12 was not one of them.

(c) The special election was held on the same day as the Democratic primary battle between Sestak and Specter, meaning that Democrats had a larger draw at the top of the ticket.

(d) The Democrat, Mark Critz, ran an outsider campaign that distanced himself from the controversial votes of the 111th Congress.

Put simply, extrapolation from PA-12 is hard to do.

Wilson's first three points are essentially reducible to the incumbency advantage, which is a real thing that can and will aid the Democratic party in November. But he has overstated or misidentified its importance.

Would these factors be sufficient to stop the Republicans from taking the House in a more evenly divided year? I'd say yes. I think the Democratic incumbency advantage is sufficient to absorb a modest Republican popular vote victory. I'd add that Republicans who do not raise enough money will not win elections, even in a cycle such as this.

But so far this year the Republicans have enjoyed a sizable and sustained lead in the generic ballot, something that has never happened in the history of the poll. Currently, the GOP lead is at 4.5%. If that holds through November, the Democratic money advantage will not be enough to alter the orientation of the electorate sufficiently: if the RCP average has the GOP up 5 points in the generic ballot the day before, the GOP should have around a 5 point advantage on Election Day.

Nor will Democratic money be sufficient to reorganize such a pro-Republican electorate in a way that enough Democrats survive. No party has held a House majority while losing the popular vote by 5 points since before the Civil War. With the "Solid South" - voting overwhelmingly Democratic with exceedingly low turnout - a thing of the past, such a feat is all but impossible. A $20 million cash advantage for the DCCC is not going to change that.

-Jay Cost

Democrats, Keep the Filibuster!

Ever since the Democrats failed to get the public option through the Senate, liberals have been advocating the effective elimination of the filibuster.

As I have written before, I am deeply opposed to changes in the filibuster. Its use has increased in the last 30 years, sure, but American politics has become much more divisive. We battle over a whole host of economic and cultural issues that did not divide us in the past. As the country has sorted itself into two distinct, roughly equally sized groups, the filibuster has become an important tool to keep a fleeting majority from running the table on a large minority.

But put aside the question of how to maintain ideological balance in a diverse republic, and eliminating the filibuster is still not such a good idea for Democrats. In fact, it's a really bad idea.

Let me explain.

Two relevant changes have occurred in the world of partisan alignments since 1948: the Mountain West returned to the Republican fold after a half century of on-again, off-again flirtation with Populism/Progressivism, and the South converted to Republicanism.

Start with the Mountain West - Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. In the first half of the century, Democratic populists and progressives carried the party to victory there. William Jennings Bryan swept the region in 1896. Woodrow Wilson won every Mountain West state except Utah in 1912. He went eight-for-eight in the region in 1916. FDR swept it twice, then went seven-for-eight and six-for-eight. Harry Truman swept the region in 1948.

However, the New Deal realignment transformed the Democrats into a primarily urban party, which has meant that subsequent candidates did more poorly in the Mountain West, even when they have won the White House. Kennedy won just two of eight Mountain West states in 1960. Carter won zero. Despite Ross Perot's siphoning Republican-leaners in the region, Clinton won just four Mountain West states in 1992, then three in 1996. Obama also won just three.

Victorious Republicans, meanwhile, have carried the Mountain West with ease. Ike swept it both times. So did Nixon and Reagan. So did George H.W. Bush in 1988. George W. Bush lost only New Mexico, by a hair's breadth, in 2000; then he swept the region in 2004. All in all, the Mountain West has a Republican tilt to it. Add to this region its neighbors - Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, all of which have been Republican since they were brought into the Union - and GOP presidential candidates can usually count on something between 9 and 12 states going their way in this part of the country, even when they get shellacked nationwide.

The party also now enjoys a solid haul from the South and Border States. As the Democrats became a party of urban liberals ala Robert Wagner, the South started leaving the party. Franklin Roosevelt was the last Democrat to sweep the old Confederacy. The big change happened in 1972 when Nixon became the first Republican ever to sweep Dixie. Reagan nearly managed that feat in 1980, carrying every state but Georgia. That was a sign of the times: Dixie voted for a Western Republican over a Southern Democrat. In 1996 Bob Dole of Kansas defeated Bill Clinton of Arkansas in 7 of the 11 states of the old Confederacy. George W. Bush swept the South twice. And even though he lost the nationwide popular vote by 7.3 points, McCain still held 8 of the 11 states of the old Confederacy. A similar trend has occurred in the border states of Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. All three once leaned Democratic, yet all three voted for John McCain by wide margins in 2008.

Becoming the party of the big cities has been a better than even trade for the Democrats, who now regularly win electoral-rich California, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania (all of which used to lean Republican), and New York (which for more than a century was the quintessential swing state). Combined, these five states have 145 Electoral Votes, compared to just 44 in the Mountain West. The Democrats have also managed to stay competitive in "New South" and "New West" states, notably Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia. In an even year, these states should all vote Republican - but Democrats have strong bases of support that can flip them in years when their national advantage is large enough.

The net effect of these changes leaves the Democrats in a much stronger position to win the Presidency and the House than they were prior to 1932. On balance, FDR did the party a big favor by moving it from the country into the city. Yet it means the Democratic party is relatively weak in the Senate, which is biased in favor of the small, rural states that now typically go Republican.

We can quantify this in a couple of ways. First, we can look at how many states winning Republican candidates carry versus winning Democrats. George W. Bush won 30 states in 2000 (despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore), then 31 states in 2004. Clinton won 32 states in 1992, but his margin of victory that year was three points larger than Bush's in 2004. Clinton's margin of victory over Dole in 1996 was similar to Reagan's margin over Carter in 1980, yet Clinton won 31 states to Reagan's 44. Obama's popular vote share was similar to George H.W. Bush's in 1988, yet the elder Bush carried 40 states while Obama won 28. Generally speaking, when the GOP wins the presidency, it tends to do so with many more states supporting it than do the Democrats. That points to a GOP advantage for control of the Senate.

Second, we can compare the GOP's nationwide performance against its performance in the median state. In the last 40 years, the Republicans have won the nationwide presidential popular vote by an average margin of 3.5%. Meanwhile, they defeated the Democrats in the median state by an average margin of 6.4%. Here's the breakdown by year:

Keep the Filibuster.jpg

Just to be clear, the "median state" is theoretically the state that has half of the states voting more Democratic, and half voting more Republican. Because there are an even number of states, it is actually the average of the 25th and 26th states, which in 2008 were Ohio and Florida. (In 2004, they were Florida and Missouri.)

In every presidential cycle except 1980, the Republican presidential candidate did better in the median state than he did nationwide. This is because of the GOP dominance in the small states - especially those in the Mountain West and the South, which have moved to the right since World War II.

Call this the Republican small state bias. It has two vital implications for the Senate:

(a) To control the Senate in an evenly balanced year, the Democrats must persuade Republican presidential voters to support Democratic candidates for the Senate. In 2004, Democrats won five Senate seats in states that Bush carried: Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Nevada, and North Dakota. On average, the winning Democrat in these states carried 29% of the Bush voters.

(b) As cross-over voting has declined in the last 30 years, (a) has become harder to do. So on average we see a Republican-controlled Senate. Over the last thirty years, the Republicans have gone into the new Congress with a Senate majority 8 1/2 times compared to 6 1/2 times for the Democrats (control of the Senate was split in the 107th Congress).

What this suggests is that the Democrats stand - on balance - to make greater use of the filibuster than do Republicans.

Such use might come sooner rather than later. With the unemployment rate likely to remain high, President Obama should be in for a tough reelection battle in two years. If he loses, expect Congress to go fully Republican. Do Democrats really want to ditch the filibuster now? A full Republican government minus the filibuster would give the Republican Party more power in 2013 than it has had at any point since 1930. Not only would ObamaCare be dug up root-and-branch (on the day the 45th President is sworn in), but the Republicans would surely try to limit the power of crucial Democratic interest groups, above all the labor unions. Without the filibuster, what's to stop them?

Democrats, do yourselves a favor: keep the filibuster. You're gonna need it.

-Jay Cost

Is the Economy Obama's Only Problem?

There is a theory among some liberal commentators that figures that Obama's political position is due not to his own mistakes, but rather to macropolitical forces that are outside his control. Recently, my colleague Sean Trende argued that the political choices Obama has made have contributed to his poor poll position, and I am partial to this point of view.

Yesterday, Ezra Klein offered the contrary position. Here is Klein:

See if this structure seems familiar to you: Over the past two years, Barack Obama has done X. Now, his poll numbers have slipped to 44 percent. His party is slated to lose a lot of seats in the 2010 midterms. Obama's decision to do X is to blame.

"X" can be a lot of things. Maybe it's the decision to attempt health-care reform. Or his socialist tendencies. Or his cool, professorial demeanor. In Matt Bai's latest article, John Podesta says it's Obama's pursuit of an ambitious legislative agenda. If he'd spent less time passing legislation, he could've spent more time developing and selling popular themes. In John Judis's latest article, it's the absence of populism in Obama's speeches and policies.

The problem with the essays is that they don't consider the counterfactual. What if Obama had done not-X? Would things really be better for him? How do we know they wouldn't be worse?

Klein then goes on to compare President Obama's current standing in the Gallup poll to Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Reagan - arguing that, in fact, Obama is in a slightly better position. Klein chose this trio because they are "the last three presidents who entered office amid a recession and didn't have a country-unifying terrorist attack in their first year."

For starters, a point of clarification. None of these Presidents entered office "amid a recession," at least not if we take the National Bureau of Economic Research as the authority on the beginning and end of recessions. The recession of the mid-70s began in late 1973 and ended in early 1975, during President Ford's administration. The economy was still weak when Carter took office, but the next recession did not begin until January, 1980. It ended in July, 1980, meaning that Ronald Reagan also took office when the economy was in recovery, although it was again weak. The recession of the early 1990s had been over for nearly two years prior to the time that Bill Clinton took office.

These past Presidents at least partially "earned" their poor poll positions by the summer of their second year. Clinton's early term was marred by scandal and highly unpopular legislation. Reagan had pushed for an enormous tax cut that seemed to have the opposite effect of what was promised by the Summer of 1982. And Jimmy Carter was a poor chief executive who did not really have the trust of his party when he was nominated; he had to assure the convention in his nomination speech that he was indeed a bona fide Democrat. He did not have the confidence of the voters when he was elected; he won just 50% of the vote despite all the macro forces in his favor, and even then he had to rely heavily on his native South for most of his electoral power. And he never really enjoyed the confidence of the American public when he was President; by the end of 1977, he was struggling to stay above 50%. When I look at the Carter, Clinton, and Reagan numbers, I see in part a weak economy, but I also see these three suffering the consequences of their political decisions.

Check out Klein's graph of presidential midterm losses over time.

first-term_presidential_midterms_since_1900-thumb-454x274-23964.png

Are there structural things going on here? Yes, of course. But there is also more to it than that. Most of the Presidents who lost substantial numbers of seats - Taft in 1910, Harding in 1922, Hoover in 1930, Truman in 1946, Johnson in 1966, Clinton in 1994 - had not handled their political situations very well. The only exception in the above graph is probably Wilson, who achieved a great deal of success in the 63rd Congress, but whose party suffered big losses because of the return of the Progressives to the Republican fold.

Does the economy matter? Yes, of course. But does political management and facility matter, too? Yes, of course.

Unfortunately, it is hard to capture "facility" quantitatively. If you want to graph the President's job approval against GDP or unemployment, that's easy to do. But what about graphing it against competence or ambition or boldness? That's not as easy, which means that quantitative analysis is usually going to de-emphasize these features, not because they are unimportant but because they can't be measured very well. Another important issue with quantitative analysis of the President's situation is the "small n" problem that confronts anybody who wants to compare different Presidents. Stated in intuitive terms, it basically means that the smaller number of observations you have, the harder it is to control for the different contingencies of each observation to get down to the essential features that connect them all together. There have only been 17 Presidents in the last 100 years. That makes it hard to identify the grand laws of presidential political economy. As I mentioned, Obama's situation vis-à-vis the economy was not really similar to Carter, Clinton, or Reagan. He inherited a recession in a way that these three didn't. In fact, the only two Presidents in the last 80 years who inherited a recession were FDR, who took office just when the Great Depression hit its trough, and Truman, who had to deal with the economic slowdown that came with the end of World War II. Neither offers a very clean comparison to Obama's situation, which means that there really is no great historical comparison for President Obama. This, in turn, implies that a straightforward quantitative analysis is not going to be sufficient, that instead a more "qualitative" or interpretive approach, ala Judis or Bai, has to be in the mix if we want to have the best understanding.

A final point. Even if we cede that it is simply a matter of the gods of the economy smiling or frowning upon a President, we have really just begged the question. After all, President Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress passed a massive stimulus bill that was supposed to get the economy going again. It did not perform up to expectations, which means that the effect of the economy on the President's poll numbers is mediated by his own actions last winter. Could the stimulus have done a better job in jump starting the economy? There is no authoritative answer to that question.

Here's my position on the President's poll numbers. They are in decline partly for forces beyond his control. [You'll see me shed no tears, however, for President Obama or any modern chief executive who is stuck in this situation. Call it karma. The economy is largely outside the President's control, but that did not stop then-candidate Obama from blasting then-President Bush. Said blasting helped get him elected even though it was "unfair." Now that President Obama has the job, he has to suffer the same sort of criticism that his predecessor had to take from him.] Yet these macro trends do not explain the whole of the President's decline. Something else is going on - and analysts like Bai and Judis are trying to figure out what that something else really is. Whatever one might think of their answers, their projects are legitimate. "It's just the economy" is overly reductionist, suggesting that the whole of presidential history should be reduced to a simple line graph comparing job approval to GDP, and leaving us unable to make distinctions between Warren G. Harding and Franklin Roosevelt. As we all know, there is more to the story than that - the difference between those two Presidents is not simply the economic inflection points during their tenures!

-Jay Cost

What Went Wrong with Obama?

Robert Reich had a thought-provoking piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. Unfortunately, his argument begins to fall apart two thirds of the way through.

Reich argues:

A stimulus too small to significantly reduce unemployment, a TARP that didn't trickle down to Main Street, financial reform that doesn't fundamentally restructure Wall Street, and health-care reforms that don't promise to bring down health-care costs have all created an enthusiasm gap. They've fired up the right, demoralized the left, and generated unease among the general population...

The administration deserves enormous credit. It accomplished as much as it possibly could with a fragile 60 votes in the Senate, a skittish Democratic majority in the House, and a highly-disciplined Republican opposition in both chambers. Yet Bismarck's dictum about politics as the art of the possible is not altogether correct.

The real choice is between achieving what's possible within the limits of politics as given, or changing that politics to extend those limits and thereby more assuredly achieve intended goals. The latter course is riskier but its consequences can be more enduring and its mandate more powerful, as both Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan demonstrated.

So far, Barack Obama has chosen the former course. Despite the remarkable capacities he displayed during the 2008 campaign to inspire and rally Americans behind him, as president he has for the most part opted for an inside game.

Reich's column is in line with other liberal output that has argued that Obama did not go liberal enough. He "opted for an inside game," rather than "extend(ing) those limits" to achieve big, i.e. liberal, goals. If he had done the latter, middle class Americans would have felt the positive benefits already and his poll numbers would not be sliding.

I disagree with this line of thinking. I doubt very much that Obama could have used "the remarkable capacities he displayed during the 2008 campaign" to "inspire and rally Americans," thus "changing that politics." All Presidents face real constraints, and Obama is no different. Acknowledging and identifying them can help us understand where the President has gone wrong.

On the stimulus, he certainly could have gone no bigger than what he did. Reich fails to acknowledge the political fallout from an even larger stimulus package. Deficit spending is a major political issue that has dominated public discussion since the battle between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Reich and Paul Krugman might fault Obama for not spending more, but their preferred level of deficit spending is politically untenable. It always has been. Even FDR was consistently worried about deficits. Granted that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was not enough economic boost for the price tag, but that does not meant that the price tag could have or should have been higher. Not in this country. See: Perot, H. Ross, peculiar appeal of.

As for health care, Obama's goal was an FDR- or LBJ-style comprehensive, systematic reform of the system. It was to be his Social Security, his Medicare. But Obama simply lacked a sufficiently broad mandate to pull off such a feat. If the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act seems less august than Social Security and Medicare, that's because Obama's political position upon assuming the office was not as strong as FDR or LBJ's.

To appreciate what I'm talking about, consider the following picture. It compares Obama's election in 2008 (by county) to previous landslides - Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936, Eisenhower in 1952, Johnson in 1964, and Reagan in 1980. These maps come from an excellent French cartographer named Frédéric Salmon, whose work can be accessed here. They follow a different color scheme than the red-blue divide we are used to. In the following maps, Republican counties are in blue - and they become darker blue as the county votes more heavily Republican. Meanwhile, Democratic counties are in yellow - and they move to brown as the county votes more heavily Democratic.

Presidential Maps 1932-2008.jpg

As should be clear, Obama's victory was geographically narrower than Reagan's, LBJ's, Ike's or FDR's. Substantially so. Obama did much more poorly in rural and small town locales. They have a history of progressive/liberal support, but Obama was unable to place himself in the rural progressive tradition of William Jennings Bryan. This makes his coalition the most one-sided of any on the above maps. Most of his political support comes from the big cities and the inner suburbs. The exurbs, small towns, and rural areas generally voted Republican (with notable exceptions in the Upper Midwest).

In fact, if you look at presidential elections going back 100 years, Obama's is the most geographically narrow of any victors except Carter, Kennedy, and Truman - none of whom had transformative presidencies. Even Bill Clinton in 1996, whose share of the two-party vote was comparable to Obama's, still had a geographically broader voting coalition. Ditto George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Voting input inevitably determines policy output, and these maps hold the key to Reich's disappointment with the President. In our system, it's not just the number of votes that matter, but - thanks to Roger Sherman - how they are distributed across the several states. Obama's urban support base was sufficient for political success in the House, which passed a very liberal health care bill last November. But rural places have greater sway in the Senate - and Obama's weakness in rural America made for a half-dozen skittish Democrats who represent strong McCain states. The evolving thinking on the left - "Obama should have used his campaign-trail magic to change the political dynamic" - is thus totally misguided. The "remarkable capacities he displayed during the 2008 campaign" never persuaded the constituents of the red state Democrats he had to win over. Why should they suddenly start doing so now?

Obama simply lacked the broad appeal to guide the House's liberal proposal through the Senate. So, the result of "going big" was an initially liberal House product that then had to be watered down to win over red state Senators like Landrieu, Lincoln, Nelson, and Pryor. The end result was a compromise bill that, frankly, nobody really liked. Liberals were disappointed, tantalized as they were by the initial House product. Conservatives were wholly turned off, recognizing as they did that the guts of the bill were still liberal. And Independents and soft partisans were disgusted by congressional sausage-making and wary of the bill's provisions.

Was there an alternative approach the President could have taken? I think so. Such a tactic would have acknowledged the sizeable McCain bloc. McCain won 22 states, making his coalition a politically potent minority. Obama should have governed in light of this. I don't mean in hock to it. He didn't have to make Sarah Palin his domestic policy advisor, but he should have ignored the hagiographers who were quick to declare him the next FDR. These flatterers always manifest themselves anytime a new Democrat comes to the White House, and they are of very little help for Democratic Presidents who actually want to be great.

What he should have done instead was disarm his opponents. If he had built initial policy proposals from the middle, he could have wooed the moderate flank of the Republican party, marginalized the conservatives, and alleviated the concerns of those gettable voters in the South and the Midwest. This is precisely what Bill Clinton did between 1995 and 2000, and it is what the President's promises of "post-partisanship" suggested.

Our system of government can only produce policy when geographically broad coalitions favor it. The Senate, more than any other institution, forces such breadth. Obama created breadth the wrong way. He watered down initially liberal legislation to prompt just enough moderate Democrats to sign on. Instead, he should have built policy from the center, then worked to pick up enough votes on either side. The left would have been disappointed, but the right would have been marginalized and, most importantly, Independent voters - who have abandoned the President in droves - might still be on board.

A revolutionary idea in our polarized political climate, I know. Still: ask your average swing voter what he or she thinks of such an approach, and watch them nod in agreement.

-Jay Cost