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Is Party More Important Than the President?

Jonathan Bernstein points out the absurdity of the right’s constant refrain that the media hasn’t exposed the real Barack Obama — you know, the atheist Muslim Black Liberation Theology Christian Kenyan Indonesian communist fascist one — and includes this statement:

We’re in an era of partisan presidencies, in which the personality, preferences, and ultimately goals of the person in the Oval Office aren’t nearly as important as what the party thinks. That means, too, that it’s mostly a waste of time trying to figure out whether the real Mitt Romney is the moderate problem-solver who was governor of Massachusetts or the fire-breathing “severe” conservative we’ve seen on the campaign trail over the last few months. What’s far more important is figuring out what the coalition who nominated him and is trying to elect him really wants, because that’s how he’ll actually govern.

I fear Mr. Bernstein is being a bit naive here. If the desires of the coalition that help elect a president is what determines that president’s policies, why did Bill Clinton support DOMA, GATT, NAFTA and the deregulation of Wall Street? Certainly those actions were clearly opposed to the beliefs and the interests of most of the Democratic coalition, especially the unions. For that matter, how does this explain Obama’s continuation of most of the worst policies of the Bush administration when it comes to the military and the war on terror? Or his mostly terrible policies on the environment?

Let me suggest an answer to my questions. It isn’t the coalition of voters that support the party that matters most in determining the policies of the president (or most members of Congress for that matter), but the interests of the people who fund their campaigns, by which they convince those coalitions to vote for them, that determine those policies. It’s simply a matter of political reality — no money, no winning elections.

The overwhelming majority of the coalition that put Obama into office supported a public option in health care reform. Obama knew that, which is why he promised to include one while campaigning, but once in office that idea was dismissed without a fight. Why? Because there was no way Obama could get a public option through Congress. The insurance companies would have spent massive amounts of money to buy the votes to defeat it. But a plan that covered the uninsured with subsidized private insurance plans? That’s something the insurance industry loves, and if sufficiently paid off in subsidies, they’ll accept some strings that go with it. It was neither the president’s ideological preferences or that of the voting coalition that elected him that determined the policy, it was simply the influence of money.

The policy preferences of voters matter only when there isn’t a significant moneyed interest with a need to ensure a certain outcome, like fights over social conservative bugaboos like gay rights and abortion, or when there are conflicting moneyed interests on both sides, as in the fight over SOPA. But if there is a group with a great deal of money at stake, they’re almost certain to get their way in the end regardless of either the personality or the party that controls the White House.

Comments

  1. d cwilson says

    But if there is a group with a great deal of money at stake, they’re almost certain to get their way in the end regardless of either the personality or the party that controls the White House.

    Sad, but true. The business of Washington is no longer governing on behalf of people, it’s getting re-elected. Modern politics has forced everyone from the lowest ranking member of the House all the way up to the President to be in constant campaign mode. And that means constant fundraising. It was bad before Citizens United. Now it’s reached the point where it would almost be more honest if we just auctioned off seats in Congress to the highest bidder.

  2. Die Anyway says

    Oh Ed, you’re such a cynic. And I agree with you 100%.

    The problem is that I don’t know what to do as a solution. I try voting against the worst of them and supporting policies that would reduce the influence of big money but it hasn’t worked. The story of King Canute comes to mind.

  3. KG says

    The logical conclusions of the post are that the USA is not (or is no longer) a democracy; and that a revolution would be required to make it one.

    I’m not for one moment suggesting that these conclusions are wrong.

  4. jamessweet says

    I actually agree with both of you in part. I agree with Ed that it is “the interests of the people who fund their campaigns” that is the primary determinant of how presidents act, rather than “hat the coalition who nominated him and is trying to elect him really wants”. On the other hand, the latter is at least a secondary determinant — certainly a more powerful determinant than the individual president’s true personality! — and since both candidates are fucking identical in regards to the primary determinant, we must use the secondary determinant to discriminate between them.

    And in that sense, Bernstein is dead-on: Party is more important than president. The fact that MONEY trumps both doesn’t make the statement less true.

  5. bobaho says

    For reasons I don’t quite grasp, American tribalism has reached levels heretofore never encountered. I’m reading Chernow’s biography of Washington, and it is simply amazing how much we don’t know about the man (his main source of income prior to the war – land speculation) and how honorable and judicious GW truly was. He was such a unifying characteristic among the extremely fractious states, and never took advantage of that position. He listened to advisers, and took from them the idea he felt best for the republic. Alas, those days are long past.
    That said, ideas are no longer evaluated on their merits, rather they are evaluated on who presents them. Or as Ed points ideas are evaluated on whether it adversely impacts those with money. If the wrong person presents a good idea, or the idea results in a wealthy interest losing privilege, the result will be failure.

  6. TGAP Dad says

    As the great Molly Ivins famously quipped “you’ve got to dance with them what brung you.”

  7. harold says

    The logical conclusions of the post are that the USA is not (or is no longer) a democracy; and that a revolution would be required to make it one.

    It’s very unusual for violent revolutions to result in democracies, and if you don’t consider the US a democracy, that just cancels out one of the few major examples.

    However, another thing this suggests is that the US will likely cease to be a center of innovation in many areas. When massive amounts of money are directed toward locking in an anachronistic status quo, that’s what happens.

    And Ed forgot to mention the effect of groveling, approval-craving toadies, and/or moronic bigoted con victims, who internalize the preferences of big money as part of their own internal ideology, while actually gaining nothing and in fact, harming themselves. This factor doesn’t have much to do with Democratic politics, but is important in Republican politics. A Republican who went against entrenched interests to support something that helped their own constituents would be angrily “primaried” by those very constituents, for the crime of going against entrenched interests.

    Innovation is certainly being stifled in the case in terms of energy technology. The US military wants to decrease its reliance on fossil fuels for obvious strategic reasons, and is literally being prevented from that by Republicans in congress. Even saving money by burning oil and coal more efficiently is despised as “liberal”. Eventually new energy source technology will be developed somewhere, and those places are likely to reap rewards, while the US determinedly continues falling out of the developed world and behind emerging Latin American countries.

  8. says

    @Harold:

    And Ed forgot to mention the effect of groveling, approval-craving toadies, and/or moronic bigoted con victims, who internalize the preferences of big money as part of their own internal ideology, while actually gaining nothing and in fact, harming themselves. This factor doesn’t have much to do with Democratic politics, but is important in Republican politics.

    Agreed. The campaigns of the moneyed have influenced the views of the Republican base, quite deliberately. So it does appear that there is some fusion of what were once more independent factors.

    And I wonder if, with any particular issue, there aren’t algorithm-ish strategies that consider money and what will cause a segment of voters to show up at the polls and what will cause others to stay home. Looking at all of the factors, they might try to calculate the net gain or loss relative to their competitor. But it’s complicated, because if you do this, you gain here, but lose there. That’s why I would think of the approach as being algorithm-like.

    On DOMA, I believe Clinton signed DOMA two months before the 1996 election. IIRC, the strategy of the Republican congress was to put him on the spot and a calculation was made in response: we’ll lose more undecideds and perhaps motivate turnout of the opposition base more than what we lose by disappointing our own base. For the Republicans, the tactic was probably seen as a win-win, based on their calculations. Either way Clinton went, they stood to gain some ground. Clinton apparently agreed and chose what he believed to be the less costly option.

  9. harold says

    Dr. X –

    (This comment longer than originally anticipated.)

    I think you just described the Democrats perfectly. They look for an algorithm that will please the big money they have a shot at while still allowing some differentiation from the Republicans.

    The Republican algorithm is always to be more right wing than the Democrat you are running against, and always to use coded, euphemistic language. This strategy is limiting but has a huge benefit. To win elections, the Democrats crowd the Republicans further and further to the right, since in most races, there is no credible candidate to be more progressive than the Democrat.

    Superficially, that helps the Democrat. The Republican can only go in one direction, so if you keep pushing him in that direction, he looks more and more extreme. Unfortunately, it also pushes everything in that direction.

    The media strongly promotes a narrative in which the Republicans, no matter how far they really go, are the default “regular small town white middle class American Jimmy Stewart party”. The Democrats, no matter how conservative they are, are portrayed as the party of blacks, gays, lazy hippies, and so on. This has been very beneficial for the Republicans. For many white people, voting Democratic makes them feel as if they are conceding status. If you are doing well, naturally, you would defend your rightful status against those who want to take some of it (the concept of non-zero sum economic growth is beyond many Americans, or indeed, many people in the world).

    I don’t necessarily mean that the participants in all of this are consciously aware of what they are doing. For example, the laughable claims that Obama is economically “radical” are euphemistic or unconscious references to the real radical change – a president with features suggesting substantial Sub-Saharan African ancestry. But I’m not sure that the typical panicked middle aged white man realizes that. (For full disclosure I am a heterosexual middle aged white man.)

    This cycle was probably triggered by the one of the disadvantages of idealism. The idealist can make people feel betrayed. From 1932 up to about 1968 there was a period of increasing progressiveness overall, and it coincided with prosperity. “Liberal” was the mainstream; people even called themselves “liberal Republicans”. Right wingers mainly ran on pretending to be more anti-Soviet than the Democrats.

    From 1968 through about 1974 there was a period of rising crime, massively increased hard drug use, riots, and environmental pollution crises, but at the same time, the economy was booming, so even though Nixon was elected, economic policy stayed “liberal”.

    Then of course, inflation, unemployment, and the oil crisis hit. It’s important to note that it was still far easier to independently enter the economy at that time than it is now in many ways. Education was cheap, interest rates were high but housing prices were cheap, jobs may have been about as scarce but they paid relatively more. But it was a shock compared to the prosperity. Still, Carter was elected. What actually killed Carter was not the economy, but the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Carter actively sought an image as a peace-maker who reached out, and the Hostage Crisis made it look as if his non-obnoxious stance was naive (even though, of course, in retrospect, Reagan gave the hostage-taking Iran of those days weapons, rather than invading them).

    Since then we’ve been in a cycle of “conventional wisdom” pushing policies that make the very rich richer and everyone else poorer. But many people want to consider themselves “successful” or even “wealthy”, even if they aren’t. However, the acceleration of accumulation of wealth at the top does seem to have created a dystopian cycle. Billionaires have enough money to control politicians, and seem to be obsessed with angry, harsh right wing policy, even though their personal lives are unchanged by it. Perhaps it is a human reaction to want to make others have less, if you can’t possibly notice having more. Comparing yourself to a school teacher making 50K a year, having 5 billion is about the same as having 10 billion. Adding more billions doesn’t increase the difference. On the other hand, if you can make the teacher homeless, you look “even more more rich”. To put it another way, if you’re so rich that more money has no marginal utility to you, maybe taking money away from people for whom it does have a lot of marginal utility is a competitive instinct or something.

  10. Ichthyic says

    We’re in an era of partisan presidencies, in which the personality, preferences, and ultimately goals of the person in the Oval Office aren’t nearly as important as what the party thinks.

    yes, this is true.

    translated, what this means is that we as a society have allowed authoritarianism to run unchecked, mostly because it has been empowered by those with power for political and financial gain.

    whenever authoritarianism is allowed free reign in a society, what has happened historically?

    nothing good, and even a glance at the last couple hundred years of human society should give a clear picture.

    It shocks me that there aren’t huge alarm bells ringing, but then, most people tend to ignore history, especially the media.

  11. dingojack says

    Come, come Ichthyic –

    “…even a glance at the last couple hundred years of human society should give a clear picture’.

    OK, OK over the last couple of hundred years, apart from longer life-spans, more food, better health care, more money and material goods, more protection from exploitation and lower crime rates what have the Romans ever done for us?!? :) *

    Speaking about the Romans (and more on topic):

    “Omnia Romae cum pretio,
    quid das, ut Cossum aliquando salutes,
    ut te respiciat clauso Veiento labello”**.

    It was ever thus. :(
    Dingo
    —–
    * surely not all of the last few centuries have been bad and getting worse?
    ** ‘All things in Rome come with a price,
    how much does it cost to be considered worthy to bow to Cossus,
    or to be deemed worth a glance, with lips firmly closed, from Veientus?’
    Lines 183-5. 3rd Satire. Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis. [Juvenal]

  12. John Hinkle says

    harold@9:

    Billionaires have enough money to control politicians, and seem to be obsessed with angry, harsh right wing policy, even though their personal lives are unchanged by it. Perhaps it is a human reaction to want to make others have less, if you can’t possibly notice having more.

    I think their obsession with angry, harsh right wing policy is just them trying to control the message and hence those receiving the message. It’s a way for them to lock in their power and maintain their wealth. I bet if people could be manipulated with thoughts of daisies and cotton candy, they’d use that.

  13. says

    Yeah, over the last few months I’ve come to realize that it’s all over. I’m not sad or being apocolyptic, it just is what it is. The solution and ‘fix’ (until the next major shift)will only come on the heels at the complete breakdown and dissolution of our current govenrment. All the stuff that is NOT getting done for America and it’s citizens is going to continue to back up until it breaks. Also, global warming is no longer an issue. It’s a done deal. There is no way we will do the right thing in time to stop or reverse it. I am so thankful that I am old enough that I won’t have to see the worst of the coming nightmare, and I thank Odin every day that I don’t have kids who would be witness to the greatest suffering of the greatest number of people that humankind has ever known.

  14. says

    I’m not voting anymore. The sooner it’s over the better. We can’t keep on having these goddamn pissing contests every 2 years when the results of who wins or not have zero consequences for the our citizens.

  15. says

    And let’s see how corporate America likes it when we can’t buy their fucking products anymore. How can so many CEOs fail such basic economics

  16. Ichthyic says

    I think their obsession with angry, harsh right wing policy is just them trying to control the message and hence those receiving the message.

    that’s it.

    on the nosie.

    *ding ding*

    +1

  17. Ichthyic says

    Yeah, over the last few months I’ve come to realize that it’s all over. I’m not sad or being apocolyptic, it just is what it is. The solution and ‘fix’ (until the next major shift)will only come on the heels at the complete breakdown and dissolution of our current govenrment. All the stuff that is NOT getting done for America and it’s citizens is going to continue to back up until it breaks.

    Suddenly New Zeland, doesn’t look so boring…

  18. Ichthyic says

    awww, they killed my link.

    :(

    now I have to find another one for that song.

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