Congress Matters


It seems a bit unseemly to criticize an article that quotes me as an expert but I thought this one element of a basically good article is a little bit off base:

Then there’s the question of how hard Democrats will push their activist philosophy, particularly in a period when the budget deficit is at record levels and resources are scarce. The answer hinges greatly on the enigmatic figure of Barack Obama, who variously displays leftist and centrist sides. […]

“We will find out if he is a new Franklin Roosevelt or a new Bill Clinton,” [David] Boaz said.

Roosevelt of course presided over the greatest expansion of government economic power in U.S. history. Clinton adapted to conservative dominance by declaring in 1996 that the era of big government was over.

For starters, I think this is a misinterpretation of the Clinton administration. If the health care bill that the Clinton administration authored, pushed for, and staked its presidency on had passed you would say that FDR, LBJ, and Bill Clinton were the three main architects of the modern welfare state. Because the bill didn’t pass, the institutional legacy of the Clinton years is considerably more moderate than that and the Clinton administration is instead remembered for its responsible stewardship of national affairs. But that’s because congress blocked the bill not because of Clinton’s moderation.

In general, it’s important to understand the way the American institutional framework works. Clinton was, throughout his presidency, more liberal than the median member of congress and substantially more liberal than the 41st most conservative Senator. Under the circumstances, even if Clinton had been more left-wing than he was, it’s not clear how much of a difference this would have made on domestic issue. Similarly, whatever you make of Obama’s place on the centrist-liberal spectrum, he’s clearly going to be to the left of the 41st Senator no matter what happens in November, and, indeed, he’ll very likely be to the left of the median member of the House (currently Tim Mahoney).

Take a look at this chart that I found in Andrew Gellman’s book and on his blog:


By all indications, the safe thing to assume about Obama is that he’s a pretty typical Democratic legislator. Maybe he’s more like the typical Democratic Senator, or maybe he’s somewhat more liberal like the typical Democratic House member. But either way, a typical Democratic legislator is going to be more liberal than the median voter, more liberal than the median member of congress, and, indeed, more liberal than the median Democratic Party voter. And all the same is true of a Republican president, as it would be very difficult for an ideological outlier to secure his or her party’s nomination. The result of this, though, is that domestic policy outcomes are unlikely to hinge crucially on the relatively subtle differences between mainstream Democratic Party politicians. Rather, the views of relatively conservative congressional Democrats are likely to be decisive. There’s a tendency to attribute FDR’s and LBJ’s achievements to something inherent to their character or their approach to governing, but the truth is simply that in 1933-34 and 1965-66 you had a lot of liberals in congress so a lot of liberal legislation passed.

Presidential leadership matters, of course, but it can’t manufacture voters out of thin air. If Senators from “right-to-work” states decide they don’t want to vote for EFCA or Senators from oil, coal, and automobile producing states decide they don’t want a serious climate change policy, there’s no way for the White House to somehow pull the wool over their eyes and trick them into doing so.