In a previous post, I lament the abject laziness of the pundit class this election cycle. As ThickCulture contributor Ken Kambara noted in a comment to my post “I think there’s an irony in our culture that sports get better analyses than the Presidential debates.”
He’s absolutely right! Any football fan is accustomed to serious, detailed analysis of personnel decisions, lineups, formations, etc. Ron Jaworrski’s detailing of how the Saints played a “cover-two” defense against the Rams is standard parlance for an NFL football fan. If a quarterback gets sacked 15 times in a game, pundits don’t blame the quarterback along for the failings of the offensive line. Good football analysts, of which there are many, don’t only talk about the in-the-moment game but they talk about the broader context that informs what is driving performance on the field.
Which brings me to the shameful flabbiness of modern political punditry (elite media included). The choices that the parties and branches are making today is based upon years of tactical maneuvering on the part of both sides that should be make clear to those watching and listening to political shows. If the president isn’t defending his stimulus bill, analysis as to why should be provided.
The Democrats and Republicans are engaged in a longstanding game of chess. Republicans confident that they have the party discipline in the Senate embarked upon an unprecedented, clever and seemingly very effective Congressional obstructionism strategy. This is a longstanding tactic in American politics and as Megan McCardle writes in the Atlantic, a tactic Democrats were able to use to block Herbert Hoover’s agenda.
Obstructionism seldom works as a tactic however because parties are seldom disciplined enough to enforce a complete “blockage” strategy. Individual members are pulled by the dynamics within their own districts to peel-away from their party. In addition, Senators have had a long standing reverence for the institution and its norms. But when you have institutions as polarized as those we currently have (these McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal chart illustrates this well), you can hold a 40+ member coalition together to block any and all efforts at legislation.
With no ideological overlap between Republicans and Democrats, the possibility of getting anything done is remote.
This chart highlights the almost complete uniformity among Republicans in both actual votes and percieved ideology. This is what has allowed this Republican Congress to take the historically sporadic use of the filibuster and make it a permanent practice.
If you read no other article this year before the election, make sure you check out this Romano and Klaidman piece in the Daily Beast. They detail the tactical maneuvering between the Congress and the Executive that set the context for the current election. On one hand, the Republicans have implemented their effective “bunker-strategy.” To wit:
In the last three sessions of Congress, Republicans have threatened to filibuster on 385 separate occasions—equaling, in five short years, the total number of filibuster threats to seize the Senate during the seven decades from the start of World War I until the end of Reagan administration. A recent study showed that post-2007, with Republicans in the minority, threatened or actual filibusters have affected 70 percent of major legislation. In the 1980s, that number was 27 percent. In the 1960s, it was 8 percent. “This level of obstruction is extremely unusual,” says Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “And the core of the problem is the GOP.”
In response, the President made a tactical shift in 2011 after the decline of the apparent debt negotiation deal between he and Speaker Boehner. From 2011 forward, the President decided to engage on a unilateral domestic strategy that has stretched the role of the executive. On issues like the Dream Act, the Defense of Marriage Act, and Greenhouse Gas Emissions, the President has moved forward using the executive’s administrative rule make and enforcement powers to implement a progressive agenda. This passage notes the President’s shift in strategy:
By Oct. 24, Obama was standing beneath a “We Can’t Wait” banner outside the Bonilla family’s home in Las Vegas—the president’s spontaneous remark had become the White House’s new slogan—and announcing a new, unilateral program designed to help homeowners refinance their underwater mortgages. Two days later, the president was flying to Denver and unveiling a multipart plan to ease terms on student loans. Over the next few months, the president became even bolder, issuing the controversial welfare waivers and making a handful of recess appointments while the Senate was still technically in session. In truth, Obama had been bypassing Congress, on occasion, ever since Republicans took over the House in January. But these isolated gambits—which included the president’s decision to take military action in Libya without congressional authorization—now seemed united under the umbrella of his new governing (and messaging) strategy: if a legislative proposal fails, find an executive order or administrative directive to replace it.
This is the lens through which the President should be evaluated. Either he is an impatient ideologue engaged in an executive power grab or he is a shrewd, tactical politician who responded to unprecedented obstructionism with an unprecedented expansion of executive power. But the media who can’t be bothered to care about actual governing is much more content with having the campaigns spoon feed them messages and are more comfortable talking about dumb affect issues “why was the president asleep”? “Mitt Romney looked presidential”!
This is the biggest disservice to the nation. Politicians are going to seek access to power. That is what they do. It is up to the press and the citizenry to deconstruct what they are doing. So kudos to Romano and Klaidman for letting me know that there are at least a few folks out there who are actually doing their jobs!