There’s been a good discussion going on across several blogs and twitter over the last few days about the accomplishments of both Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and the comparative difficulties of each. In baseball, there’s a measure of overall hitting prowess called OPS, but there’s also OPS+, which accounts for differences in pitching and ballparks. Players who play most of their games in small parks against weaker pitching (like Todd Helton) will often have inflated OPS, but players who play mostly in big parks against better pitching (like Miguel Cabrera) will have a comparatively better OPS+. The player with a high OPS has been a productive hitter, the one with the higher OPS+, which neutralizes environmental factors, has been the better hitter. If the Obama vs Bush discussion was about baseball players, it would in part be a debate about OPS and OPS+ with Congress being the variable equivalent to the park and the league’s pitching.
Kevin Drum and Steve Benen have recently argued that Barack Obama’s record by any measure is very, very impressive; essentially, they’re saying he’s like a guy who’s at the top in both OPS and OPS+. Adam Serwer doesn’t buy Drum’s argument that Obama’s been a great politician, but he has picked up on one part of Drum’s argument to more explicitly argue that Bush’s accomplishments were comparatively easy, that Bush’s home runs were in small parks, but that while Obama hasn’t hit very well, he still has a higher OPS+ than Bush.
I lean more on the Drum/Benen side of the discussion, but Serwer has some good points. This by Serwer, however, takes the discussion in a different direction:
The deficit, combined with the economic crisis, is the political context through which Republicans and their assault on the welfare state has gained so much traction.
There’s little evidence that the assault on the welfare state has gained much traction beyond the elites in Washington and New York City who already didn’t care much for the welfare state. Yes, the public, when asked about deficits will say they’re bad; they have never liked deficits. But the public hates the idea of cutting Social Security or Medicare benefits, and they’ve consistently favored raising taxes on the wealthy as a primary means of lowering the deficit; yesterday’s NYT/CBS poll showed that 63% favor dealing with deficits by raising taxes on those making over $250,000.
A public in favor of raising taxes is an obstacle in the way of the conservative movement, for which cutting taxes is an existential imperative for maintaining their electoral coalition and an article of faith in explaining the world. It’s also barely a policy per se, as it’s the GOP’s answer to everything; remember that in the 2000 election, Bush’s argument was that budget surpluses required the government to give back to taxpayers money that belonged to them. Whatever the circumstances, their antidote to every problem is to cut taxes. It’s gone beyond a policy and part of the identity of the Republican party. That identity offers an affiliation for the steadfast and sizeable minority of Americans who oppose all taxes all the time. But it offers nothing particularly appealing for the majority of Americans who don’t have a rabid hatred of all taxes at all times on all people.
“Purposeful or not,” according to Serwer, “Bush’s presidency set the stage for the current ascendancy of the Republican Party.” As we’re seeing, the Republican ascendancy may have been short-lived. Obama and the Democrats aren’t in a good position right now, that’s true. But every poll has shown discontent over the debt deal directed disproportionately at the Republicans. It’s as if the Republicans misheard James Carville’s famous quip; they believe they see their opponent drowning, but rather than throwing him an anvil, they’ve thrown themselves at him, not realizing that it makes it more likely they’ll drown but not guaranteeing that Obama will.
Serwer isn’t far from an important truth, however. There is a problem for Obama concerning “traction.” The Republicans haven’t gotten any traction for their own policies, and they may be losing war for the hearts and minds of swing voters. But the Republicans’ unrelenting obstructionism has kept Obama from getting much traction of his own. The Republicans will continue to try making Barack Obama the personification of voters’ unhappiness and economic uncertainty. If he were a baseball player, Obama would have a higher OPS+ than anyone in the game. His problem is each time he comes to the plate the Republicans move the fences to make the park is so big it’s hard and maybe even increasingly impossible for him to hit a home run.