No, Obama’s Policies Aren’t Those of a Moderate Republican

Not one of Ezra Klein’s more insightful claims:

 President Obama, if you look closely at his positions, is a moderate Republican of the early 1990s. And the Republican Party he’s facing has abandoned many of its best ideas in its effort to oppose him.

If you put aside the emergency measures required by the financial crisis, three major policy ideas have dominated American politics in recent years: a plan that uses an individual mandate and tax subsidies to achieve near-universal health care; a cap-and-trade plan that attempts to raise the prices of environmental pollutants to better account for their costs; and bringing tax rates up from their Bush-era lows as part of a bid to reduce the deficit. In each case, the position that Obama and the Democrats have staked out is the very position that moderate Republicans have staked out before.

I’m not at all convinced. I don’t see much evidence that Republicans ever cared about “a plan that uses an individual mandate and tax subsidies to achieve near-universal health care.” Ezra surely if asked would acknowledge that sometimes politicians introduce bills purely for political reasons–so, for instance, they would have something to point to as proof they’re doing about health care–even if they not only have no intention of acting on it, but would oppose addressing the problem if ever forced to. That Republicans have mostly fought tooth-and-nail against almost every expansion of the health care for Americans means a hell of a lot more in determining the actual beliefs and policies of Republicans than whether various Republicans, while they had majorities in each chamber of Congress, introduced bills that never got a hearing in committee. In short, Ezra is conflating a Republican policy with a Republican proposal, with the latter primarily being an exercise in incumbent protection rather than a serious attempt at advancing and implementing a policy.

Regarding cap-and-trade, he’s just plain wrong. That in 1990 George H.W. Bush proposed a market-based solution on limiting emissions isn’t as relevant as Ezra suggests. In 1990 Bush knew Congress would restrict emissions from coal plants, so he signaled his preferred method of achieving the goal he knew he would have to accept or risk getting pummeled as opposing means to prevent acid rain, a regional problem that if not dealt with could cost him votes in the northeast (which at the time was still competitive for the Republicans). Thus, cap and trade was a signal of resignation by Bush that he’d have to accept the Democratic policy, but to try to do it on more favorable terms. Given the choice Bush probably wouldn’t have pushed cap and trade, he probably would have instead done nothing about limiting sulfur dioxide. It was not an initiative, it was a counter-proposal. It was an term of a compromise.

Last Congress, Obama and the Democrats tried to restrict greenhouse gases, which was vehemently opposed by the Republicans. But it wasn’t opposed because of the mechanism–cap and trade–and the mechanism wasn’t the essence of the Democratic policy. It’s as if one of the parties proposed using a commission to eliminate 40% of the defense budget and someone said it’s essentially the same policy as using BRAC to close military instillations. Or saying the use of no-fault in auto insurance is the same policy as using no-fault in divorce.

Finally, there’s Ezra’s comparison of the 1990 budget deal set against the expiration of the Bush tax cuts in December:

As for the 1990 budget deal, Bush initially resisted tax increases, but eventually realized they were necessary to get the job done.

Again, this wasn’t because Bush realized there was a job to get done, it was because a Democratic Congress that included moderate Republican Senators like Jim Jeffords and John Chaffee was going to feed Bush a bill that included tax increases, and what he had to do was not “get the job done” but to work out a deal.  The difference today is not that Obama hasn’t proposed ending the Bush II-era tax rates for the rich. He did! He implored Congress to do it last Summer and Congress didn’t act. No, the difference is that Obama had to deal with hostage-taking behavior by the Republicans. The only reason he got a deal on stuff he wanted is that the Republicans who could block a deal in the Senate by maintaining unity and filibustering any deal–remember, that deal was cut after the November election, when Republicans added members for the lame duck session–but their bottom line was they needed to protect the tax cuts for the rich.  In a sense they were hostage-takers, but they still really wanted to escape with some loot. But the loot still had to be paid.

Ezra Klein is a smart guy, and he’s generally insightful. But today’s column strained too hard. Yeah, Obama has advocated using some mechanisms used by Republicans and made deals that look a bit like deals agreed to by Republicans forced to compromise with a Democrats. The compromises Obama had to make with conservative Democrats because of the absence of any Republican moderates may look like the compromises George H.W. Bush had to make with Democrats in the 1990’s, but a compromise isn’t the same as an initiative. But as with so much, context matters a hell of a lot, and the claim that Obama is like a moderate Republican from the 1990’s doesn’t make sense when placed in to a meaningful context.

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6 Responses to No, Obama’s Policies Aren’t Those of a Moderate Republican

  1. Bravo, excellent post. I’m sending it to Ezra if you don’t mind? Not that he will look at it, but what the hell. I think you nailed his flawed reasoning. And I agree, he is a very smart man and should know better.

  2. Andrew says:

    I actually don’t think Ezra’s column is a bad one – his point is simply that far from being radical, most of Obama’s domestic agenda resembles ideas Republicans at least claimed they supported less than twenty years ago. Actually, these were policies that many Republicans claimed to support as little as three years ago.

    Of course in doing so he committed a classic trick of the columnist trade: a provocative title and lede. I get his point, since he was aiming this mostly at moderates and conservatives who claim Obama is a radical. But he had to know he was just baiting the firebaggers with that one, didn’t he?

    • I think he was BEING a firebagger with that one. Maybe his clicks are going down and he’s falling into the Hamsher/Greenwald funk.

    • Dana Houle says:

      I’m not really sure Ezra was aiming that column at mods and cons to say Obama isn’t a radical. I think it’s more likely attributable to the fact that writers who do what Ezra does have to put out a lot of content, don’t work as closely with editors, and sometimes put out stuff that’s not up to their usual standards. God knows I’ve written plenty of stuff that could have used more thought, tighter editing and some pointed questioning. And as I argued in the piece, I’m not sure some of his examples are sound. Republicans have NEVER advocated big reductions in carbon emissions. That Democrats are advocating using a mechanism Repubs have advocated in the past doesn’t mean they’re advocating a policy goal that was once shared by Republicans.

      • Andrew says:

        Republicans have NEVER advocated big reductions in carbon emissions. That Democrats are advocating using a mechanism Repubs have advocated in the past doesn’t mean they’re advocating a policy goal that was once shared by Republicans.

        This actually gets at a slightly separate issue. It is very common for people to argue that our political center has shifted to the right and this has happened because both parties moved right. As far as I can tell, that gets the story wrong. I think it’s true that the political spectrum has shifted to the right, particularly on issues of government spending, social policy and taxation, but that’s not because Democrats have shifted right – it’s because Republicans have shifted to the right.

        In fact, as much as liberals lament Democrats’ ideological squishiness, I think a thorough look at party history since the New Deal would basically tell you that, for the most part, Democrats really have stayed fairly consistent. They’ve long been a broad center-left coalition of the left, labor, centrists, and moderate conservatives. And if anything, they’re somewhat more progressive today as a party than they were prior to the 1990s. People point to the old Great Society liberal bulls, but conveniently ignore that they shared the party with a very large faction of conservatives who were well to the right of any current Blue Dog. And typically, they extrapolate one period of major liberal reform – 1965-1967 Congress – as a shorthand for all pre-Clinton Democrats, something which doesn’t remotely describe the tenor of the Kennedy, Carter, or even Truman White Houses.

        I’m not denying there have been some moves to the right on some issues. Some of that’s genuinely ideological, though a lot of it is tactical. But for the most part, Democrats since the New Deal have stood for protecting major entitlements, pushed progressive taxation, and pursue moderately redistributive policies towards the poor.

        The real story of the past fifty years is the Republican Party’s shift to the right. Given our political system, and the sheer difficulty of achieving major legislation without supermajorities, reform efforts have historically needed bipartisan support. When the Republican Party chooses to not engage, that pushes Democratic legislation towards being more small-c conservative, in that bills have to be as status quo-friendly as possible in order to get the votes of the most marginal centrist members of the caucus.

  3. Dana Houle says:

    Andrew, I generally agree with the assertion that where things have shifted to the right it’s primarily because the Republicans have shifted to the right while Democrats have stayed consistent. I’d argue Democrats have become a bit more friendly toward the financial sector over time, but I’d also argue they’ve become more socially liberal, even since the 1990’s. But another aspect of the changes you describe is that Republicans have become significantly more socially conservative because the parties are no longer functionally bi-partisan on social issues, at least on a federal level. It’s true that socially liberal Republicans are strongly represented in state offices in much of the Northeast, and many Republican governors of recent years have been pro-choice and generally socially libertarian. But federal office holders are almost all socially conservative. There just aren’t many Specters and Chafees and their kind left in Congress. That gets us to that broad coalition you mentioned, which for Dems includes some–mostly Catholic–economic liberals who are staunchly anti-choice (think of Bart Stupak or Marcy Kaptur), economic liberals who who hold some socially conservative positions but don’t make much of social issues (Bob Casey) and moderates to even conservatives who may not demagogue on social issues but who almost always vote with the majority of Republicans on reproductive and sexual issues (this includes many though not all Blue Dogs from rural areas or from the South). To take one example, in the past there were a lot of Republicans who would have supported Planned Parenthood–I think both Prescott and George H.W. Bush were openly supportive of Planned Parenthood–but now there are damn few. So while the country continues to get more socially liberal on most issues, the Republicans have become almost uniformly conservative on all social issues, and they’re reliant on their socially conservative activist base, so when they’re in power they tend to push a socially regressive agenda. That’s not about our politics become more conservative, it’s about the social issues being more clearly sorted by partisanship.

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