What Frank Capra world do centrist pundits think we're living in? / Wikimedia Commons

Straight Out of Centrist Casting

What Frank Capra world do centrist pundits think we're living in? / Wikimedia Commons
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Say what you will about this demented presidential election cycle—it has, at a minimum, forced the myths of Beltway centrism out into gloriously open view. The meme that has lately captured the responsible commentariat is not that the rise of Donald Trump represents the unmanageable blowback from a decades-long conservative-movement assault on the theory and practice of government. No, gentle readers: the centrist insight du jour is that the hideous Trumpian cancer on the body politic stems from the hyperpartisan track record of Democrats in power. Back in their post-2008 heyday, the story goes, Obama and his congressional politburo threw their weight around in such obtuse, high-handed, and confrontational fashion that the avenging Trump moment we are now living through followed just as inevitably as a Spider-Man reboot or a Vox correction. Thanks, Obama!

Just behold the latest such brief, from National Journal hot-take maestro Josh Kraushaar, who confidently argues that “the notion that Obama was fated to face an intransigent Republican opposition has always been off-base,” in a work of speculative fiction bearing the suitably hallucinogenic headline, “How Al Franken Paved the Way for Donald Trump.” 

No, it isn’t only because both men are accomplished insult comics; rather, Kraushaar argues, Franken’s narrow victory over incumbent Republican Minnesota senator Norm Coleman in 2008 delivered Obama a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate. Just add the new Democratic president’s power-mad executive hubris, and you have the mother of all nightmare scenarios:

Pres­id­ent Obama didn’t face any real res­ist­ance in Con­gress to start his pres­id­ency, and that turned out to be a polit­ic­al curse be­cause he nev­er needed to work with the op­pos­i­tion bey­ond win­dow-dress­ing. That set the stage for the po­lar­iz­a­tion to come. 

Without a Demo­crat­ic su­per­ma­jor­ity, Obama would have been forced to ne­go­ti­ate with Re­pub­lic­ans (or, at least, former Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine) and settle for the in­cre­ment­al health care le­gis­la­tion that his then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel re­com­men­ded. The GOP would still have been op­posed to any Demo­crat­ic health care re­forms, but the an­ti­pathy would have been muted be­cause a few Re­pub­lic­ans would have sup­por­ted the le­gis­la­tion. In­stead of pro­vok­ing a pitched par­tis­an show­down that cul­min­ated with then-House Minor­ity Lead­er John Boehner ex­claim­ing that the Con­gress had “shat­ter[ed] the bonds of trust” with the Amer­ic­an people, Obama could have tempered the wrath of the Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion. 

Just linger on all the Goldilocks-style virtues that Kraushaar ascribes to this lost golden moment in our recent political past: Muted antipathy! Tempered wrath! Incrementalism (courtesy of Rahm Emanuel, no less)! Olympia Snowe! How could it be that the feckless Democrats threw over so many household gods of the hardy American political persuasion of “moderate pragmatism”? Kraushaar somehow manages to coax all this into a counterfactual panegyric for the grand (but incremental!) road less traveled:

Ima­gine, for a mo­ment, the state of the 2010 midterms without Obama­care in the equa­tion. Re­pub­lic­ans would have run against the stag­nant state of the eco­nomy with some suc­cess. But without the gal­van­iz­ing op­pos­i­tion to Obama’s health care law—Re­pub­lic­ans net­ted a whop­ping 63 House seats that year—Demo­crats would likely have nar­rowly kept con­trol of Con­gress, and con­tin­ued to press for­ward with Obama’s agenda. There would be tea-party-aligned Repub­lic­ans elec­ted, but ab­sent the wave, not enough to form the con­cer­ted op­pos­i­tion that emerged. Vet­er­an Blue Dog Demo­crats like Reps. Ike Skelton, Gene Taylor, and Chet Ed­wards (among oth­ers) would likely have been reelec­ted, and be­come bridge-build­ers between parties. 

Of course! The reasonable, deal-cutting Blue Dog Democrats will save us all—another central article of faith for all self-regarding, difference-trimming Beltway punditry. By all means, Obama, sacrifice the central policy objective of your historic presidential run if you can only, for God’s sake, save Chet Edwards’s House seat!

The procedural safeguards of the separation of powers are now nothing more than an alibi for well-appointed, ideological tantrum-throwing.

Perhaps the least interesting thing to note about arguments like this is that they are unadulterated horseshit. Then Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell made it abundantly clear at the outset of the 111th Congress that the only agenda he cared to advance was the systematic obstruction of each and every Obama legislative initiative—precisely so that the intransigent GOP could then wail before credulous journalists like Kraushaar that they’d been cruelly betrayed by Obama’s unyielding partisanship. This is exactly the same scorched-earth reasoning that McConnell has advanced in his unprecedented bid to deny even a formal hearing to Obama’s next Supreme Court nominee—fabricate out of thin air the appearance of an illegitimate power putsch from the Democratic-led executive branch; cynically present yourself as the people’s sensible, subservient tribune; declaim any responsibility for your own central role in fomenting such hateful polarization; lather, rinse, and repeat. It’s also why GOP House leaders are refusing to hold any hearings about the Obama budget proposal: the procedural safeguards of the separation of powers are now nothing more than an alibi for well-appointed, ideological tantrum-throwing.

And the key plank of the Obama-centric school of demonology is just as fanciful: far from being a ultimatum-happy ideologue, Obama tried, to a manifestly absurd degree, to cultivate the very cross-aisle model of legislative compromise that Kraushaar sees as the greatest casualty of his presidency. That was also abundantly plain from the very outset of the Obama era, when the White House wasted months of health-care negotiations awaiting a fabled “Gang of Six” accord among a bipartisan claque of senators, captained by Finance Committee leaders Chuck Grassley and Max Baucus. And yes, Grassley and his GOP colleagues torpedoed the deal, under McConnell’s all-too-evident direction, leaving stout Blue Dog Baucus with nothing but his pending retirement (a.k.a. lucrative lobbying career) to look forward to.

The same basic script played out, again and again, every time the White House tilted itself anew at the prospect of bipartisan compromise—it was like Charlie Brown running at Lucy’s tremulously place-held football. There was the (thankfully failed) “grand bargain” on spending (approved, of course, by a blue-ribbon confab of bipartisan former lawmakers, led by Sunday talk show regulars Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, once again showcasing the disastrous strategic alliance of Beltway political and media eminences). There was the budget deal to avert the fiscal cliff (and preserve the high-end Bush tax cuts). There was the GOP-sabotaged bid to reform immigration (yes, again).

To look at this track record and come away with a narrative foregrounding a take-no-prisoners ideologue in the Oval Office is like viewing Breaking Bad as a sitcom. And lest there be any doubt of the political uses that this particular centrist talking point serves, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat also has lately bruited the case for Obama as a mini-me Trump forerunner. Unlike Kraushaar, Douthat does justly note that Obama has largely left the Bush White House’s unconstitutional and imperial foreign policy agenda intact—but again, focuses on the White House’s domestic policy record as the telltale sign that Obama has revived the “imperial presidency” just in time for Trump to reap its whirlwind:

Having once campaigned against his predecessor’s power grabs, the current president has expanded executive authority along almost every dimension: launching wars without congressional approval, claiming the power to assassinate American citizens, and using every available end-around to make domestic policy without any support from Congress.

Perhaps the least interesting thing to note about arguments like this is that they are unadulterated horseshit.

Never mind, of course, that the War Powers Act has been unconsulted by every occupant of the Oval Office since its passage, and that, as we’ve seen, the alternative to making domestic policy without the McConnell-led and Tea Party-infested Congress is to have no domestic policy whatsoever. No, it offends the bedrock faith of all professional pundits, of virtually all ideological coloration, to reflect that chief executives are sometimes compelled to pursue executive action, without the kind ceremonial intercession of Blue Dogs and Republican moderates, who are, these days, like “presidential history”—i.e., something that only exists on television.

Perhaps the way to break the spell of this centrist (or, in Douthat’s case, faux-centrist) fable is to tote up some of the recent genuine achievements of bipartisan lawmaking. We have, just for starters, the domestic policy breakthroughs of welfare repeal and the racist, Fourth-Amendment-defying 1994 crime bill—together with the Ted Kennedy-brokered passage of No Child Left Behind (and its bastard reauthorized offspring, the Common Core/Race to the Top charter-school boondoggles). Then, let’s not forget the overwhelming congressional majorities won by the resolution to invade Iraq, the USA PATRIOT Act, and the Telecommunications Act of 1996, whose lobbyist-drafted provisions have brought you the cartelized infrastructure of the digital age (or, if you prefer, the 2012 JOBS Act, which has helped perpetuate it)—or the narrow bipartisan accord that secured (on its second try, admittedly) the TARP bailouts of 2008. And let us not forget those bipartisan triumphs of business-friendly Third Way Democratic governance, Clinton the First: the Gramm-Leach-Bliley legislation (repealing all meaningful provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act) and the dreadful Commodity Futures Modernization Act. Without those showpieces of moderate pragmatism, we wouldn’t have had anything approaching the world-historic calamity of 2008, or, as a result, the ensuing orgy of big-bank-and-insurers’ bailouts.

Indeed, for all the manifest weaknesses of Obamacare in its final legislative guise, it—together with the Lilly Ledbetter fair pay act and the 2009 stimulus—makes a surprisingly robust results-based case for full-throated partisanship in the corridors of congressional power. Still not convinced? Then check out the lopsided party votes that brought us the New Deal, and the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights acts. And curiously enough, none of these landmark legacies of partisan governance created a mass-voter insurgency led by a cryptofascist billionaire.

All of which is to say, when our pundit class frantically seizes upon the Trump phenomenon to plead for us to summon forth the grievously neglected protocols of Beltway comity, compromise, and sweet reason, the relevant power grab is neither Al Franken’s nor Barack Obama’s—nor even Mitch McConnell’s. It is, rather, their own.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

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