But since that would be a little lazy, let me just address one thing that Chait skipped and then make one important point. Oh -- I should back up a bit...Westen published an awful piece in the NYT a few Sundays ago, and then some people (including Chait, and me) fired back, and now he's responding to a few of them, especially Chait.
I was actually not a stranger to the workings of the Senate, having been asked by the Senate leadership to serve as a strategist to help pass Wall Street reform, which they did in record time after the disastrous 15-month health care debate."Record time"??? Putting aside that I suspect liberals were on balance happier with the final ACA compared to their initial hopes than they were with Dodd-Frank compared with their initial hopes...record time?
We'll start with ACA, which passed in March 2010. That's 14 months after Obama was sworn in, so it's certainly not any more than that. I'm not sure how to date the beginning of the "debate," but let's say it was after the stimulus bill passed. That makes it 13 months, not 15. Close enough? Oh well.
What about Dodd-Frank? That legislation was kicked off in June 2009, about 4 months after health care got going. I'm not sure what "record time" means, but it didn't pass in June 2009. Or July 2009. It didn't even pass the Senate at all in 2009, although it did pass the House in December. No, it didn't pass the Senate until May 2010. The rest, though, was relatively fast; it only took two months to go through conference and then both Houses of Congress, passing in mid-July, 2010. Let's see, that would be...13 months. Or, just about exactly as long as it took to pass health care reform. Record time? I have no idea what Westen is taking about, but perhaps you can see why my initial temptation was to just say he was always wrong.
Yeah, it's maybe a little petty, but Westen himself uses that paragraph to credential himself against charges that he doesn't understand constraints on the presidency. So the idea that he horribly mangles the facts does suggest that said charges should not be dismissed out of hand.
Ah, well. I'll move on to a more serious discussion. The important point I mentioned above is about Ronald Reagan and FDR and the supposed powers of presidential rhetoric. Westen says:
The argument that great oratorical powers have little or no impact on the course of events would have come as a surprise to Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, who both changed American politics for decades with their capacity to reassure the American people and to offer a new vision of government -- in one case of an active government that could make people's lives better and in the other of a bloated government that was picking their pockets.I have no idea what Reagan thought about the influence of "great oratorical powers" on the "course of events," but as far as I'm concerned there is virtually no evidence that he did any such thing. Of course, his actions while in office affected the course of events, and I'm open to the possibility that some of his presidential rhetoric affected future generations of Republicans...but where, exactly, is the evidence that Reagan's rhetoric had any effect at all? After all, if Reagan really made Americans reject "bloated government," wouldn't they have resisted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which passed and was instantly accepted soon after Reagan left office? As for FDR, think about what it took to get the US into the war. Hint: it wasn't his great oratorical powers. I don't want to say that the president's oratorical powers are entirely and completely useless, but it's just very, very easy to overstate the importance of that stuff.
Compared, by the way, with events and actions. You know why people accepted "an active government that could make people's lives better"? Because FDR put together things that actually did make people's lives better. Not, in most cases, because of the way he talked about it. That's why the ADA is useful to think about. It's actually a pretty big deal; young'ns might not realize this, but thirty years ago a huge number of small things that make people's lives easier (curb cuts, ramps, rails) just weren't there.
If you want to change the way Americans think about government, what you want to do is implement programs that work really well. If rhetoric helps around the margins to achieve that, especially by helping get you and like-minded people elected, fine. But it just isn't going to do much more than that.