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Lincoln and Leverage

By Matthew Yglesias on June 10, 2010 at 11:28 am

"Lincoln and Leverage"

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This morning, Glenn Greenwald writes:

What happened in this race also gives the lie to the insufferable excuse we’ve been hearing for the last 18 months from countless Obama defenders: namely, if the Senate doesn’t have 60 votes to pass good legislation, it’s not Obama’s fault because he has no leverage over these conservative Senators. It was always obvious what an absurd joke that claim was; the very idea of The Impotent, Helpless President, presiding over a vast government and party apparatus, was laughable. But now, in light of Arkansas, nobody should ever be willing to utter that again with a straight face.

One of those “countless Obama defenders” links is to a post I wrote in 2009, and like any time I get criticized by Greenwald it’s a reminder that he must be an excellent lawyer in a trial situation. But in punditry context I prefer a mode where we attempt to understand what other people are saying rather than a prosecutorial mode. What I wrote, in August of 2009, was that “To get sixty votes you need Ben Nelson or Olympia Snowe to back your bill. Neither Nelson nor Snowe is especially liberal, and the President doesn’t have a great deal of leverage over either of them.” And that’s 100 percent true—in August of 2009, Barack Obama did not have a great deal of leverage over Ben Nelson or Olympia Snowe.

Now what’s the relevance of Arkansas? Well, on March 1 of 2010 Bill Halter launched a primary challenge to Blanche Lincoln. This, as Greenwald explains, gave the White House a great deal of leverage over Lincoln—she needed their active support to beat Halter. Consequently in April when it was widely believed that Lincoln might subvert the White House’s preference for a derivatives title with few loopholes, the Treasury Department fired warning shots in her direction. Soon thereafter, Lincoln took Washington by surprise by unveiling a strong derivatives reform title.

That’s exactly the point I was making back in the summer of 2009. When leverage exists it makes a ton of sense to hold the White House accountable for how they do or don’t use it. In the context of the Lincoln-Halter race, they used it to get their way on derivatives and then they backed Lincoln to the hilt. They could have made different decisions, and if you don’t like those decisions you should feel free to slam them for it. But in the summer of 2009 they didn’t have objective political leverage against Ben Nelson or Olympia Snowe so the progress of health reform was held hostage to their whims. What matters most in politics is the personal predilections of the people who hold office, and what matters second-most is the existence or absence of objective political pressure. Sometimes that pressure exists and sometimes it doesn’t.

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