Monday, March 4, 2013

Conquest of the Planet of the Bride of the Son of the Return of Cranky Blogging

Oh, where to start.

Yes, Democrats during Woodrow Wilson's first term passed a whole lot of legislation, and Wilson acted as a legislative leader. A. Scott Berg got that much right in his NYT piece yesterday asking Barack Obama to be more like Wilson.

But that's about it.

Look, the very first thing to ask about a president's success with Congress is the partisan context. Woodrow Wilson enjoyed solid Democratic majorities in Congress during his first term -- not just two years, but the whole term. Republicans took back a very slim House majority in 1917, with Democrats retaining the Senate until the 1918 elections. Not only that, but 1913 brought the first unified Democratic government since 1893-1894, and outside of that there hadn't been unified Democratic control since James Buchanan was president. So it's also not all that surprising that Democrats were ready to work together to pass a large agenda.

That's not to say that Wilson did a bad job; it's just that advising Barack Obama to act as if he was Woodrow Wilson in 1913 is nonsense.

Besides: Obama is acting like Wilson, anyway. He can't help it; acting like Wilson is now built in to the presidency. Wilson gave his State of the Union address in person; so does Obama! Wilson had a legislative program; so does Obama! Wilson barnstormed to popular pressure on Congress in favor of his programs; probably a waste of time, possibly counterproductive, but so does Obama!

More to the point: Berg makes much of Wilson's use of the President's Room in the Senate; Wilson personally, Berg tells us, set up shop there in order to direct the legislative process. But Wilson pretty much needed to do that if he wanted to be involved in the intricate details of legislation. Sure, Wilson, unlike some of his predecessors, at least had the telephone. But he had no Congressional liaison staff; in fact, Wilson basically had no staff at all. Barack Obama doesn't need to hang out on the Hill in order to know what's happening there or to make his input heard, because he has a full staff of people to do that for him.

Of course, some things do need direct presidential involvement. But that only gets us back to the partisan context. It's no use pretending that anything Wilson faced was anything like today's House Republican majority. Indeed, it seems from recent reporting that John Boehner's job may depend on his refusal to engage with any negotiations with the White House. That doesn't mean that Obama has no good options, or that he has no responsibility to keep trying, but it does mean that it's misleading fantasy to suggest that all he needs to do "sidestep" gridlock is to emulate Wilson's supposed belief that "sustained dialogue is the best means of finding common ground."

Oh, did I mention the final paragraph?
Today, President Obama and Congress agree that the national debt poses lethal threats to future generations, and so they should declare war on that enemy and adjourn politics, at least until it has been subdued. The two sides should convene in the President’s Room, at the table beneath the frescoes named “Legislation” and “Executive Authority,” each prepared to leave something on it. And then they should return the next day, and maybe the day after that. Perhaps the senior senator from Kentucky could offer a bottle of his state’s smoothest bourbon, and the president could provide the branch water. All sides should remember Wilson and the single factor that determines the country’s glorious successes or crushing failures: cooperation.
What nonsense. The idea that Obama and House Republicans fundamentally agree on anything about the budget is pure fantasy; the idea that declaring "war" on long-term budget deficits could "adjourn politics" the way that World War I did would be just as insane, except that politics wasn't really "adjourned during World War I, either.

Moreover, while certainly Wilsonian, the idea that we should all just put politics aside and do what's obviously best is exactly what's wrong with Wilsonian politics. It's fundamentally anti-democratic. If we can't consider the federal budget (or, you know, war-and-peace) a political issue, then what's the point of having democracy?

It's enough to make me really, really cranky.


  1. BTW: I couldn't fit it in to the post, which is long enough, but....Conquest > Beneath > Escape > Battle. Right?

    1. Beneath > Escape > Conquest > Battle

      The conquest coming before the battle is presumably attributable to bad planning.

    2. Really? Beneath, to me mainly has Heston going for it, and he's barely in it. Plus no Roddy McDowall(or Ricardo Montalban) is a big negative.

    3. Sorry, I thought you were talking about chronological order.

    4. Oh, so no one wants to argue the merits of Apes movies? Or congratulate me for getting it right? Feh.

      More attempted provocation: Conquest > Beneath > Rise > Escape > Battle >>> Tim Burton's Planet

    5. Don't you need to put the original in there somewhere?

    6. Not necessary; I don't think there's any doubt that it's by far the best.

    7. My vote would go as follows. The original first. As you say, that's obvious. Then:

      1. Escape. It's the only one of the Apes movies with some lighter moments, although still with the signature twisted ending.

      2. Conquest. Ricardo Montalban is the difference between a good apes movie and a meh apes movie.

      3. I'm torn here... I'll say Beneath, because Battle really is a dreadful movie in some ways. But I'm actually partial to it, in a campy sort of way. This one leaves me cold.

      4. Battle. Featuring the single most random casting choice in all of movie history: Singer-songwriter Paul Williams as an orangutan.

    8. I basically subscribe to Jon's ranking ("Conquest" is just so awesome), but let me amend slightly:

      Conquest > Beneath > Rise > Escape > Battle > a ball of wet lint > Tim Burton's Planet

    9. Ah, agreement!

      And, yes, Battle is wonderfully campy and perfectly possible to enjoy at that level. I mean, it's obviously a really horrible train wreck, but a fun one. I suppose there might be something that can be enjoyed in Tim Burton's monstrosity, but if there is I missed it in the one time that I will ever see it.

      My memory is that the TV show, BTW, would rank higher than "Battle," but that there's no real reason to watch it after the fact.

  2. Nice post.

    One (very) minor historical point I'd make: the Democrats did indeed have total control of the government under Buchanan, but the reality was hardly worthy of the description. Given that the administration was unable to get one of its most important legislative priorities --- the LeCompton Constitution --- through the House, it stands to reason that the Democrats really didn't have unified control in any meaningful, POTUS-perspective, sense. Perhaps a better break point is the 33rd Congress, prior to the K-N Act...

    1. I meant through the *Senate*.

  3. Unbelievable. That last paragraph encapsulates all that is wrong with the DC press corps.

    False equivalence on who's to blame for gridlock? Check. Attributing mystical powers to the presidency? Check. Pretending that the debt is a national existential crisis on par with a world war? Check. Harkening back to the (non-existent) halcyon days of a long-ago presidency? Check. Claiming that good-ol-boy chumminess can solve all of Washington's problems? Check.

    It's enough to make you puke.

    1. It's also what's wrong with the plurality of low-information, non-politicized voters in the country. They yearn for a transcendence of politics, striking well-thought-out political notes does the opposite of resonate with them, and their reflex is "a pox on both their houses." And even when they have a somewhat principled belief in moderation, they have no sense of how to place blame accurately. Much of the mainstream press recapitulates this mentality, even though as high-information people who spend all their time thinking about this stuff, they have no excuse for these evasions.

  4. I'm in the middle of reading Keynes "The Economic Consequences of Peace" and all I can say is he destroyed any illusions I might have had about Wilson. Keynes thought he was dumb as a post, that he didn't know what he was talking about, and that he was recommending the wrong path to peace. It seems every time Wilson opened his mouth, Keynes cringed. So I have to wonder what Berg was thinking.

    Also, Jonathan, I guess this was written before you read Keller's hit job on Obama this morning.

  5. Thr idea that Wilson offers a model of how to deal with a Congress controlled by the opposite party is the most bizarre thing I've ever heard. He very likely could have gotten the Versailles Treaty through the Senate if he had agreed to the Lodge reservations--and yes, the Allies would have accepted them if the alternative was America staying out of the League.

    As I wrote in an old soc.history.what-if post about Lodge's decision to insist on reservations rather than to oppose ratification outright:

    "This involved an element of risk, since theoretically Wilson might accept the reservations (and once that happened, Britain and France would accept that having the US go into the League with reservations was better than having it not go in at all). Senator James Watson (R-Indiana) in his *As I Knew Them* recalled how he had actually raised this point with Lodge:

    "'Senator, suppose that the President accepts the Treaty with your reservations. Then we are in the League, and once in, our reservations become purely fiction.' (Watson, like Borah and other irreconcilable opponents of the League, thought that declaring that the US was not bound by Article X unless Congress decided on the use of force would not amount to much. Once the League's Council had voted to use force, with the US delegate agreeing, Congress, he thought, would not dare refuse; to turn down a President's request under such circumstances would greatly embarrass the US before the world.)

    "Lodge was not worried, replying with a smile, 'But my dear James, you do not take into consideration the hatred that Woodrow Wilson has for me personally. Never under any set of circumstances in this world could he be induced to accept a treaty with Lodge reservations appended to it.'

    "'But,' Watson retorted, 'that seems to me to be a slender thread on which to hang so great a cause.'

    "'A slender thread!' Lodge exclaimed. 'Why, it is as strong as any cable with strands wired and twisted together.'

  6. Okay, I'm going to do an unpopular thing and defend Berg and people like him, at least in the abstract. I'll grant that a lot of what Berg and others say is stupid, does not fit historical facts, flies in the face of current political science, etc. However, I will point out that, after all, what they are doing is part of the very essence of political engagement -- that is they are seeing problems and trying to find their way to an answer for those problems.

    Unfortunately, in criticizing Berg and others, it is very easy to fall into the trap that James Carville (not one of my favorite characters, but the man understands politics) called "sounding like a newspaper." That is the front page of the paper says everything is a mess and the business and editorial sections go into great detail about why none of the proposed solutions will work.

    And that is the problem. It is all very well to say that this isn't Wilson's time, etc. That the House Republicans won't do a deal, etc. That campaigning is counterproductive, etc. But what is to be done, to quote famous line? Wait for the Republicans to magically change? That ain't going to happen soon. Just give them what they want? That ain't going to happen soon. Admit that the Madisonian system was misconcieved to begin with and has become terminally non-functional? Possibly the best solution of all, but ain't going to happen soon. So what? Just criticize Berg and everybody else who tries to feel a way to an answer? I grant that Berg and the others richly deserve the criticism, but where does that leave us? Not much of anywhere. And that has a tendency to make EVERYBODY really, really, really cranky.

    1. So it's OK for Berg to spout nonsense, because the alternative is what? - to tell the objective truth that 90% of everything that is wrong with modern government is exactly due to the Republican party?

      Well, we couldn't have that could we.

      Could somebody please direct me to the fainting couch.


    2. In one sense it is perfectly OK for Berg to spout nonsense. He is an American talking about American politics and has every right to say anything he wants that doesn't transgress very strict definitions of incitement or treason. It is also perfectly OK for anyone to point out that what Berg is saying is, in fact, nonsense.

      However, unpopular as it may be to defend Berg, criticizing him, and others like him, does not get us anywhere. Yes, the Republicans are the problem. What is there to do about it? Yes, unfortunately they are wreaking havoc and the current constitutional system is helpless to prevent them from doing so. What is there to do about it? Berg is, after all, only groping for a solution to the problem, and at least he acknowledges that there is, in fact, a big problem to be solved.

      It would seem, if the reporting at Wash Po is correct, that the Obama White House has concluded there is nothing for it except to make a major effort to turn the GOP out of the House Majority. Now, everybody from Ed Kilgore on the Left to Sean Trende on the right is probably licking their chops to jump in and explain how unrealistic that is given voter residence patterns, off-year turnout problems for the Dems, etc. One might even point out that ultimately this is due to the well-known irrationality of the American people, who vote for a certain composition of Congress and, when faced with the entirely predictable results of their choice, express confusion and dismay and anger that things turned out the way any casual observer of Washington would have forseen. Certainly the American people deserve a scathing bath of criticism in this regard, but what is there to do about it?

      So we are left at a point where most people seem to admit that the country's governmental system has become worryingly, perhaps dangerously, dysfunctional, yet every attempt to outline a solution is met with scorn. I agree that Berg's proposed solution is worthy of criticism, but at least it is an attempt at a solution, and so is worthy of defense on that ground, if no other.

  7. Republicans didn't take back the House in 1916/17. It is true that there were 213 Democrats and 215 Republicans in the 65th Congress, but there were also 3 Progressives and 1 Socialist who all caucused with the Democrats and helped re-elect incumbent Democratic House Speaker Champ Clark.

    1. Exactly. And when the GOP *did* gain control of Congress in the 1918 elections, Wilson didn't get along with them any better than Obama has.

    2. Thanks; I should have known that. I think I once did know that...anyway, good points.

  8. Today, President Obama and Congress agree that the national debt poses lethal threats to future generations

    This is the kind of stupidity that makes me cranky.

    The national debt isn't irrelevant, but under the current circumstances, it might as well be.


  9. the idea that declaring "war" on long-term budget deficits could "adjourn politics" the way that World War I did would be just as insane, except that politics wasn't really "adjourned during World War I, either.

    Not only that, but history teaches us declaring war on a concept--as opposed to, say, a country--is usually a bad idea. But damn, at least the War on Poverty, War on Drugs, and War on Terror were responses to real crises.

  10. the idea that we should all just put politics aside and do what's obviously best is exactly what's wrong with Wilsonian politics. It's fundamentally anti-democratic. If we can't consider the federal budget (or, you know, war-and-peace) a political issue, then what's the point of having democracy?

    I know your question here is rhetorical - and I think I basically agree with your point.

    But I do think there is a coherent world view embedded here. It goes something like this:

    * The average voter is ignorant/confused/myopic. All-in-all, we would be better off if elites (philosopher-kings) made policy decisions.

    * Nonetheless, a government purely of elites is vulnerable to corruption, dictatorship, and (when things go wrong) violent revolution. Thus, we need democracy to provide some kind of check to elite misbehavior.

    * However, while elites should be responsive to democratic incentives against corruption or violence, they should generally not be overly responsive to democratic pressures on more mundane policy questions. In such matters, a fair amount of disdain for public opinion and interest groups is actually virtuous (albeit not self-interested).

    You identify this point-of-view with Wilson - which is probably right. The contemporary politician I most associate it with is Mike Bloomberg. But perhaps more importantly, I think it is the implicit mental model of a vast swath of the punditry.

    My question for you: do you think there is any value in this perspective? And what do you think is most pernicious about it? I feel like you often dance around this point - but I would be (genuinely) interested to read a blog post discussing it more fully.

  11. This was an interesting conversation, curious that no one pointed out the two most germane differences between what Wilson faced in spring 1913 and Obama faces today:

    1) The Great Society was still 20+ years away, and
    2) the 16th Amendment was barely 100 minutes, as opposed to 100 increasingly-sclerotic years, old.

    Telling Obama to use the same techniques Wilson did to solve his problems is like telling a guy who is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer to take some Prilosec, cause that worked for the guy over there with the chronic heartburn.

    Its interesting that Berg didn't notice the income tax thing. The cultural salience of anniversaries and all.


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