Thursday, November 17, 2011

The NYT Should Be Ashamed of Itself (Again)

Drew Westen is the Worst Thing in the New York Times. Hands down.

Yes, I have a running item complaining about Matt Bai, but as I've said he also, at least when he's reporting, has serious value added: he's actually quite good at the reporting side of what he does, the poking around and finding out what's going on out there. It's only when he turns to drawing conclusions and other analysis that the problems start (well, that and factual assertions about the past).

But Westen, who I guess is now a regular of sorts in the new NYT "Campaign Stops" thingy, is considerably worse. He brings you all the disregard for factual accuracy and lack of knowledge about how the government and politics work, but with none of the value added at all, as far as I can see.

His latest piece, again, is a total nightmare. Some highlights...First, facts:
After his grand bargain on the debt, for example, the president’s approval ratings plummeted.
Never happened. Just did not happen.  The debt limit deal was reached on July 31. Gallup's July 28-30 reading had Barack Obama at 41% approval. By August 20-22, Obama had fallen all the way to...38%, which he never dropped below, at least so far. Indeed, if you look at the weekly numbers, you have no change at all in the week before and after the deal, with the president bottoming out eventually at all of 40%. As I've said before, what's actually happened is that Obama's approval ratings have been stable for some time now, except for a spike when bin Laden was killed and, yes, a gradual deterioration over time. The only plunge happen in spring and early summer 2009.

So, factual mistakes are bad, and why the Times allows them I can't guess. But I found the next bit even more telling:
Matters were even worse the summer before with the president’s signature issue, health care reform. The law might well have catapulted Democrats to victory rather than a “shellacking” in the 2010 midterm elections if its most popular provisions — especially the elimination of “pre-existing conditions” and providing coverage for tens of millions of working people who can’t afford insurance — had taken effect in September of 2010, instead of in 2013 and 2014.
ACA passed in March 2010. There is simply no way, no way at all, that the exchanges could have been up and running by September 2010. The exchanges are to be set up by the states -- a lot of state legislatures weren't even going to meet at all between March and September 2010, let alone pass legislation and implement it. To suppose that ACA could have been up and running by September 2010 betrays such an astonishing ignorance of how policy is made and implemented and how this law in particular works...I mean, it's just breathtaking.

There is a legitimate argument that ACA could have been implemented by September 2012, although I've read some policy analysts who think that would have been a mistake. And, yes, I think that the motive of putting off implementation in order to keep the price tag below an arbitrary number was foolish; if that moved it from 2012 to 2014, I think it was a clear mistake. But September 2010? That's nonsense.

And so Westen's big conclusion is:
No modern American president has ever managed to make it through nearly three years in the White House with so few people really having any idea what he believes on so many key issues — let alone what his vision for the country is.
Wow. What an incredibly stupid statement. Quiz: what did George H.W. Bush believe about taxes? What did George W. Bush believe about balanced budgets? For that matter, what did Ronald Reagan believe about taxes, or arms control, or balanced budgets? What did Bill Clinton believe about anything? Or Roosevelt? Was he a Keynesian, or did he believe in austerity? Gosh, it seems that he flipped back and forth between them, just as Reagan hated taxes except when he was raising them, and on and on and on. These folks are politicians, not theologists; we don't get to know what they believe, and much of the time it doesn't really matter, anyway.

Ah, FDR. The main theme of Westen's piece is that Obama is a wuss and a loser because he keeps kicking the can down the road, until after the election:
The decision to put off a political decision has turned out to be a defining characteristic of this administration. Typically the magic number is 2013...
Now, never mind that Westen doesn't really nail down this point. He has Obama delaying the pipeline decision, which fits what he's trying to say. But his other examples are ACA implementation, which I covered already, and the implementation of the trigger in the debt deal, which doesn't fit either. The debt deal just called for some defined cuts now and then a second round to begin later; or. in other words, it's a policy that starts now and continues into the future, just like any other policy. But even if we were to grant him that such a pattern exists:

Drew Westen, we've seen in previous pieces in the Times, thinks that FDR was a great president.

You know what can FDR kicked down the road for political reasons, to be dealt with after an election? A little something called WORLD WAR II.

I mean, really; that's what smart presidents do. They put off unpopular stuff until after elections. I suppose I can understand the argument that they shouldn't, although I strongly disagree with it, but I really can't understand the idea that Obama is in any way at all unusual in this respect. You can't get more normal presidential behavior. Of course, if you start understanding a president as often -- not entirely of course, but often -- driven by institutional, partisan, and electoral incentives, then you can't pin it all on some psychological theory of what makes the president tick, which Westen goes for, too.

I have no idea why the Times thinks it's a good idea to harm its  reputation by giving this guy a regular slot, but it's just awful.


  1. Perfecto! I hope you can post this on Plum Line and let the Post give the Times a well deserved whack.
    Westen is emerging as the Times' Rush Limbaugh -- he gratifies readers' emotional need to turn on Obama and generates enormous traffic. Or so he boasts, and I believe it.

  2. Spot on JB. The Times should be hounded in no uncertain terms until they part ways with Westen. He dramatically reduces the paper's credibility on domestic politics.

  3. As things have turned out, if the exchanges had been scheduled to open in September 2012, that would have been just a couple of months after a major Supreme Court decision on the law's constitutionality (again, months in which the state legislatures would have been closed). From a practical rather than a political standpoint, given the degree of resistance and litigation from state-level Republicans, it's probably just as well that the time for implementation is as long as it is.

  4. Why couldn't the pre-existing condition requirement be implemented by Sept 2010? I get why the exchanges couldn't, but not pre-existing conditions.

  5. TWP,

    The pre-existing condition part of it doesn't work as a free-standing provision. That's why it's never passed before, even though everyone says they want it.

    If insurance companies have to give insurance to everyone regardless of pre-existing conditions, then smart consumers will wait to buy insurance until they know that they'll need it, thus sparking a death spiral for the insurance companies. So you basically need some sort of universal insurance to get there, which is why there's an individual mandate in ACA. But you can't do a mandate without a market that's ready to sell affordable insurance to those who don't have it, and therefore you need the exchanges (and subsidies).

  6. If Obama had handed out lollipops with "Obamacare" printed on them, he'd be so far ahead in the polls that the Repubs would cancel their primaries as a waste of time. This has happened before - in 1936 the Repubs were so cowed by FDR, who handed out folding fans with "Social Security is cool" emblazoned on them, that only a few states even bothered to hold primaries. Even more remarkable, GOP contenders for the presidency in those days were so terrified of being seen in public that they refused to hold weekly debates. (Remember the outcry when Perry said he might skip a hundred or so debates, and focus instead on 30 or 40 very important ones? Multiply that by 1000 and you'll have a feel for how shocking it was in 1936 when Repubs decided to skip debates and decide the nomination in a room so smoky their faces could not be seen.)

  7. "Drew Westen is the Worst Thing in the New York Times. Hands down."

    Worse than Thomas Friedman?

    ASP: "Westen is emerging as the Times' Rush Limbaugh -- he gratifies readers' emotional need to turn on Obama...

    Hear, hear! I find Westen indistinguishable from a diary at the Daily Kos.

  8. I have a pet peeve with a lot of frustrated liberals who seem to think (or at least assert) that the debt ceiling deal is the same thing as The Grand Bargain. GB was $4 trillion deal that cut spending, raised revenue & ended with a big signing ceremony on the White House lawn with Obama handing pens to Boehner & McConnell. Needless to say, this is not what Obama & Congress agreed to in August. You may think the Grand Bargain was silly objective but pretending that the debt ceiling deal Obama actually got was what he was hoping to achieve is simply not honest.

  9. “He found a formula for drawing comic rabbits:
    This formula for drawing comic rabbits paid.
    Till in the end he could not change the tragic habits
    This formula for drawing comic rabbits made.”

    ― Robert Graves, on every op-ed columnist at the Times, ever. (Even some of Krugman's now have the first signs of what will become long floppy ears.)

  10. This guy protests way too much. In the great white way of American punditry, this is what he chooses to rage about? With George Will and Douthat and Krauthammer and Brooks lying and mounte-banking out there day after day after day? Wow. Further, he completelt distorts Westen's thesis, which is every bit as dishonest and lazy as he accuses Westen of being. Westen strikes a chord in readers - just as he seems to have struck such a nerve with the genius Bernstein because what he says is actually legitimate. Obama has led by following - and is a grave disappointment to those of us who voted on him in hope he would lead the country back to sanity - and solvency (or what the pollsters call 'the right direction). If genius Bernstein thinks we are on the path to sanity and solvency today, then he is an even bigger fool than this peculiar essay suggests. And if he agrees with me that our democracy is in tatters, our economy on the brink and the American Dream on life support, then I would like him to explain to me why our terrible condition is not the responsibility of our democratically elected President.

  11. "Drew Westen is the Worst Thing in the New York Times. Hands down"

    Absurd. No matter what one thinks of the linked article, there are so many bad people at the NYT it's hard to list them all. Friedman, Collins, Kershner and Bronner (their Israel correspondents), Dowd, Bai, Brooks, Douthat (basically everyone on the op ed page except Krugman and on his best days, Kristof).

  12. I would like him to explain to me why our terrible condition is not the responsibility of our democratically elected President.

    Would a link to Article 1 be sufficient?

    Nah... probably not.

  13. After his grand bargain on the debt, for example, the president’s approval ratings plummeted.


    Never happened. Just did not happen. The debt limit deal was reached on July 31. Gallup's July 28-30 reading had Barack Obama at 41% approval. By August 20-22, Obama had fallen all the way to...38%, which he never dropped below, at least so far.


    So on the one hand, you acknowledge that Obama plunged to his lowest approval rating ever, and on the other hand, you don't think this plunge had anything to do with the budget negotiations he'd just engaged in, complete with all the "Don't call my bluff, Eric!" sorta nonsense?

    Face it, the guy's approval numbers plunged, and the composite numbers show them plunging a minimum of 5% and as much as 10%, depending on who's compiling. That movement happens for a reason, and that reason was Obama's rookie handling of the budget process. He came out of it looking like a dope, and the numbers quantify that. With both his base and his opposition, he lost.

    But you lefties better report this Westen guy to AttackWatch anyway. He's suspicious, and if you see something, say something. ;-)

  14. I think that the author's problem is that if you have to educate the people on historical facts in order to change their impressions - no matter how uninformed they may be of the details - you have already lost the battle.

    By the right's framing or by his own actions, Mr. Obama has indeed created a very lasting impression of being someone whose core beliefs are unknown. That's the reality. Of course that may do grave injustice to the actual inner thoughts of the President.

  15. Three points is hardly a plunge, I think is the main point being made here. I would guess (but correct me if I'm wrong) that it's barely even statistically significant.

  16. 23325952 (if I may call you by your first name), I take it you're not a regular reader here. This blog has been explaining the structural and institutional constraints on Obama -- and linking to other such explanations -- as long as I've been reading it. That's one of the main things that political scientists like our host see themselves as able to help the rest of us understand, based on extensive research that's been done in their field on these matters.

    That said, I suspect that your reaction is a clue to what's actually going on in Drew Westen's head. What Obama has not done, by contrast especially to Bush II and Reagan, is swagger around in that juvenile "Make My Day" / "Bring It On" movie-cowboy mode that Reagan and Bush II affected (those being actual quotes from the two of them, respectively). Y'know, like instead of talking about how bin Laden is "Wanted Dead or Alive," he actually kills bin Laden. Instead of boasting that he's got "political capital" and then making a radical proposal he can't push through (like Bush on Social Security), he looks for policy compromises that might actually pass. But for commentators like Westen, "knowing where he stands" means knowing some catchphrase version of a policy position that may have zero relation to actual outcomes.

    I tend to agree with you that Obama goes too far the other way, and that a little more swagger and occasional throwing down of the gauntlet would help him and his party and his larger cause. I believe his push on the Jobs Bill recently is demonstrating this. But what Westen apparently does is mistake the swagger and boasting for actual policymaking. Professor Bernstein is correct that this is not how any presidency has ever actually worked.

  17. A little clue as to Drew's behavior re the Obama people from a conversation that I had with him at the APA (American Psychological Association) Convention in 2009 in Toronto. He was quite angry that the Obama people had brought him in for some conversations during the campaign but had then decided to "ignore" his suggestions. He wants so badly to be a player. My guess is he decided that his work with a colleague on a psychodynamic-based card-sorting test was going nowhere (Google "Shedler-Westen Assessment" or "SWAP." It is a card sorting game to diagnose a patient (seriously), and the field is ignoring it.) With that door closing he decided that he needed to move on over to the field of psychologist/pundit. The Obama crowd talked to him (what he calls having been an adviser to the campaign. We will leave it at that) and then (for some reason) they stopped talking to him. I have some thoughts on why this happened but will leave them unsaid. So, yes, he is angry at the Obama Administration and considers them incompetent. They failed his greatest test: paying attention to him. (a suggestion to help with understanding Drew: google this phrase: "DSM 301.81")

  18. Anon: Using RealClearPolitics average, Obama was at 44.6 on 7/31. By 8/11, he's at 43.3. He remains in a range from 43 to 44 until 9/22.

    This is not a plunge. A plunge is "to descend or dip suddenly." 1.3 points is not a plunge. Neither would the 3 points in Gallup's data be a plunge.

    So, first off, saying that Obama's approval rating plunged after this is simply not true, not by a long shot.

    Second, acribing causation to that event is VERY problematic. If you look at Obama's approval rating over his presidency, you see a general downward trend. The largest drops in there are the drop after the euphoria of Bin Laden wears off, and the drop in spring/summer 2009. Both of these drops are well-explained: rally effects are temporary (just ask W. when you compare his approval on 9/12 to his approval in December 2011), and almost all presidents have had a very noticable "honeymoon" period, followed by a drop once that wears off.

    The other very noticeable feature of Obama's approval rating is a slow erosion over time. Events don't explain this well. Rather, this is also a very well known phenomenon. Heck, go back to our boy W, and you see the exact same thing. You see it with almost every president (Clinton being a notable exception, and even there, the exception is only his 2nd term). Approval ratings decline during presidencies.

    The reason why Obama's ratings would decline over time is also pretty obvious. In January 2009, nobody rational could blame Obama for the state of the economy. Nor in February. Nor March. But, as every month ticks by, Obama looks to many folks to be increasingly responsible for some part of it. (It does not matter whether he was ACTUALLY responsible for it or not, but whether a reasonable person out there might assume he was) Every month that goes by, more people are comfortable ascribing blame to Obama for the bad economy. Every democratic population on the face of the earth punishes and rewards the party in charge for the state of the economy; why should Americans be any different? So, regardless of whether Bush caused the economy to collapse in 2008 or not, he got the blame. Regardless of whether the economy collapsed before he took office or not, 3 years into it, Obama gets the blame. Reagan got blamed for unemployment in 1982. Carter got blamed for inflation in 1978. Bush got blamed for the economy of 1992!

    I've cited my source: RealClearPolitics polling average. It's very clear on there that there's just no plunge.

  19. There are a lot of Anons here, obviously, I'm the last one (1.50pm) and only posted the one comment. If I could have I would have listed myself as Anon II. Or something like that.

  20. For the anti-Obama crowd, any dip in his approval ratings is a 'plunge.'

    What do they consider a rebound, is what I'd like to know, and how would it be reported? A slight uptick or a surge? (Anyone got an example?)

    Jonathan, I greatly appreciate your battles against the forces of truthiness. Thank you.

  21. I'm not a big fan of Obama, but this is spot on. Excellent article.

  22. Thanks for this. Just seeing the Westen byline has been making me see red. Good to have a well-organized takedown.

  23. Jeff from above:

    23325952 (if I may call you by your first name), I take it you're not a regular reader here. // That said, I suspect that your reaction is a clue to what's actually going on in Drew Westen's head.

    I believe that Jeff is so spot on (and I'm not a regular reader here either) that he may well have even identified good old 23325952. I wouldn't be at all surprised to find DW out supporting himself.

  24. Jeff, it's not nice to pull rank just because you're an old-timer. Isn't perceptive and witty enough for you anymore?

  25. Sorry, just trying to get everyone up to speed. :-)

  26. "Drew Westen is the Worst Thing in the New York Times. Hands down."

    You have a much higher tolerance than I do for David Brooks, that gene-spliced hellspawn made up of equal parts William F. Buckley and Flanders from The Simpsons.

  27. This comment has been removed by the author.

  28. I'm looking at Gallup numbers for the relevant period here.

    Obama approval/disapproval, Gallup, 7/15-7/17: 44% approval, 48% disapproval.

    Obama approval/disapproval, Gallup, 8/13-7/15: 39% approval, 53% disapproval.

    He went from -4 to -14. Westen's entitled to call that a plummet.

  29. And that second one is 8/13-8</15, of course.

  30. Jeff -- sorry, I didn't mean to sound harsh. I'm just a bit oversensitized because of the bitter and rude tone of some recent threads here (not involving you). It's not very welcoming. Let's keep Plain Blog a nice place to visit, a better place to comment!

  31. Yeah, I knew you were just teasing. :-) :-) As to Plain Blog, it's becoming the victim of its own success.

  32. You know, you guys keep comparing David Brooks to political scientists. I compare him to other self-identified Republicans that I occasionally happen across on TV. He doesn't seem half so bad to me.

  33. Dear Davis X Machina, Jeff and the other guy or gal - Obviously Obama's authority is constitutionally limited by Congress. I have heard you whimps make that claim for almost a year. Yet, under the very same constitutional system, FDR, LBJ (and yes, Reagan and W) were able to enact enormous changes. Measured by the stature of these recent presidents (to say nothing of TR, Abe Lincoln, Jefferson, etc.) Obama is pathetic. So lets hear the quisling qualifier: how come these other presidents got things done? How come they didn't abdicate their responsibility and leave the agenda to their opponents? What embitters me, and Westen, clearly, and the millions who rallied to Obama but who will not this time (even if we vote for the phony) is that he snookered us all - we believed he was a transformational leader. He was and is not. Were we fools to expect that he would live up to the promises he made? He and his party had more power in those heady days of 2008 than at any time in my adult lifetime. And he blew it. Face it. Taste the bitter ashes. Look around you, at the state of the country and the world. Yes, Obama is not superman. Yes, we were probably naive to imagine he could be as strong a leader as Reagan was for the other guys. You are company men, you identify with the leader of your tribe, I get it. But as I tell my kids, feelings are not reality. Get real.

  34. I posted here prior with a bunch of numbers -- I am not technologically savvy. Neither am I Drew Westen. That is just pathetic --

  35. Yet, under the very same constitutional system, FDR, LBJ (and yes, Reagan and W) were able to enact enormous changes.

    I have my complaints about Obama too, Anon, but come on. First, as to the (very real) achievements of FDR and LBJ, just look at the numbers:

    FDR had ridiculously huge Democratic majorities in both houses -- Republicans nearly went extinct in the 1930s. LBJ had between 64 and 68 Democrats in the Senate every year he was in office, as well as comfortable majorities in the House. Plus there were still some liberal Republicans in those days.

    Obama? He had a decent House majority, which did in fact pass a number of "transformational" bills (cap and trade, strong banking regs, etc.). But in the Senate, he had a 60-vote majority for just six months or so, and then only as long as they kept Joe Lieberman happy. And nowadays, Republicans (a) vote as a bloc and (b) filibuster (or refuse cloture) on every important vote. Even so, the first Obama administration created a federal entitlement to health care -- a goal that eluded every previous Democratic president since Harry Truman. That's not "transformational"?

    Further, although I lived through both the Reagan and Bush II presidencies, I'm struggling to remember what they did that was transformational. They cut high-end tax rates, yes, which is something that conservative Democrats were willing to help them do. But what else? They talked about abolishing Cabinet departments, but didn't do it. Reagan ended up re-raising some taxes and negotiating with the "evil empire" just as his predecessors had done. Bush wanted to privatize Social Security and reform immigration, but couldn't get even his own party to agree to either proposal. Both Reagan and Bush ran against abortion, but neither could manage to get it outlawed again. I'll grant you that both these guys made America worse -- which is probably always easier to do than making it better -- but "transformed" it? The main transformation that's happened in America culturally since 1980 is the vastly greater acceptance of gay rights, and that happened despite the opposition of the GOP.

    True, Bush did start a couple of wars that he couldn't win. That stirred things up in the Middle East, but it didn't exactly extricate us from the chronic troubles we've been mired in there since at least the '70s. (I suppose you could say that Bush transformed Afghanistan and Iraq, but into what we don't know yet.) As best I can see, the main thing that Bush managed to transform was a budget surplus into a big budget deficit, and a 90% approval rating after 9/11 to about 25% by the time he left office. Today's Republican candidates avoid even mentioning his name; they don't seem to think he was transformational in any sense they want to be associated with.

    So, what else am I missing? It seems to me, again, that you're buying into Republicans' own PR. Yes, they swagger around as if they belonged on Mount Rushmore, and they've got plenty of apparatchiks mindlessly pushing that line, at least while they're in office. But that's not the same thing as actually achieving stuff.

  36. I think my last comment "buried the lede." Let me put it this way, Anon: It may be true (maybe) that Republican presidents get more of what they want, overall, than Dem presidents do. But what they want is easier to get. It's easy to cut taxes for wealthy and powerful constituents, but hard to maintain support for a fair, progressive and adequate tax system. It's easy to de-fund a program, or turn it into a featherbed for your cronies and political allies while leaving the problem it was designed to solve unaddressed (or, sorry, in the hands of the "free market"); it's hard to design a program that solves a problem, then manage that program so it works well over time. It's easy to start a poorly planned war; it's hard to achieve a sustainable peace, especially once the stupid war is already underway. There are ways in which Obama could have played his cards better than he did, but as long as Democrats want well-functioning, adequately funded public services, the "enormous changes" they want will always be harder to come by, and they'll always therefore seem less effective than opponents who are happy just to wreck things and then walk away from the mess.

  37. @Jeff

    Excellent job summarizing what I wanted to say, better than I could have. I'll just add that those of us who remember or have read about the presidencies of FDR and Reagan know that many of their supporters were anything but satisfied at the time; it was only later that both were mythologized into liberal and conservative superheroes, respectively. In the 1930s, many on the left felt FDR made too many compromises with big business and didn't do enough toward economic redistribution. Social Security was pretty modest when it began and only later was gradually expanded. FDR planned it to include public health care programs but backed off due to opposition from the medical establishment.

    As for Reagan, many conservatives were very disappointed with him, to the point that after his big midterm losses in 1982, when his approval rating was lower than Obama's has ever reached so far, there was serious talk of issuing a primary challenge to his right. They didn't like his appointments of holdovers from the Nixon/Ford era, didn't like his appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court, felt he was giving a cold shoulder to the pro-life movement that had helped elect him, felt his tax cuts weren't large enough, and hated his tax increases. A White House aide at the time described these conservative critics as "professional bellyachers," a term that would be echoed a generation later in Robert Gibbs' description of liberal Obama critics as "the professional left." At the end of Reagan's presidency, Irving Kristol wrote an article titled "The Reagan Revolution That Never Was." It was only after Reagan left office, and especially after he faded from public life following his Alzheimer's diagnosis, that conservatives began turning him into the demigod he's become on the right.

  38. This has turned into quite an interesting conversation, compelling on all sides. I mostly agree with Jeff's last two comments but also Anon's earlier disillusionment with Obama. The difference is split, perhaps, in terms of how much weight one gives to legislative accomplishments in evaluating a Presidency.

    In discussing Reagan, it is important to remember what a long shadow he cast over DC, particularly in his second term. As a progressive, Jeff no doubt can recall the near-constant feeling that Reagan might at any moment nuke the Russkies, just because. While his tangible accomplishments might have been relatively sparse, his intangible influence over DC, and the discourse, was immense - I do believe we all intuitively recall that about his Presidency.

    Obama casts no such shadow. Indeed, if Obama disappeared from the WH, it might be several weeks before any but the most hardcore junkies noticed. This may be at the heart of what disappoints us Obamacons: we take your point, Jeff, that what Obama is trying to accomplish is, ceteris paribus, more difficult than what a nihilist Republican might, but...that's why we liked him. We thought he was the man for this moment. He isn't. Defending a man inadequate for a difficult job on the basis that the job is, you know, difficult, is an unsatisfactory defense.

    Saying that he passed legislation is a convenient distraction from the inconvenient truth we all intuitively recognize, that Obama as President is a startlingly minor player in DC. Perhaps I haven't been paying attention, but beyond ACA, whose long-term viability is now in doubt with the SCOTUS case, and ending DADT, its not clear how much of said legislation will be praised by historians.

    Andrew Sullivan describes this trait of Obama's as "leading from behind". Those of us less prone to euphemism use a different word to describe the same thing:


  39. It's striking how many people now describe FDR as a hard-driven reformer with a single-minded focus. In fact, virtually everyone who talked to him came away believing that he agreed with them, regardless of what position they had taken.

    I'll have to agree with CSH that one of Reagan's biggest legacies was in simply changing the terms of debate (well, that and setting us on a course toward government bankruptcy, ever growing social and economic inquality, deteriorating infrastructure, . . . well, you get my drift).

  40. But as I tell my kids, feelings are not reality. Get real.

    What embitters me, and Westen, clearly,

    Same post. So... feelings is mostly what you've got, and mostly what you've got to beef about re Obama...

  41. No, Davis X Machina, it is not the same post, and the equivocations about how FDR was not really all THAT transformative, and LBJ had a filibuster proof majority in the Senate, and Reagan didn't eliminate federal agencies, and so on, is the kind of special pleading I have been hearing from your tribe for many moons. It is bullshit. Obama campaigned as a transformative president. He did not transform. On every issue critical to our time, the GOP leads, from deficits to the environment to eternal war for eternal peace. What is so pathetic is you guys all pretend you never lived through the 8 years of W who managed to pass a trillion dollar tax cut for the wealthy, hand over 12-14 trillion to Big Pharma in the form of Unfunded Medicare Part D, start two insane wars without Congressional approval; enact torture as US policy, enact a vast surveillance apparatus to wiretap and monitor the financial comings and goings of US citizens without judicial oversight; etc. etc. And he did all of that with a divided house and senate, plus he actually lost both elections. That is leadership, my friends. Stick to your guns and make excuses, but spare me your outrage about Drew Westen. Your panicky over-reaction to his apostasy only makes me more confident that what he is saying is right. Your responses are way too defensive and emotional. Calm down, take a look at Susskind's Confidence Man which got similarly savaged by the faithful - read about what your hero did to Volcker, for example, and how Emmanuel hijacked the agenda -- and weep. Get out of your ivory towers and ask ordinary Americans if Obama has shown leadership or lived up to his promises to make their lives better and restore hope. They would laugh in your faces. No one laughed about FDR's leadership, or Reagan's, or even W.

  42. Further, we talk about Obama's vast legacy - his remarkable achievements. Are you guys kidding? What are these vaunted achievements, in order of importance? The Health Care Mandate, a Frankenstein's monster conceived by the Heritage Foundation, is going to be struck down by the Conservative Majority of the court leaving us with - what? My insurance premiums have gone up since heroic Obamacare, as has my deductible as Big Insurance simply shrugs its shoulders and moves on. Killing Bin Laden? OK - granted. But the electorate has priced in that victory and even with that and all the other assassinations of our enemy leaders to his credit, he's still at around 40% approval. What else you got? Someone mentioned Cap N Trade. Cap N trade, so far as I know, was never even brought to the floor. Dodd Frank, according to Susskind, was a blatant sell out of the Volcker rule and a vast giveaway to the 1 % who, if record profits and bonuses during an economic crisis mean anything to any of you, would seem to be handling its onerous re-regulations without breaking a sweat. You guys are amazing. Do you still think the Red Sox won the AL Pennant this year? Hint: they didn't, and no amount of special pleading will persuade those of us in the reality based community that John Lackey pitched his heart out and would deserve the CY Young, except for his record sucked and he gave up all those home runs.

  43. @Anonymous: You want achievements? Why not look here:

    And here:

    And here:

    But, since it seems that you cannot be bothered--or were not bothered--to look for information, then this article is for you:

    Westen is wrong, and JB is right. That's just the cold, blunt truth.

  44. You guys are amazing. Do you still think the Red Sox won the AL Pennant this year?

    This perhaps sums up the problem. Governing, especially governing that tries to use government power to solve social problems, is not like winning a pennant. It's more like batting in general: a constant struggle to make contact, maybe hit safely and occasionally drive in a run, against a bunch of people trying everything possible to defeat this -- so that a mere .333 success rate is pretty good.

    Which is not to say that all faults are excused. A hitter capable of batting .350 who bats only .300 is underperforming. You can't excuse a team's losses by saying (as Letterman once imagined the Cubs saying), "Hey, you know how hard it is to hit a major-league curve ball?" I have pointed out many times in these discussions what annoyed me about Obama and where I thought he had whiffed. He wasn't my original choice for the Dem nomination; I remember saying already in January '08 that he looked to me like the type who would bring a knife to a gunfight (or, to stay with the same metaphor, a pee-wee league bat to a major-league game).

    I didn't pay as much attention as apparently some people did to Obama's campaign rhetoric. I figured his job as the Dem nominee was to get elected. But if others heard "Yes We Can" as a promise of transformation, then I'd agree he has some responsibility for misleading them. Even if he were the second coming of FDR, a president can do only so much. The harshest critics on the left, like the Nader voters of 2000, seem to think (switching game metaphors again) that the election is the whole game, or at least a score, when it's really a struggle for possession of the ball. You need that to have even a hope of scoring, but you still have to advance it downfield.

    So what we're debating is how good a quarterback Obama has been. I think ACA is a big deal; as Kylopod and Scott point out, it's comparable to Social Security at its outset, and the criticisms from the left are strikingly similar. Which brings us to CSH's point: What is it that makes a presidency cast a long shadow, such that it's pointed to by later partisans as a basis for criticizing later presidencies? I would agree that it has something to do with changing the terms of the debate. Yep, I do indeed remember the Reagan years and the sense that Reagan completely set the agenda (we were already calling them "the Reagan years" even then), that he was somehow producing the "Greed is Good" ethos regardless of his concrete achievements. I agree that Obama has not done the left equivalent, and I wish he had, or at least tried harder. But could he have been an FDR- or Reagan-like figure? It depends on how much you think presidents, as opposed to big movements in the broader culture, set the terms of political debate. FDR was a great president, but he was riding a wave of left activism that also saw the creation of welfare states in other Western countries in that era. Reagan, likewise, came along after the conservative anti-tax, anti-government revolt had begun (Prop. 13 preceded him, for instance), and again, he had counterparts abroad, like Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, who also ran on tax-cutting and privatization; even Francois Mitterand, leader of a big Socialist Party, was on this same page by the mid-'80s.

    Coming back to the present, the big thing Obama hasn't done that has stuck him at 40% approval is fix the economy. He tried, but again there is major opposition to what's needed (i.e. fiscal and monetary stimulus) across the developed world. In that context, you can't compare Obama to FDR; the more revealing comparison is between Obama and the current leaders of Europe or the leaders of Japan over the past two decades. In that comparison, Obama looks good -- not great, but good may be all we can realistically hope for in these times.

  45. Oh, and P.S. on one point of fact: Cap and trade did pass the House, in June 2009, on a vote of 219-212 (which shows how hard that kind of thing was even at the height of the Dem majority).

  46. >Obama campaigned as a transformative president. He did not transform.

    1) Please name me some specific policies you would have considered "transformative" during the Obama presidency.

    2) Explain how Obama could have gotten those policies passed in the House and Senate.

  47. Jeff, your post at 1:29 PM is outstanding, definitely a highlight of these discussions. Its an excellent add in clarifying that we must evaluate Obama's influence net of 'the times', that is to say, that other, more influential Presidencies may have been helped along by more friendly external tailwinds. I bet you and I would disagree about the appropriate adjustment factor for Obama, but you're absolutely correct to note that one is necessary.

    The response to your 'context' point may become a chicken-and-egg argument, or, does the influential US President create - or simply benefit from - a sympathetic larger climate? In this light its interesting to note that you bring up Prop 13 as an example of an initiative, preceding Reagan's Presidency, that helped set the tone supporting Reagan's leadership agenda.

    Interesting, because...was there a particularly influential and transformative 2-term governorship in California, ending a couple of years before Prop 13, that set the climate that led to Prop 13? An interesting debate; if we're going to engage it, let me start by suggesting - yes indeed there was such a governorship.

  48. Regarding context, remember that FDR's presidency was preceded by 30 years of agitation by Progressives on behalf of a stronger role for government. Obama, on the other hand, has to deal with a legacy of embedded Reaganism.

    23325952: Seeking to understand trends and processes is not the same as "making excuses."

  49. Thanks, CSH, and yeah, you got me on that one. I guess I did hear something about some former actor who was once governor of California. But Prop 13 was just the first example that came to me. The movement was national: You also had the Rumsfeld / Wolfowitz "Team B" hawkish reassessment of the Soviets in '76, the beginnings of deregulation under Jimmy Carter, the founding of the Moral Majority (= the political organizing of evangelicals behind Republicans) in '79, calls for "rearmament" before the '80 campaign (I remember John Chancellor using this term on NBC News as if it were just uncontroversial that the U.S., the world's leading military power, had "disarmed"), and I'm sure other signs of a rightward shift that I'm forgetting now. Oh, and I also forgot to mention one other prominent foreign conservative leader who preceded Reagan: John Paul II. Anyway, as you say, we can debate the "adjustment factor," but ignoring that there is one is not going to get us closer to understanding trends and processes (which, as Scott says, is what we're doing here, not "making excuses").

  50. One of the points made in the original post has to do with the fact that it would be virtually impossible to implement the most significant reforms of the ACA before 2012. While I agree that the particular features of ACA are difficult to implement, there is an interesting contrast here: the implementation of the original Medicare bill in 1965. Admittedly, this was an entirely federal program. But Medicare signed up millions of Seniors and was up and running in about 9 months. ( It's a pretty astonishing feat. The complexity of ACA - it's (by design and perhaps necessity) effort to keep many elements of our private medical insurance system largely intact, is what makes it such a monster to implement.

    Of course Obama had nothing like the majorities LBJ had, so getting a public option or a single-payer plan was undoubtedly out of the question. But on the question of implementation, I suspect that such a huge change _could_ have been implemented far more quickly than the ACA. What do people think? And is the creation of Medicare instructive in this regard? Could we do a big thing fast?

  51. A couple of thoughts - and boy, I wish you guys were my mom and dad when I brought home a lousy report card. Well, you got all these d's but they are not realy your fault but the fault of the failing school system and the fact that you had tougher teachers and really, who is to say what proper spelling really should be, it's all just a function of trends and vast historical forces which the average student should really not be held accountable for. So the fact that you spelled KAT with a K is almost right and in many ways stands up against the winner of the spelling bee who only got all those words right because he was lucky to have had the wind at his back or whatever.

    To specifics: 1. Cap N trade is not US policy now, nor ever. Further, in the face of the looming environmental catastrophe, Obama's leadership in contrast to his vaunted words about 'healing the oceans' and the rest of that crap-ola is a fitting example of exactly how wide the gap is between what he promised and what he delivered.

    2. Health Insurance:you guys want to celebrate health care even though Obama squandered his mandate and capitulated to the health industry (I'll read your agitprop squibs about how Obama should be on Mt Rushmore if you read Susskind's devastating account of how Obama sold out the public option after campaigning for it, in favor of Bob Dole's program which only came about as a stalking horse wih which to defeat Hillarycare.

    3. You call this leadership? You think Obama has led on the economy? On unions? On the plight of the poor? The powerless? The working class? The environment? Global warming? You're joking, right? Please give me a single example of any of this. It has been one capitulation to the right after another. Bill Clinton was absolutely right - and you guys are absolutely wrong - when he called Obama 'the biggest fairy tale he'd ever heard.' As Susskind tells us, the guy never ran anuything in his life and was totally unprepared for the White House. He handed the keys to Rahm Emmanuel to handle Congress (how'd that work out?) and then to Geithner and Summers (heckuva job those guys did) and the results are the poll numbers all of you would rather wish away.

    4. But the biggest and most unforgivable shame in all this is that Obama squandered his moment. What you boys conveniently leave out of your computations and rationalizations for why things are as they are is that Bush had thoroughly wrecked the GOP. The country - hell, the world - had completely repudiated that evil orthodoxy and looked to Obama to lead us away from that. Hell, the Nobel Committee even awarded Obama a prize just because he was unlike Bush (an award he sullied with his mealy mouthed paeans to war-for-peace.) Obama had the world behind him -- and 80% of the country behind him - to chart a new course and to inform us, through gorgeous rhetoric, why that new course was necessary, why it was in keeping with our greatest traditions as a country, and how we could get there together. He had it in him to seize that moment and to finally signal an end to the Reagan Era, just as Reagan had signalled an end to the Liberal era that began with FDR. But he blew it -- and his presidency, as Romney and others have painfully told us, is failed... Now we will limp through another 4 years when maybe Obama is president or maybe Romney is. It won't be all that different in terms of policy. And there is the fatal flaw in your argument. If there is no quantifiable difference between a Romney administration or an Obama administration, then all you are trying to rally us for is Obama's personal victory. "Re-elect me" is a helluva lot less inspiring than Hope And Change. Obama will appoint better supreme court judges? Maybe. But there won't be much of a country left by that time anyway.

  52. Quickly to history. One of you claimed that FDR only succeeded because he had allies building vast liberal left coalitions in other countries - what? Was Nazi a socialist paradise? Was the UK, for that mattetr? Except for Tragic Russia, the world was happily in the hands of the corporatists who persuaded the Babbits and the Booboisie that their interests aligned with Wall Street and against labor. In fact, FDR came into power when, for decades the left had been overwhelmed by laissez faire right wing corporatists who ran the US for a generation. Ever hear of (Coolidge, Harding Hoover? True, FDR capitalized on the Great Depression and the wreckage left by right wing economics to attack the malefactors of great wealth who had destroyed the country but it was a far cry from Reagan getting to chit chat with Maggie Thatcher while they dismantled the safety net and deregulated everything. Come on. Read a history book or two.

  53. Here is the crux of the matter in a nutshell. Jeff said at 10:29 and CSH jumped out of his chair to applaud him for it, that Cap and trade passed the House by a narrow margin, as yet another of Obama's Mt. Rushmore-esque triumphs. This sounded like complete neo-liberal crapola to me and I called you out on it. Since you guys like citations, here's the sad truth of the matter.

    The American Clean Energy and Security Act (H.R. 2454), a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade bill, was passed on June 26, 2009, in the House of Representatives by a vote of 219-212. The bill originated in the House Energy and Commerce Committee and was introduced by Rep. Henry A. Waxman and Rep. Edward J. Markey.[106] It was never passed in the Senate. The big Republican wins in the November 2010 U.S. Congressional election have further reduced the chances of a climate bill being adopted during President Barack Obama's first term.[107]

  54. 23325952,

    Next time, don't nominate an academic lawyer and "community activist", who's never held a real job, never seriously legislated, required questionable "assistance" to win previous elections, lost his only competitive election, never exercised even the slightest bit of executive power and is basically as inexperienced and unqualified as could have been chosen for the job.

    You can't expect "transformation" out of such a person. Heck, you're lucky if the guy finds his way to work every day, and in this case it may only be because work and home are the same address.

    This guy loses on policy and politics with a frequency that I haven't seen in a long time. Even Carter had some successes in one or the other, and even both at the same time in rare occasions. Obama loses one or both, and often. He really is a failed president, in about any measurable way.

    Bailouts, Porkulus, Cap & Tax and ObamaCare. These are his "accomplishments". They are each horrible policy, and even more horrible politics. Worse, they are not even good politics to the Left... his base. We can roust lefties on each of these "accomplishments". Obama's approval ratings have plunged because of the mainstream, yes, but it's lefties too. Add in all the crony corporatism,

    I could be a better lefty president than Obama, and I'm certainly no lefty.

  55. This is not a plunge. A plunge is "to descend or dip suddenly." 1.3 points is not a plunge. Neither would the 3 points in Gallup's data be a plunge.


    Sorry, MJ, but cherrypicking dates ain't legitimate. Obama's numbers plunged, and right as he stepped into it in the budget negotiations. He was even-steven, approval/disapproval, and then suddenly the numbers plunged, and he was upside down 10 points in the composites, and 15 in Gallup. That's what we call a "plunge", and it was due to Obama's foolishness, and his mouth. He lost the mainstream, yes, but he lost his base as well. You lefties were in here grousing, please recall.



    If you look at Obama's approval rating over his presidency, you see a general downward trend.

    Correct, he's got a solid downward trend... failure quantified, we might say.



    The largest drops in there are the drop after the euphoria of Bin Laden wears off, and the drop in spring/summer 2009.

    Actually, there was a big drop after the surge he enjoyed following his extending the Bush Tax Cuts, wherein he dropped 7-8 points as I recall. I'm sure you lefties would rather forget that one, but the country liked it, obviously. But like the Osama double tapping, it was merely a dead cat bounce, and Obama's longterm decline continued and continues.



    ...almost all presidents have had a very noticable "honeymoon" period, followed by a drop once that wears off.

    Yes, but historically, we know that these honeymoons don't start to wear off until presidents are a year in. But Obama's honeymoon started to wear off the moment Cap & Tax got whipped through the House, Spring 2009, about 4-5 months in. This has to be a historical first, and I can't remember a honeymoon beginning to fade so fast.



    Approval ratings decline during presidencies.

    No, not always. Let's look at first terms. Clinton's dropped and then recovered, after he changed course. Ike's rose. Nixon's dropped, and then rose at term end. Same with Reagan. Presidential approval can rise, and even in tough situations. But they gotta do what's popular. Obama isn't. He's doing Bailouts, Porkulus, Cap & Tax and ObamaCare, and the people hate all that stuff.

    The dead cat rises and plunges don't mean anything, other than as milestones and as catalyst events. But these rises and plunges are occurring during the Obama term, and they need to be studied. Don't let your Obama love keep you from studying them.

  56. Anonymous, you and I sound like we would disagree about many things, but sadly, I do not find much to dispute in your post above. Porkulous was necessary and was the unsung hero of the last 3 years. Without Cash for Clunkers, the GM bailouts and the herky jerky infrastructure bills that stall my daily commute to this day, the country would have crumbled. It is, as the cliche goes, hard to prove 'things would have been worse without the stimulus" so i'll just state I'm with Paul Krugman on this one, and for the rest of it, fall in line alongside you. The hysteria of these anti Westen 'intellectuals' is what brought me here. You can always tell when a truth has been revealed when the true believers start panicking like this at what is, in fact, a fairly mild and well intentioned op ed piece. If anything would signal what huge trouble Obama is in, it would be the over reaction...

  57. 23325952, you misunderstand me on a couple of points. (And also, you misunderstand all of us if you think Drew Westen "panics" anybody.) I mentioned the House passing cap and trade because you (I think it was) said it never came "to the floor." That's not true. It passed the House where there's no filibuster but It died in the Senate, because the D's never had 60 votes for it and the R's had chosen a strategy of total opposition, so no cross-party coalition could be built. But part of why the D's had even the majority they did, "filibuster-proof" only on briefly and on its best days (and on some issues), is that they have members representing energy-producing states, and D's don't vote as a bloc. You have not explained what you think Obama could have done to get it through the Senate, whether by attracting Republican votes for it or getting the D holdouts to vote against what they saw as either their own or their states' interests.

    Second, I wasn't talking about allies building coalitions across countries, nor saying that all Western nations in the '30s were left-leaning. But after decades of industrial capitalism causing one depression and one banking crisis after another, with progressive forces having been organizing through that whole time and with the then-apparently growing influence of a big and threatening force on the far left (Communism), it was much easier to convince people in America, Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, the Nordic countries, New Zealand and others that government social programs were the common-sense, centrist compromise. What we've learned since, though, is that over time, such programs are victims of their own success: People get used to the benefits they provide and stop realizing where they come from. Hence the huge numbers of beneficiaries of government programs today who tell pollsters they don't benefit from any government programs; hence the "Get your government hands off my Medicare" signs. People come to take for granted that, for instance, their money is safe in a bank, as though it's banks themselves that are safe, not government-insured banks that are safe. They forget that this was the hard-won result of reforms that people fought for for decades. Same with 40-hour work weeks, health insurance, nicely paved roads, senior citizens not having to pick through garbage cans for food, gov't-financed R&D creating things like silicon chips and internets, and tons of other such benefits. They come to think of all this as just there automatically (or as the work of genius entrepreneurs; excuse me, but without the government developing silicon chips, Steve Jobs would have spent his life as an obscure junior-high science teacher). Hence they don't understand why they're being taxed -- or at least, they become easy prey to rightist demagogues who stigmatize taxes and "gummint" as though these bought nothing and produced nothing. The day Reagan was inaugurated, before he'd had any chance to cast any shadow as president, he already knew that years of right-wing propaganda had prepared the way and that he would find a receptive audience when he said, "Government isn't the solution to our problems, government is the problem." (This was a man who once said that Medicare would be the death of freedom. What his party learned, over time, was that the smarter strategy is to play to people's ignorance, let them think Medicare is just God-given, and then tell them that an abstraction called "government" is coming to take it away. Much more effective: You discredit government, not the program itself, thus eventually destabilizing the program because people no longer grant the legitimacy of the institutional framework needed to make it possible.)

    to be continued.....

  58. continued:

    I agree with you that Obama might have had a moment, briefly, in Winter 2009, when he was still at 67% approval, to explain all this to people "fireside chat" style and maybe keep the momentum going from his candidacy, or at least put the Republicans more on the defensive. I wish he had tried; I feared he wasn't that sort, which as I said is why he wasn't my first choice to the nomination. But, first, the poli-sci studies we hear about regularly on this blog have emphatically concluded that presidents' rhetoric does very little to move opinion. Seems counterintuitive, but there it is. Second, it's not the case that the country and world had "completely repudiated" the previous orthodoxy. If that were so, the GOP total-opposition strategy wouldn't have worked, plus you wouldn't see the European Central Bank right now fighting phantom inflation while the Euro cracks up. What the right grasped, and what Mitch McConnell has frankly said, is that (a) wealthy interests still had the upper hand, (b) the popularity of Obama's proposals would depend on whether they were seen as bipartisan, and therefore (c) the Republicans could keep them (and him) relatively less popular simply by denying him any votes. Longer-term, that's a high-risk strategy for them, as we're seeing now that they've got a presidential field made up mostly of wackadoodles. And they may be depending more and more on aging whites and permanently alienating a growing population of Latinos. But it did win them a couple of tactical victories. Let's see what happens next year before writing off Obama as a failure, though.

  59. I'm afraid I've been too busy to pop in on this one, but on the topic of the supposed plunge in Obama's approval ratings, I hope everyone has seen the definitive chart that Seth posted:

    Also, everyone play nice, please

  60. I didn't say that Cap N Trade never made it to the floor, you have me mixed up with someone else, which is my fault for posting under so many different aliases. Much of what you say is mostly unobjectionable above, and Obama was not my first choice either but I got very excited about him after reading his book. I thought that here was a real person, a writer, who had said some pretty amazing things, and that I agreed with him on most of what I knew about and was willing therefore to accept on faith the rest, about which I knew little. So I am personally disappointed because the man who wrote Dreams of My Father has simply vanished, as if the book really was written by Bill Ayres... As for your exegis of how the GOP sold its policies to the public, I agree -- What's the Matter With Kansas indeed. But you make my point: if the GOP can do it to advance their agenda, why can't the good guys? Saying well, democrats are disirganized and are beholden to different constituencies and interests simply isn't good enough. If that were true, there would simply be no hope (and perhaps there isn't.) as for FDR capitalizing on the socialist wind at his back, that is nonsense, however. The Roaring 20's were much like the Go Go 90's -- in fact, eerily similar. Which is what makes Obama's historically illiterate response to the crash of the Bush economy so infuriating.

  61. And I do think Westen panics our host here since his essay looks quite silly, at least to me. Whenever someone like Westen expresses mild dissent and the group treats it like such heresy, you know we are dealing with denial on a massive scale.

    The bottom line, finally, is that by all appreciable standards, Obama's is a failed presidency. The country turned on him not for the reasons that our 'centrist friend (read:right winger) above suggests but because they perceived a loser. Obama lost and lost and lost - and the one thing AMericans hate worse than blacks and homosexuals is a loser. Americans supported the agenda ran on. They shook off their blinders and handed the GOP a resounding defeat which had begun with the Congressional elections of 2006 and avalanched in 2008. It was the broadest legislative majority in my adult lifetime, and it was backed by an enormous coalition of AMericans who were sick of torture and crony capitalism, sick of bankrupting wars for eternal peace; sick of socialism for the rich and social darwinism for everyone else; sick of the GOP's 30 year war on unions and the middle class; sick of Fox news; sick of the Big Right WIng Lie period and ready to follow Obama away from all of that. When he proved himself incapable of delivering not only on coherent policies but even on a coherent philosophy -- forget the Fire side chats, the guy was flip flopping on everything -- remember all that lofty talk about closing Guantanamo? And then i think he fatally lost it with the BP oil spill. Here was a huge foreign national oil corporation destroying an entire ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico. People watched Obama sit on the sidelines and do nothing, and that, if you ask me, was when it was all over for him... Now you will say Obama is not superman and could not have single handledly cap that well. But for me, his cautious mutedness symbolized everything the country feared from him -- just another bullshit artist. Business as usual.

  62. 233 etc., sorry if I mixed up different respondents. I hope I've made clear that I share many of your disappointments with Obama. But, again: FDR came into office with the Depression having already dragged on for 3 years, with Republicans obviously either unwilling or unable to do anything about it. (The GOP Treasury Secretary then said it was just something that had to work itself out.) Obama came in just after the thing hit. There were half a million jobs being lost every month. There was literally no mechanism available to him that could stop unemployment from rising further at that point. And yet he's still polling in the 40s even now. By historical standards, that is unprecedented popularity. If you'd had Bush presiding over that catastrophe for another 2-3 years and doing nothing about it, the Democrat elected to follow him would have brought in 300-vote majorities and 80% approval ratings just like FDR, and would have had a much freer hand.

    And I really don't understand this comment:

    "It was the broadest legislative majority in my adult lifetime, and it was backed by an enormous coalition of AMericans who were sick of torture and crony capitalism, sick of bankrupting wars for eternal peace; sick of socialism for the rich and social darwinism for everyone else; sick of the GOP's 30 year war on unions and the middle class; sick of Fox news; sick of the Big Right WIng Lie period and ready to follow Obama away from all of that."

    You say some of us have been making excuses for Obama. But this sounds like making excuses for the public: They were "sick" of all these things you mention, but then voted for them all again just two years later because they didn't see instant transformation? They can't stick with the new program even for that long? Well, then the old orthodoxies had hardly been disposed of, had they? (As Krugman keeps pointing out, even the old pre-New Deal orthodoxies are still with us in zombified form.) At any rate, if yours is an accurate assessment of the American people, then they can't and shouldn't ever expect to be well-governed.

  63. So Jeff, I gave some thought to your assessment that Obama faced headwinds in his leadership agenda, while Reagan was the beneficiary of tailwinds. I think I basically disagree on both counts.

    With Reagan, its tempting to infer tailwinds based on his blowout win in 1980. Folks forget however that Carter was ahead in the polls as late as Labor Day 1980, suggesting that the Reagan Era was not as inevitable as it seems in hindsight.

    Worse, the defining foreign policy disaster of the late 1970s, the Iran hostage crisis, ended on Inauguration Day 1981. Was the Ayatollah disposed to celebrate the inauguration of the Reagan Era? Isn't the thing your enemy celebrates the thing you hate, per Osama allegedly endorsing Kerry in '04? Of course there's a rumor about a certain VP candidate and a meeting in Paris in October 1980, but based at least on what we know, the hostage release in celebration of Reagan's inauguration is inconsistent with the view that the Reagan Era was inevitably influential in American life.

    More subjectively, my memory is that the Reagan era was met with much discontent at the time. There seems to have been a widespread view that what he was doing was un-American, and not just among liberals, I have that memory from my youthful, more-or-less conservative milieu. If nothing else, the thing that occupied most of our attention in the 80s was the Doomsday Clock, and Reagan wasn't a particularly reassuring President in that regard.

    So: inevitability of Reagan Era, not sold. Brings me to Obama. Obama replaced a guy in office who left with approval ratings within error variance of Nixon's when he resigned. Saying that Obama was unable to fight the headwinds of the Bush years is therefore akin to suggesting that Ford had to pardon Nixon because the nation was clamoring for it. In both cases, the assertion is patently absurd.

    I may be giving myself too much credit as a disgruntled Obamacon, but net of the blather on right-wing radio, I think Obama had an immense amount of goodwill to push something like what he campaigned on, a goodwill that he was loth to cash in. Even now you hear successful entrepreneurs like Mark Cuban assailing rich-guy resistance to higher taxes, to say nothing of corporate titans like Warren Buffett doing the same. There's always been a lot of support out there for what Obama ostensibly wants to do.

    Assuming, that is, that Obama actually wants to do it.

  64. As for your exegis of how the GOP sold its policies to the public, I agree -- What's the Matter With Kansas indeed. But you make my point: if the GOP can do it to advance their agenda, why can't the good guys?


    Why can't "the good guys", you ask? Well, and I have to break the Kansian Code of Omerta here to tell you this, there is no such thing as "What's the matter with Kansas?"

    That business is the Left's downfall. I think the mistake the Left consistently makes is thinking that their evil Faux News enemies are always tricking and deceiving everybody.

    I mean, if those people weren't all ignorant hicks, they'd obviously agree with you leftists, wouldn't they? So that begs the question... what's wrong with those morons?

    Now, the smarter leftists know better, but you can always tell the shiny-eyed Left, and that is the tell. They feverishly want to know what's wrong with those morons.

  65. The country turned on him not for the reasons that our 'centrist friend (read:right winger) above suggests but because they perceived a loser.


    Actually, the perception of Obama as "loser" is why you lefties are turning on him, not the rest of us. When Obama signed the Bush Tax Cuts last December, you lefties howled, because you lost, and your guy Obama was the one telling you you'd lost. The mainstream found that action quite popular.

    And when Obama's bluff was called this Summer, and the Left didn't get the tax increase they'd been frantic for, you lost again, and your guy Obama was viewed as a loser again... by you... the Left... even though the rest of us found that move popular.

    Now, yes, the rest of us in the mainstream recognize his foundational failures in both those cases, and that he was on the wrong side of public opinion in large measure, and was only finally forced to do what the public wanted. So he lost with us as well. But more importantly, he was recognized as a loser... by you lefties.



    Americans supported the agenda ran on.


    No, they don't.

    Pelosi got whacked, and Obama is on the verge of gettin' wahcked, because of the agenda you're trumpeting: Bailouts, Porkulus, Cap & Tax and ObamaCare.

    You can add Dodd-Frank, crony corporatism and a bunch of other stuff that's in process of fracturing the lefty base and prepping the ground for a blowout election.

    Obama's failed on policy, yes, but even worse, he's failed on politics... and with his own base. That's how you define failed presidencies.

  66. A couple of minor point regarding the 1980 election. I don't think we should overinterpret what was probably a post-convention bump in Carter's poll ratings. (Labor Day was just a couple of weeks after the convention.) Also, I suspect that the Iranians did wait on purpose to release the hostages on Inauguration Day, just minutes after Reagan was inaugurated, in fact. Here the focus would have been more on denying Carter any kind of victory then on whoever this new guy was. (Don't know for sure; just guessing.)

    Regarding Obama and Hoover, I agree that it was significant that the Great Depression came just eight months into Hoover's term, giving the electorate more than three years to associate him with it, whereas Obama came in as things were still falling apart. I don't think it's accurate, however, to say that Hoover did nothing. Sadly, he acted much as Obama has. He handed large bundles of cash to banks and corporations in the hope that it would enable/inspire them to invest and hire workers. Instead, they just kept it, much as they are doing today. FDR, on the other hand, used government spending to generate demand.

  67. Scott,

    Here the focus would have been more on denying Carter any kind of victory

    Is not the enemy of my enemy definitionally my friend? How does one conclude from the above that Carter (or, if you prefer, 'Carterism') was definitionally left by the curb in favor of inevitable Reaganism, circa Fall 1980?

  68. Um, RIght Wing Anonymous, (I think that distinguishes you) your attempted debunking of the What's The Matter WIth Kansas thesis is pretty pathetic. Go look at the underwriting of AEI and Heritage and Hoover and Manhattan Institute and CATO and Freedomworks and Americans For Prosperity. Etc etc. Now let's open the books on the history of Murdoch and Fox news in this country; on Clear Channel and right wing radio; on the connection between our corporate overlords and all these boys; on the rise of the neocons, the nepotistic feathering of those nests; the rank, balls out corruption of the vast right wing propaganda machine. Nothing like this ever existed in this country before this. This will all be known to historians - and it will do a lot to help explain why the American middle class was led away from it's historic alliance with the working class and poor in favor of trickle down gobbledygook from the rich. My friend, you are like some throwback from the 80's, I've been hearing parroting like yours for 30 years -- Americans don;t want higher taxes on the rich, they love the rich, Trumps a hero. they all want to be Trumps someday. Well, Americans have finally realized Trump's a phony, has no money, plays a billionaire on a reality show. Time you woke up and got a new routine...

  69. .....the thing that occupied most of our attention in the 80s was the Doomsday Clock, and Reagan wasn't a particularly reassuring President in that regard.

    CSH, this is an Understatement of the Year nominee (at least). "My friends, I'm pleased to announce that I've just signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." (Ronald Reagan, mic check, 1984.)

    As before, I take your points, but I think you're putting a bit too much emphasis on the circumstances immediately surrounding the elections (Reagan's and Obama's, in this case). Yes, elections are contingent events, but as the poli-sci models have shown, they're fairly predictable based on a certain few indicators that don't have much to do with the candidates or the specific events of the campaign season. Nonetheless, as I said above, I agree that Obama seemed oddly loath to seize his moment and at least try to imprint his definition on the times before the Tea Party did. And 233&c is right that early reporting on this, like Suskind's, is not making Obama look good.

    I'll further concede that my theory about how it's the times that matter more than the individual can really only be tested a decade or two after the fact, when we can see the larger context and how things played out within it (and abroad). I would be astonished if the '80s had been anything but basically a period of conservative retrenchment in the US, as it was elsewhere, even if Carter had rescued the hostages and won the '80 election. I would likewise be astonished if Obama had achieved much more than he did in his first term given the constraints and opposition he faced. The New Deal took years to put in place, and more years (about 20) before the GOP basically accepted it -- which as we see, was always a reversible decision, which means the fight to save even Social Security continues today. Obama had a matter of months, not years, and the first of those had to be spent on mostly defensive actions like stopping the economy's freefall and saving the auto industry.

    But yes, all that said, at the margins things can always be better or worse. I don't blame people who had hoped and are hoping for better; I am too.

  70. I lived through Reagan (as I guess we all did) and do not agree that the Doomsday Clock was front and center. Reagan succeeded because the country had gone through a collective nervous breakdown with Vietnam, Watergate the assassinations. Carter tried to provide a way forward but was quickly emasculated and Reagan came in to pick up the pieces. He represented to many a self confident new direction (which was really a return to the pre New Deal past) but he succeeded because anything then seemed better than the catastrophes that had marked the 60's and 70's. He seemed to know what he was talking about and he had tremendously powerful allies at work trying to put the whole fairy tale across - as FDR did in his day. Plus, the country was ready for a new Gilded Age. Millionaires were on the cover of glossy magazines all of a sudden and trickle down malarkey sounded like something no one had ever heard before, so why not try it? Well, 30 years later, the results of this idiocy are evident to all. What is so funny is how right wingers like to gloat about they have been in control of everything since 1980, that Reagan really brought about a Revolution; that The Contract of America was an enormously important document in US history and that cutting taxes on the rich and de-regulating everything has been a triumph of GOP leadership. Yet, curiously, when they are confronted with the disasters these wicked orthodoxies have wrought, they all play victims -- Republicans were weak and overwhelned by the awful the libruls who did it all despite having been out of power and in retreat for the last 30 years. I have never met a single right winger with the sense of honor to apologize for any of it, or even a single aspect of it. The closest any of them has come is Greenspan (the Ayn Rand acolyte and champion of laissez faire right wing economics who set fiscal policy in this country for 2 decades) who finally had to admit his entire ethos was wrong. Looking at the forlorn little old bald man, with his huge glasses and wisp of hair, like a Dr Seuss character, you almost felt sorry for him, and for all of those know it alls who wrecked the country. But then, he was rushed off the stage and on comes Michelle Bachman, and Palin and Steve Forbes, and the circus picked right back up again.

    That said, Jeff, I like your style and agree that things can always be better and worse, and am glad you don't blame me for hoping for so much better from Black Jesus. I dont blame you either for defending him. (I would too, from the likes of our real enemies.) Peace.

  71. Thanks, 233, I hope you stick around here; we have an interesting year ahead. (Greenspan and Dr. Seuss! That's the best characterization I've heard since Garry Shandling compared Gandhi to Don Knotts.)

  72. Um, RIght Wing Anonymous, (I think that distinguishes you) your attempted debunking of the What's The Matter WIth Kansas thesis is pretty pathetic.


    That's the thing, 233, you hardcore lefties either have to make the case that the Kansians are all stupid, ignorant morons... or you gotta make a black helicopter case, that they're all conspiring to get you somehow, those evil Faux News demons.

    Both cases are political losers. "You're all a bunch of stupid, ignorant morons unless you vote for us" isn't much of a political strategy.

    And a political strategy of "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they're not all out to get me" isn't any better.

    I sort of admire your passion. And you feel you got burned by Obama... a sort of bait and switch. I guess the only thing I'd point out to you is that this was all too predictable. Candidate Obama was an empty vessel, unqualified and inexperienced, completely unvetted, and you all filled that empty vessel with whatever hopes you felt should be in it. Nobody else did that. Not that stupid Kansas rubes... and not the black helicopter Faux News evildoers. You did that.

  73. The other day, Obama said folks are getting "lazy". Now, I'm certain the Left will spring to the man's defense, but this isn't the first time that poor Obama has been caught shaking his finger at us all. Not a very bright move. That's what Carter did, as well.

    Mr. Obama should tread very carefully in that regard. The American people have this thing about careerist political hacks telling them the way they're supposed to think and act. We kinda think the protocol should be precisely reversed, in fact. Ask a certain Mr. Perry, who not long ago decided he had the better of an argument, and anybody who disagreed with him had "no heart". I don't think Mr. Perry has been heard from since. Somebody should send out a search party.

    That's what Mr. Obama better watch out for. Pelosi's gang got whacked, and he's next on the list, and for the same reasons.

    What's the matter with Kansas, indeed.

  74. Thanks Jeff.

    As for Anonymous Righty, you are absolutely right that I am to blame for holding out more hope for Obama than his 'empty vessel' deserved. I believe I have copped to that several times in this exhange, and by humbly admitting I was wrong, shown, I think, some integrity. Let's see if you can man up yourself (I'm willing to wager that you won't.) You obviously think the right has won all the significant arguments that have shaped our politics, from deregulation to lower taxes,to reversing the New Deal etc., stripping unions of their power, cutting entitlements, etc. And we can all look at the state of the nation now in 2011 and see quite plainly that Reagan won and Carter fundamentally lost. So if your ideas won the day, how come none of you can take any responsibility, ever, for the disaster your policies brought about? The cratered economy? The decoimated middle class? The triumph of China as a result of the GOP's borrow and spend horseshit? Was Greespan our economic steward, or was that Michael Moore? How about that Trickle Down horseshit? In the words of your heroine, How'd Reaganomics Work For Ya? EIther you guys won the day in 1980, ushering in a new Consrvative Era, or the awful lefties have somehow been in power all these years. It can't be both... Or perhaps you're the real conspiracy theorist. Your apologies eagerly awaited. You would be the first...

  75. Oh now Anonynous RIghty, you have given up the game by quoting that lame Fox News Lie. Everyone here knows that that quote was cropped by Perry's campaign and that what he said was that American presidents had been lazy in the past for not bringing in enough foreign investment. Do you really need me to provide you citation for this? Or have you gone full Breitbart?

  76. Here is the actual quote. Want to apologize for your lie, Anonymous Righty? I am betting you won't...

    OBAMA: Well, this is an issue, generally. I think it's important to remember that the United States is still the largest recipient of foreign investment in the world. And there are a lot of things that make foreign investors see the U.S. as a great opportunity -- our stability, our openness, our innovative free market culture.

    But we've been a little bit lazy, I think, over the last couple of decades. We've kind of taken for granted -- well, people will want to come here and we aren't out there hungry, selling America and trying to attract new business into America. And so one of things that my administration has done is set up something called SelectUSA that organizes all the government agencies to work with state and local governments where they're seeking assistance from us, to go out there and make it easier for foreign investors to build a plant in the United States and put outstanding U.S. workers back to work in the United States of America.

    And we think that we can do much better than we're doing right now. Because of our federalist system, sometimes a foreign investor comes in and they've got to navigate not only federal rules, but they've also got to navigate state and local governments that may have their own sets of interests. Being able to create if not a one-stop shop, then at least no more than a couple of stops for people to be able to come into the United States and make investments, that's something that we want to encourage. [, 11/12/11]

  77. You obviously think the right has won all the significant arguments that have shaped our politics...


    Actually, 223, you're making the classic lefty mistake, of assuming what's "obvious". That's sorta what Mr. Obama and Mr. Perry did, if you notice.

    I stopped reading after the above quote from your post. No offense, but it's non value added, for me.

  78. Of course you stopped reading because no right winger has ever shown the required integrity to apologize for anything, ever. You tossed a lazy Fox news lie into the mix, giving up the game, and then, when busted on it, couldn't find the necessary honor to cop to it. It's not hard to do when one is wrong, but it is a reflexive piece of right wing pathology that to ever admit error, ever, is a sign of capitulation and weakness. This is why right wing orthodoxy is more like a religion than a coherent set of principles or political philosophies. If Herm Cain tries to bag women, the women are all liars and trailer trash. When it's Clinton, it's a Constitutional crisis. When Bush creates massive deficits, that's great -- 80% of Conservatives gave him high marks for the economy until he limped off the stage - and when he balloned the size of government with Homeland Security and all his other nonsense, that was sound governmental policy. Yet when Clinton shrunk government, that was tax and spend big government liberalism. We all have a tendency to root for our team, but with you guys its gotten all infected with religious zealotry. And yeah, I'm pretty sure I nailed you by your lame pretense of not having the discipline to read the full Obama quote. Typical, and frankly, not value added for me either. Just typical right wing horseshit.

  79. 233 -- when you say "no right winger has had the nerve to apologize for anything ever," you're being a little out of line.
    (1) Have you ever heard of David Frum? Bruce Bartlett? How about of all people David Stockman?
    (2) You mentioned Alan Greenspan yourself -- and of course it's unsatisfying that he then went back to his platitudes from on high about how all is well "with notably rare exceptions" like right now (have you seen this, btw: ? Some of those are classic). But if you want him to change that, you're not asking for an apology: you're asking for right-wing people to stop being right wing.
    (3) In general it's just uncool to say that kind of thing about ~150 million Americans.
    (4) Especially when there are people in this thread who disprove your point! Forget our extremely genial conservatives like CSH and Mercer and Couves -- right-wing Anon has ALSO expressed horror at much of the conservative leadership and what's happened under conservative control. I mean -- Marco Rubio has given the "pox on both their houses" speech. And truckloads of conservatives have expressed deep regret about the Bush Presidency. Yes, so most of them prescribe more conservatism. That's not because they have no integrity. It's because THEY'RE CONSERVATIVE.
    (5) Seriously, how annoyed are you when a conservative complains about how ARRA was a terrible waste of money and all liberals have to say in response is that the government should waste more money? It's pretty irritating, right? Yeah, I think so, too. Similarly it was irritating when conservatives spent a lot of time tut-tutting the moral decay of rampant abortion and single motherhood and rising crime rates liberals hadthrown the country without having the decency to apologize or to become conservatives. No, some liberals said "some of those things aren't even problems," and some liberals went on about how the solution was even more humane/indulgent policies, and that liberalism looked bad only because it hadn't been tried, and others blamed tactical bungles and problems in execution. But they mostly stayed liberals. Fancy that!

    So, I probably sound harsher than I mean to (again). Obviously this isn't really a response to you individually so much as to the widespread casual bitterness one hears against the blindness of other people (of other religions/regions/politics/countries/genders/body types/what have you). It really doesn't do anyone any good to express reasonable frustrations in aggressive ways. ;/

  80. I am not a regular to these posts, Classicist, I am only reflecting on what has been my personal experience. No right winger has ever apologized to me for any of the immense harm their wicked ideology has done to this country and its democracy - and that is simply a fact, and I know lots and lots and lots of them. They always make excuses - WMD, everyone believed the intelligence; Bush was not a Conservative; Reagan taught us deficits don't matter; this guy Anonymous Righty above never apologized when I caught him out for simply lying about Obama calling Americans lazy. To me, it is part of a specific right wing pathology, and obviously I'm generalizing and there may certainly be exceptions and I am happy there are exceptions on this board and am eager to converse with them. I like David Frum -- I find I can actually read him and respect him. But if you think there are truckloads of conservatives who are deeply refretful of their support for Bush, I have never met a single one. And that's the truth. Never met one to be able to make an honest appraisal of Reagan, either. Or Clarence Thomas, for that matter. I have nothing against Republicans in the old Eisenhower/Nixon/Garry Wills traditions. My in laws are fine Arizona Republicans who hate the hard right's immigraton demagoguery. I like and admire them -- almost all. And I can humbly point to lots of mistakes the democrats have made -- I don't think abortion is a great thing; I think Clinton contributed hugely to the conditions that set up The Great Recession; I think Robert Rubin was a disaster and am appalled that Jon Corzine seems to have gone all Madoff with that crazy investment firm he ran. I'm not a tribalist. But I have also felt in a distinct political minority now for 30 years, while the GOP took the wheel and steered the country very sharply right. I have been on the defensive, or as Wm Buckley may have said, found myself athwart history yelling STOP, or whatever it was. And I find it embittering now that the results of the great Reagan Revolution are in that the very people who voted for it and egged it on are all whining and playing the victim card, pretending that deregulation and tax cuts for the rich and all that other Trickle Down junk was just empty rhetoric and none of it really did much damage. Much like Germans in the late 40's and 50's famously pretended they had no role in what happened there. So that is what I mean about none of these bozos having the strength of character to own up to it. I'm speaking in the abstract and would love to hear from your friends hear how they have revised their views not that history is in. But the right wingers who dominate the debate - and they are the ones I hear non stop are very different. They are simultaneously the bold Revolutionaries who reversed the New Deal and ushered in The Conservative Era of 1980 and at the same time, the helpless victims of liberal perfidy. Hilarious -- and they all go silent when you point this out to them. Anonymous Right Winger is a case in point.

    And yes, I agree that we must respect a diversity of viewpoints, and Conservatives (or at least some of them) come to their positions honorably. They believe that an economy grows and jobs are created when you cut taxes on the rich despite the fact that Bush's tax cuts cratered the ecoomy and destroyed jobs. They believe that when a Republican chases hookers or gets busted in gay trysts that what matters is that he paid lip service to God and lip service is what matters since we're all sinners. I get it. I listen to Limbaugh and Hannity and those guys and understand its all programmatic and self reinforcing worldview. It's not my worldview, just as I don't ascribe to Stalinism or Maoism or Confucius. But it is an -ism, or has become an -ism. Hell, compare a character like Santorum or Palin to Eisenhower or Nixon or any of the Conservatives I grew up with and maybe you will see what I mean.

  81. Further, I don't see ARRA as liberal policy, since it was basically the second half of TARP which was put in place by W and Paulson, endorsed by all the conventional wisdom types because it was a response to an unprecedented emergency. The far lefties (and a few hard righties) were the ones yelling about letting the corporations fail, not the Reagan Revolutionary vanguard (at least until the die had been cast and all that was left for them to do was use it to bash Obama.) Oh, and I like Bartlett and even like Ron Paul and wish somebody would get him a better tailored suit.

  82. What a fascinating discussion. First of all, wanted to echo what Jeff said earlier, that I hope that 233 sees fit to become more of a regular back here, as s/he has made quite a contribution to this thread. Then I should digress with a thanks to the classicist for the flattery of being grouped with the genial conservatives, though I should note that when I informed my wife that someone referred to me as genial on the intertubes, she laughed, though I suspect you would probably not refer to said laughter as "genial" :).

    Finally, to the substance of 233's last point: I think you're probably right about many of the changes for the worse that you've seen on the American right. Somewhat contra the classicist, I don't think you need to worry too much about being offensive with those opinions; after all, if we conservatives want self-affirming puffery from the blogosphere, lord knows there's an infinite number of other places we can go find it.

    From here I think this gets to what it means to be "tribal", to borrow a term from your last post. I can only speak for myself. I am a conservative because I am a skeptic. I don't believe in the little people running big government or big companies or big whatever. I don't trust them. I don't trust you. I don't (entirely) trust me. AFAICT, this principle is at the core of traditional conservatism, even if it has been somewhat lost in the wash with the changes you note above.

    But again, speaking only for myself, that principle of skepticism probably captures my political philosophy whole cloth, it causes me to caucus (hesitantly, these days, with the right), and beyond it, I make no assertions. Apologize for Bush? Can't recall endorsing him. And so on.

    I bring all this up because one of the neat things about this community is trying to see beyond what you rightly described as "tribalism" implicit in being in this big tent or that. What do you really believe? An interesting question, and I hope you stick around for the answers as they develop.

  83. Thanks, CSH, for this warm response. I appreciate it sincerely and in this fine spirit of comity, I bet we would agree about many, if not most things. For what it's worth, I don't consider myself a liberal either and I;m not reflexively partisan. I hate power and its abuses, and if I have any bias, it
    s to ally with the powerless against the powerful, as Jesus teaches us. Which is why I despise the radical right, since they have held power, and abused power, for most of my adult lifetime. The fact that they simultaneous pretend to be victims all the time simply cinches it for me.

  84. Damn, thought I had managed to sign off this one gracefully, but here I am again. 233, I think you're looking for something that basically never happens. Ideas do change over time, in every field: politics, the sciences, religion, etc. But the process is generational: the people committed to the old paradigm don't typically stand up and say they were wrong, they just get old and die. Then the next generation just no longer includes people who want to defend the old ways or ideas. The bishops who prosecuted Galileo don't say, oops, we were wrong. What happens is, their immediate successors decline to prosecute people for claiming the earth goes around the sun -- and their distant successors sometimes will, if pressed, admit that the earlier guys were wrong (as the Church has done in that case).

    I've been reading a lot lately about the history of racial thinking in America, going back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. The vicious, outspoken racists of those days mostly didn't back down. But they did die out, and their successors, while still backward compared to what liberal-thinking people would like, no longer defend the old positions -- that, say, black men should be killed if they even think of having sex with white women. It just becomes first difficult, then uncool, then ridiculous to hold such a view (or at least to hold it in public and/or act on it or try to have it written into legislation). If you want to see a similar process unfolding right now, in real time, check out gay rights: As recently as the '70s, majorities of people wanted gays barred from professions like schoolteaching; now the children of those people (and in a few cases, the people themselves) show up at gay weddings. Twenty or thirty years from now, it will be hard to find any conservative who even remembers the old anti-gay hysteria. Even the righties, who still quote Leviticus today on the issue, will forget that Leviticus was once read as anti-gay, just as today's conservatives have forgotten that the Bible was once read as insisting that the sun goes around the earth, that vaccinations are evil, that mental illnesses are the work of demons, that women shouldn't vote, etc. etc. etc.

    Of course, at any given moment, certain unsettled questions will be at issue, and there will always be people on one side of those issues arguing for the wrong, stupid, backward, unreconstructed, antideluvian position. That is, there will always be "conservatives" in relative terms. But the conservatives of today are, on a wide range of issues, so far left of the conservatives of yesteryear that they don't even realize that the old positions ever existed -- and I think the same will continue to happen: The conservatives of Jean-Luc Picard's stardate will already take for granted most of what you and I are fighting for now (although they'll still be a massive nuisance to enlightened people of their own time). That has been, with some fits and starts and occasional backsliding, the basic pattern for centuries, and I don't see why it would change -- which I think is what ML King was getting at when he said, "The moral arc of the universe is long [repeat: lo-o-o-o-ng], but it bends toward justice."

  85. ...horror at much of the conservative leadership and what's happened under conservative control.


    A welcome post, classicist.

    I'd quibble by saying that there hasn't been what I'd call conservative leadership in our governing class for quite some time. Certainly, we haven't seen fiscal conservatism in some time, with Bush almost immediately jacking spending from Clinton/Gingrich levels of less than 18% of GDP to 20-21% of GDP and beyond. And there really was no limited government conservative zeitgeist either. Medicare Part whatever, NCLB, Department of Homeland Security, nation building on tap, and all the rest of it.

    I think we're currently stuck with an incumbent bloc that wants to harness a New New Deal and play Winnie and Franklin warlord games, and that bloc is "opposed" by a reactionary Left that's pissed off that their historical turf is being encroached, and blindly thirsts to up the ante and reclaim their rightful station, with a New New New Deal, even bigger warlord games and all the rest. Nothing liberal or conservative in sight, anywhere. And they'll all stay on message 'til the bond yields go to +8%, and the whole house of cards collapses.

    If you ask me, there is no liberal party in the US, and there is no conservative party in the US. And as I'm a liberal-conservative, I'd say I'm one who might know. YMMV.

  86. Interesting, Jeff, and in an odd way, hopeful, assuming, however, that there will be succeeding generations around to hang out together and have a good chuckle about the folly of Trickle Down and the principles of Eternal War for Eternal Peace which have so contaminated our era. My fear is that the world, assuming it's still here, and the country, the next generation will inherit, will be nothing like what we experienced, and as a result, their politics will be very strange indeed. Here is what I legitimately fear: a global economic catastrophe coinciding with a global ecological catastrophe that are the byproducts of our wicked political choices. (In a way, I consider myself the true conservative, because I would like my kids to have a country to live in like the one I lived in, with water and clear air and all that other nice stuff.) In the last 18 months we have sat by while BP contaminated a vast ecosystem and the coastlines of three states; a nuclear meltdown in Japan the consequences of which may be incalculable. Not only are these disasters not simple accidents, but both are the results of specific policies, decisions that our political class (our in the sense of ours and Japan's) has enacted over other decisions which they might have made instead. The Bp spill was a function of our corrupted politics, in other words. And what is more alarming still is that we have no political will to stem the forces that caused it. Elsewhere, Italy's debt now exceeds Italy's entire GDP. According to Krugman, the new PM thinks his mandate is to rein in inflation! A busted Eurozone, a bankrupt US with social inequities that outstrip the feudal oligarchies in South America for God sake. And a political class in Washington so hopelessly corrupt that a guy like Grover Norquist can actually hold the entire Congress hostage. Holy Nightmare, Batman! I don't think I'm being alarmist -- maybe you will think I am. But I am looking at a 3 alarm fire and I see Obama, Mr. Cool, as thoroughly paralyzed. All he can do is run for office... So I hope there is time for the long arc of justice to do its thing, but I'm not so sure.

  87. And again, I am not concerned with social conservatism - the anti gay, anti black, anti women, anti everything nativism that has always been part of the American conservative psyche. I absolutely agree with you that Karl Rove won an election by putting gay marriage on state ballots and 8 years later, most people give gay marriage a pass as passions cooled. Americans are mostly a pretty tolerant group, though they can be rallied by bullies to pick on the weak and defenseless by skillful demagogues, as Mexicans replace blacks as the whipping boys; as gays replace uppity women and Herman Cain and Michelle Bachman profit handsomely from a cynical political party that rushes them forward to prove that lefties are the true sexists and bigots. But these are absurdisms, and not really what I'm talking about. I'm talkiing Big Picture. I'm asking those who championed Reaganomics to honestly assess the results of those wicked policies. I want them to account for the results of that berserk religion. I want them to explain their fantasy that tax cuts fr the elites create jobs, as every single one of the GOP candidates asserts, as Hannity asserts, as Kudlow and Cavuto and all the think tanks asserts, and then explain the record of the Bush tax cuts The results are in, folks. We've had 30 years of this particular experiment. You guys won and we did what you wanted, though some of us complained and doubted you. But we let you try it. So what happened as a result? Honestly, now. If Trickle Down theory benefits the middle class, why has standard of living flatlined since 1980?, In 1980, when Reagan came to power, the average middle class American could own a home, a car, send his kids to college, take a vacation to Europe or somewhere, all without debt. Our middle class was the envy of the world. After Reagan, and Reagan's very specific policies - de-regulation, cutting taxes, war on unions (40% of our workforce was unionized in 1980, less than 7% is now) the average Ameircan is upside down in his house, has little or no job stability; has massive debt, can't afford college for his kids, plus his wife, if she is lucky enough, needs to work full time. Accident? Bad luck? The result of historical trends that no one could control? Not a chance. These are the results of choices made.

  88. Still here, Anonymous Righty? Still waiting for that apology for lying about how Obama said Americans are lazy. Getting sleepy, though. Think it will be soon?

  89. It gets better. Per Jeff's comment @9:12 PM: suppose we separate modern conservatism from its power-hungry madness (that 233 rightly decries), and return it to something like its Burkean philosophical roots, that is, full enfranchisement for all citizens together with a rational system of national internal (government) controls, in principle if not practice similar to what a thriving corporation might have.

    Which of your beloved 'progressive' innovations would such a conservative stand athwart? Women's rights? Gay rights? Minority rights? Quest for knowledge? No way. That the (so-called) conservatives you witness do indeed stand athwart such things has real-world impact, but in this realm of ideas, it becomes a bit of a straw man.

    Which gets to the heart of 233's point, and one that I concur with most strongly: how the hell did American conservatism stray so far from cherished principles like those espoused by Burke? I think the answer, which probably needs a new thread or two, is that the upshot of the Great Society is a Great Amount of Power concentrated in DC, and ain't no one (except maybe Ron Paul...but even that's a big maybe) can stand athwart the accumulation and exercise of such power.

    Which, coming full circle a second or third time, is why I agree with 233s sentiment about supporting the powerless: perhaps not for the religious reason (but don't tell my Lutheran pastor that), but rather because the individual, the tiny hopeless individual, is the proper locus of power in a truly conservative society.

  90. That's a lot to get my head around, CSH. Not sure I follow you. After a certain point, all these labels get blurry and whenever someone starts citing Burke, as some right winger or other used to say, I go for my gun. Today's Conservatism, as labelled, has nothing to do with Burke or limited government or any of that junk, it is simply about power. They are the party of entrenched power and they will do what ever it takes to maintain it, or in the case of the Black Dauphin, take it back. No one is going to go back to Burke or any of that lovely nonsense anytime soon, so let's not pretend we're sitting in a lab looking at specimens and deal with what exists in the here and now. Most Conservatives I know only start talking about how the GOP has strayed from true Conservativism as a means to duck accountability. 5 years ago, Bush was the embodiment of true Conservatism, the Right Man, in Frum's phrase. 95% of Conservatives supported him. Cheney said Reagan told us deficits don't matter. Now, rather than own up to the mistake, right wingers say Bush strayed and wasn;t Conservative enough. this is where labels get meaningless. And really, you blame LBJ for the state of today's world? Are you kidding? That is some eccentric rationalization, for shizzle.

  91. One other thought pops into my head, for Jeff and all those that see progress as resulting from agitation among 'progressives':

    If you haven't done so, check out Jared Diamond's Pulitzer-Prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond's book (occasionally subtitled "A Short History of Everybody for the Past 13,000 Years") makes a pretty compelling case for the whole of human development on the simple concept of trade and all the wonders it brings.

    Its been a while since I read it, but I'm pretty certain there's not a progressive, a leaflet or a bullhorn anywhere in Diamond's comprehensive narrative.

  92. Today's Conservatism, as labelled, has nothing to do with Burke or limited government or any of that junk, it is simply about power.

    Which is why the Right sucks in the 21st century. Which is why their Presidential Primaries increasingly resemble clown shows. But therein lies the rub: as an anonymous nobody on some blog I can describe the Big Tent pretty much however I like, but in the real world, the tent holds sway. Not a tent, an elephant. A big fat fucking elephant devouring everything in sight.

    These are things I think out there in normal world, these are the thoughts in my mind when I encounter the big tent. Its good to discuss them here because it is somewhat more stable than doing so in the tent. If this makes me a coward, so be it.

  93. Lots more to talk about here, which I hope we'll all have time to do in coming months. For now, 233's fears are well-taken -- everything could go blooey before the progressive utopia arrives, I agree -- and so is CSH's reference to Jared Diamond. I guess I come down in between somewhere: I think there are broad forces at work independent of particular political actors and movements, but I also think that it's important for progressives to keep the pressure up. I'll have to think more about how I would reconcile those two beliefs.

    But hey! You're a Lutheran, CSH? Me too! And product of a solid Lutheran education. I wonder if that explains some sort of deeper congeniality in our worldviews, immediate politics notwithstanding.

  94. Well Jeff, as a Conservative once said, I believe in accountability. Exonerating the Reagan Revolution for the state of our current economy (and our politics) is like those mythological 'libruls exonerating murderers and rapists on account of poverty and big social trends outside their control. Where's the outrage, as another great conservative heavyweight used to tell us (before he was exposed as another complete mountebank). I believe that elections have consequences: that Reagan did, in fact, change everything (or at least a lot). I believe that declaring war on unions, as he did, destroyed the middle class. I do not believe that it was inevitable that the American Dream of owning a home, a car, two kids in college etc. should go the way of the hula hoop. After all, we now see middle class societies all over the globe. Scandinavians especially and most Europeans generally, live much better than we do. I think we are somewere around 19th on an internationally, top 3 in terms of social inequality, lower teens in terms of education and number one in arrogance and hubris. What happened? Did the other guys get lucky, or did we simply do the wrong things? And if we did the wrong things, who is responsible for all that? The answer is simply: those in power.

  95. 233 -- let me echo others' call for you to stick around. And yes, I agree with a lot of what you say, too. Viz.: the maybe-imminent, maybe-in-progress environmental apocalypse/ in general the call of "this time it's different." And the strangeness of our current ideological-partisan alignments (though we may differ as to whether there's any "natural" way for them to fall, which I doubt). And that it's quite important to note that temperamental conservatives (CSH's Burkeans) have little power in the contemporary GOP. And that there's a whole strand of fiscal liberalism that was available to my parents (and to Nixon -- ?) that isn't there for me. (I was born in Reagan's first term.)

    I just think that when you say "disowning Bush is an excuse, not an apology. They didn't disown him at the time" -- well, no. They changed their minds, which is what you're asking of them. They said "we got that wrong. It doesn't mean we were wrong about everything, but we were deceived there, and that sucks." It's not fair to ask for more of an apology than that. Changing your mind -- or finally expressing long-simmering doubts -- is, or can be, looking back in regret. Asking for apologies makes it sound as though you thought particular conservatives or GOPers owed you something. But I'm sure you don't think that. You think they owe the country shame and restitution. So, fine -- but accept that they'll express shame and offer restitution as they see fit, not as you do.

    *background: speaking as someone who's done a fair bit of peacekeeping between my liberal husband, not-very-pragmatic-liberal father-in-law, socially liberal and fiscally conservative parents, reactionary brother, faithless-in-politics liberal little sister, and idealistic civil rights-oriented anti-imperialist Republican (!) baby sister. Seriously. It can be done, if you try really hard not to let it get too personal. Of course it is personal, as anything that's important to us is. But lord knows I've changed my mind on enough important things over a short life to guard me from taking this all to be (primarily) about integrity.

    And: thanks for writing back to me, besides for your other interesting comments.

    CSH: mayhap this is a low bar, but if you're open to thinking it through partly in public discussion, that's congenial enough for me.

    There's also that time you won second place in our beauty contest .....

  96. I wonder if that explains some sort of deeper congeniality in our worldviews, immediate politics notwithstanding

    As you no doubt know, Jeff, one of the major proximal innovations of Luther's life was bringing the gospel to the masses, using Gutenberg's new printing press to publish numerous mini-encyclicals explaining the faith to the unwashed masses. (This activity probably also saved his life, at least in getting the devoutly Catholic but politically shrewd Frederick the Wise to overrule St. Cajetan's certain order to have Luther turned over for burning at the stake (post-Worms), choosing instead to sequester him for two years).

    To this conversation, how should we think about Luther's bringing the faith to the masses, either through his many published sermons, or later, translating the bible to German while sequestered in Frederick's castle?

    Is it conservative? Yes, insofar as it brought the locus of religious power, for the first time, down to the common man. Is it liberal? Yes, if we think of it as a sort of spiritual safety net for the masses.

    The more you think about these things, the murkier they get. Part of the reason I stick with conservatism as skepticism; its about the only sure distinguishing factor vs. liberalism in a modern, complicated world.

  97. Hi CSH and thanks. I do think the disowning Bush thing is a dodge not an apology since I do not believe, having watched pretty closely, that the right wing has any coherent principles to defend. Bush was a big C Conserrvative anti Washington outsider who campaigned on deregulating industry, cutting taxes, strong defense, family values, restoring honor to Washington, the fact that he was simply a better man, Jesus was his favorite philosopher, blah blah. He was The Man - everything said he was more Reagan than Reagan. Go back and look at the profiles of him, from Bill Sammon to Frum, to National Review, to Time Magazine, and all the amen chorus who pumped his braying jackass into the White House and gave him a soaring right wing mandate to gut regulations, shred the EPA, walk away from Kyoto, trash our cheese eating surrender monkey European allies, give $1 trillion in tax giveaways to his rich friends, hand the keys of our Energy policy over to his contributors and start a couple of wars so we could fight some bad guys. This was Brit Hume's - and the nascent Tea Parties - wet dream. And oh, how he loved to stick it to libruls. Now you say the Tea Party types don't talk about Bush anymore and that I should accept that as an apology because to ask for more would be to expect them not to be conservatives anymore? That is exactly my point. I could care less about Bush the man, a lazy and arrogant opportunist who probably did the best he could. I;m talking about those conservative policies he enacted - all of em, from crony giveaways to the elites, to deregulation and tax cuts to the rich. These have been tried (since Reagan did em, Bush simply doubled down) and the results are in. I want accountability for those policy failure. I want one honest Republican to come up and say well those Bush tax cuts produced no jobs and sent the economy over the edge; squandering the Clinton surplus was a disastrous idea; we need to reorient what it means to be conservative. Small government ok, but a government by, for and on behalf of the rich to the exclusion of everyone else, never again.

  98. If I only voted for Bush 1 out of 2 times, can I get away with a half an apology? In all seriousness, I can see the argument where a conservative, by association, has some 'splainin to do, but in the context of a forum like this, I'm not sure why any of us has an obligation to each other beyond accurately reflecting how we feel about things. Apologizing feels a bit onerous.

    This is because, to your list of conservative sins that have led us to this unhappy place, I suppose I would add this liberal one: liberal utopianism where Great Society programs are concerned grossly underestimated the sense of entitlement they would bring, which is a huge driver of the $1 T/annual deficits that are threatening to drown our country.

    That sense of entitlement is played upon by conservatives as much as liberals these days, as it is incresingly the source of power in DC. But while our side is guilty of fanning the flames, we sure as hell didn't start the fire. If you're looking forward and seeing a dismal dystopia, you may need to look no further than the increasingly impossible math needed to reconcile popular demand for entitlements and resources to deliver them. Both sides are responsible for that situation now, but (in the spirit of playground taunts) liberals definitely started it.

    So liberals are utopian idealists whose utter failure to account for the second definition of "entitlement" (a feeling of a right to something) led them to create an entitlement state that can't possibly stand up over time.

    But why in the world should a guy like Jeff apologize to me over that? If I'm right, is that Jeff's fault? And what if I'm wrong?

  99. CSH, I was 7 years old when Medicare passed Congress, but I'm sorry about whatever's wrong with it. :-) I suppose I played my little part by making my first visit to DC that year on a trip with my folks. Maybe they mistook us for part of some pro- Great Society rally, and that's what put things over the top. ;-)

    Seriously, though: My understanding is that the social programs are sustainable for decades to come if we just went back to Clinton-era tax rates, which were already low by historical standards, and maybe made a couple other little tweaks. The need to contain health-care inflation is not specific to Medicare, it's a problem that has to be solved regardless, and anyway the ACA includes cost-containment measures that at should at least be tried for a few years before we decide it's all hopeless.

    About Luther, this is a bigger discussion that probably doesn't interest anyone else here, but: I see him as conservative with respect to values but progressive with respect to institutions. That is, his beliefs were not meant to be innovations but a return to the original Gospel message and to what the Scriptures actually said, particularly Paul's teaching (and later Augustine's) about God's grace. (Leave aside for now whether he got that right.) But in promoting this message, he was happy to make use of the latest technologies, as you point out, and he had no interest in defending existing institutions (like the Papacy) just because they were powerful or for the sake of keeping things stable. Hence his defiant responses ("Here I stand") to the powers-that-be of his day. I suppose one difference between contemporary (Burkean) conservatives and progressives is which you think is the bigger problem, too many people in the world like that or too few. I tend to think too few.

  100. What entitlements are these, CSH? Truly. As a tax paying American, I get nothing in the way of these entitlements you speak of. Certainly the poor aren't getting anything - 30 million kids in the US go to bed hungry. Are you talking about Social Security? That is not an entitlement but a run of the mill, conventional pension plan. I pay in money whle I'm young and handsome and productive so that when I am old and ugly and worthless, I won't go out and die in the street. Hell, public pensions have been with us since Bismarck put them into Europe at the turn of the last century. Further, Social Securoty is not even broke. Everyone agrees that simply requiring Warren Buffett and Donald Trump to pay in at the same rate as the cashiers at Home Depot and your problems are solved for the foreseeable future - and beyons. Are you talking about Medicare? Pace Michael Moore, Americans spend more and get less for their dollar on health care than any other developed country because we have a for profit health care apparatus that skims 10% profits and awards middle men like Big Insurance and Big Pharma and the HMOs. What is costing us so much money on health care is not the poor slob who can't make his co pay so he forgoes his check up and so, dies of heart disease, nor the crafty Mexcun who checks into the emergency room to get an aspirin, but the complete corruption of the system by profiteers. So where are these entitlements? Unemployment insurance paid to people who lost their jobs due either to corporate malfeasance or the Recession brought on by the policies of the 1 percent? Really? Food stamps to the poor? Would you rather these people starved to death in the street? You'd still have to pay taxes to get sanitation workers to collect the bodies - or should we leave them there to decompose naturally? Sheesh, what baloney, especially at a time when defense spending outstrips what we were spending at any time since WW2 - Big Government and Keynesian economics indeed!

  101. I think you lefties are making a huge mistake swallowing anything this 233 guy rants about, re his evil Faux News enemies, the scourge of mankind. This is exactly why there is no liberal bloc in this country, the comtemporary Left has embraced this Koz Kid ranting as mainstream. You can read one sentence, and get all you need to know. It's pure tribalist, and accomplishes nothing. And as this same mindset spreads across the political spectrum, it means we also have no conservative bloc in this country. As it's a plain blog about politics, the plain truth is 80-85% of voters are now pure tribalists, who will vote for their tribe no matter if it sends up Adolf Hitler. But that pure tribalism makes for nearly impenetrable blocks, which stunts debate and freezes politics.

    Bloomberg put down the OWS the other day. So will any other lefty, ultimately. They can't afford to have those folks interrupting the Left's Wall Street gravy train and crony corporatism, much like the contemporary R's buy votes with taxpayer cash, even as they bleat "conservative". This is where the tribalism breaks down. Once you abandon principles, as all seem to have done, you're lost. This is why the people hate politics and politicians, they know everybody's unprincipled, and the process is driven by unprincipled, careerist political hacks, who paint their faces and square off against the other tribe.

  102. I think you lefties are making a huge mistake.....

    Anon, there's no one I'm more inclined to take advice from than someone who prefaces his remarks with "you lefties."


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