Blame Obama First

Matt Taibbi has the latest in the endless series of articles and blog posts by everyone under the sun claiming everything in the world would be great if only Barack Obama were more left-wing. Taibbi is a much better writer than most people, so his contribution to this literature has a great deal more panache. That said, not only does his piece have the various factual problems noted by Tim Fernholz but it suffers from the same basic conceptual flaw as the vast majority of this literature—it ignores congress.

For example, the name “Ben Nelson” doens’t appear in the article. Nor will you read about Olympia Snowe. Nor Blanche Lincoln. Nor any of the other pivotal actors in the senate, whose decision to vote “yes” or “no” defines the limits of what’s possible. Near the end of the article, Taibbi seems to be finally getting on track. He notes that the draft financial reform legislation is actually pretty good. But:

The aide pauses. “The question is, though, what will it end up looking like?”

He’s right — that is the question. Because the way it works is that all of these great-sounding reforms get whittled down bit by bit as they move through the committee markup process, until finally there’s nothing left but the exceptions. In one example, a measure that would have forced financial companies to be more accountable to shareholders by holding elections for their entire boards every year has already been watered down to preserve the current system of staggered votes. In other cases, this being the Senate, loopholes were inserted before the debate even began: The Dodd bill included the exemption for foreign-currency swaps — a gift to Wall Street that only appeared in the Frank bill during the course of hearings — from the very outset.

Having briefly zeroed-in on the problem, which is not Obama or his Wall Street crony advisors, but rather the members of congress who take okay ideas and make them worse, the very next sentence is “The White House’s refusal to push for real reform stands in stark contrast to what it should be doing.”

The implicit theory of political change here, that pivotal members of congress undermine reform proposals because of “the White House’s refusal to push for real reform” is just wrong. That’s not how things work. The fact of the matter is that Matt Taibbi is more liberal than I am, and I am more liberal than Larry Summers is, but Larry Summers is more liberal than Ben Nelson is. Replacing Summers with me, or with Taibbi, doesn’t change the fact that the only bills that pass the Senate are the bills that Ben Nelson votes for.

The problem here, to be clear, isn’t that lefties are being too mean to poor Barack Obama. The problem is that to accomplish the things I want to see accomplished, people who want change need to correctly identify the obstacles to change. If members of congress are replaced by less-liberal members in the midterms, then the prospects for changing the status quo will be diminished. By contrast, if members are replaced by more-liberal members (either via primaries or general elections) the prospects for changing the status will be improved. Back before the 2008 election, it would frequently happen that good bills passed congress and got vetoed by the president. Since Obama got elected, that doesn’t happen anymore. Now instead Obama proposes things that get watered down or killed in congress. That means focus needs to shift.