What happened in this race also gives the lie to the insufferable excuse we've been hearing for the last 18 months from countless Obama defenders: namely, if the Senate doesn't have 60 votes to pass good legislation, it's not Obama's fault because he has no leverage over these conservative Senators. It was always obvious what an absurd joke that claim was; the very idea of The Impotent, Helpless President, presiding over a vast government and party apparatus, was laughable.I don't know how to respond to this nicely: this is ignorant nonsense that betrays a deep lack of understanding of how the government of the United States works.
Is the idea of an "Impotent, Helpless President" a joke? No, it's basic American politics. As I usually do, I'll go straight to Richard Neustadt:
In form all Presidents are leaders nowadays. In fact this guarantees no more than that they will be clerks. Everybody now expects the man inside the White House to do something about everything...But such acceptance does not signify that all the rest of government is at his feet. It merely signifies that other men have found it practically impossible to do their jobs without assurance of initiatives from him. Service for themselves, not power for the President, has brought them to accept his leadership in form...A President, these days, is an invaluable clerk. His services are in demand all over Washington. His influence, however, is a very different matter.Neustadt's classic is all about how the presidency is a very weak office, and how influence (what he calls "power") is, for presidents, only won through hard work and clever maneuvering. It's weak because, as he says, that the other men (sic) in government are out to serve themselves, not him. And their interests diverge from his. In particular Democratic Senators from marginal states have very different constituencies than does a Democratic president, and they're not likely to support all the liberal initiatives he supports.
So a clever and hard-working president can get some -- some! -- of the things he wants. As Matt Yglesias notes, all the pressure in the world on Blanche Lincoln wasn't going to make much of a difference when it came to health care reform. That's because she wasn't the 60th vote -- in fact, she and Mary Landrieu were probably votes numbers 56 and 57, something like that. More to the point, on the public option (which is presumably Greenwald's complaint, since as he might recall the actual, landmark health care bill did, as a matter of historic record, actually pass), well, the public option only had somewhere around 51, 52, or 53 votes in the Senate. Oh, and that's for a very weak public option, something that the actual policy experts believed was largely inconsequential. For better or worse, a "robust" public option didn't have the votes in the House, and certainly didn't have the votes in the Senate -- a strong public option had somewhere between 45 and 48 votes in the Senate, by my count.
Could Barack Obama have threatened a dozen Democrats with primaries? That's a pretty blunt instrument, and he'd be crazy to use it too often. Could he have found other weapons? It sure seems unlikely to me. More to the point, Obama, like all presidents, had to establish priorities, assess where the votes were, and decide how to use the resources of the presidency. He had, of course, a long agenda, with various constituencies pushing to have their pet issue and the sub-issues contained within each of those issues placed at the top. And while he had a lot of assets, including a large majority in the House and (for a very brief period) 60 Democratic Senators, he had a lot of constraints, including all the problems he inherited that had little to do with the long-term Democratic agenda and a fully rejectionist Republican party. The latter -- and really, it takes a complete misunderstanding of how the American political system works not to see this -- means that individual Democratic Senators hold a great deal of bargaining power over the president. Not, alas for Obama and for the liberal agenda, the other way around.
So the distribution of votes matters enormously, which is why I link to statistical accounts of the ideological spectrum in the Senate all the time. What they'll tell you is that all Democratic Senators have voting records more liberal than all Senate Republicans; that most Senate Democrats are quite liberal; but that the 50th Democratic Senator (Baucus, or Tester, or someone like that) isn't all that liberal, and the 59th Democratic Senator even less so. Moreover, it's pretty obvious that the dozen or so least liberal Democrats, with one or two exceptions (mainly Joe Lieberman) come from states that aren't very liberal at all. Add it all up, and the odds are that had Obama staked everything on a strong public option, he could easily have wound up with no health bill at all, no banking bill, 35% approval, a GOP landslide in 2010, and dim prospects for 2012.
All of which is very frustrating for liberals. Pretending that their allies are really their enemies, however, is a particularly self-punishing way of dealing with that frustration.