Democratic Recriminations

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JONATHAN CHAIT OCTOBER 27, 2010

Democratic Recriminations

David Leonhardt argues that the administration grew too complacent about recovery and lost its sense of urgency:

On the evening of Dec. 3 last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics sent an advance copy of the next morning’s jobs report to the White House. It’s standard procedure for top White House and Federal Reserve officials to get an early look at the numbers, but there was nothing standard about this particular report.

It showed that job losses had all but stopped in November, after nearly two years of big declines. White House aides exulted. Christina Romer, a top economist, brought a copy of the numbers to the Oval Office, and President Obama embraced her. A photograph of the moment, with a Christmas tree off to the side, was hung in the office of the Council of Economic Advisers. The good news — and the optimism — would continue for the next few months.

Today, that brief period of optimism looks like one of the worst things that could have happened to the White House, other Democrats and, above all, the economy. The nascent recovery removed the urgency that the Obama administration and Democratic senators felt in early 2009. They still favored more action, like aid to states and tax cuts, but it was no longer their top priority.

They assumed a recovery was under way.

I don't know. The question isn't really whatOobama and Democratic Senators wanted. There was a small window of time, after Al Franken was seated and before Scott Brown was elected, when the 60th vote was Ben Nelson, who had whittled down the first stimulus and resolutely opposed any further stimulus. Before and after, the 60th vote was Olympia Snowe, who behaved about the same. As Leonhardt notes later in the piece, the House subsequently passed a smaller stimulus only to see it whittled down to almost nothing in the Senate. You can argue that the administration could have done more by placing more emphasis on the issue, but I'm skeptical.

You can further argue that Obama made a tactical error by pre-emptively making tax cuts 40% of the stimulus, giving little room for concessions to Republicans. You can also argue that he devoted too little attention to selling the stimulus. I don't think either of these factors would have had much effect. I just don't see many ways the political system, with its extreme partisanship and routine filibustering, could have accomodated more fiscal stimulus.

Meanwhile, Gerald Seib brings up a recrimination I'm surprised more people haven't made:

In June 2009, just six months into the Obama era, House leaders brought to a vote a broad, highly ambitious bill to attack climate change, in part by changing American energy habits and in part by instituting a new cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse gases. That bill presented an extraordinarily tough vote for lawmakers from coal-producing and industrial states, because the carbon cap was seen as a threat to both the coal industry and to energy and manufacturing plants across the upper Midwest.

That might have been a political risk worth taking if the legislation was about to roar ahead on the wings of popular demand. Instead, House members cast this hard, politically risky vote on a bill that proceeded to go—nowhere. The Senate not only didn't take up the bill, it moved on instead to health care, while a handful of senators sought to write a different version of climate-change legislation that failed to fly.

So a handful of brave Democrats put their necks on the line for what has turned out to be a meaningless vote. Now those lawmakers—Rick Boucher in Virginia and John Boccieri and Zack Space in Ohio most notably—are being pilloried for their troubles. If those Democrats lose, and Democrats lose the House by a couple of seats, they can look back on cap-and-trade and wonder.

There was never a likely path to passing cap and trade through the Senate. Passing a bill through the House improved the chances, but the most probable outcome of that choice was always that the House would be stranded with a tough vote that went nowhere. If there's one decision that clearly backfired on Democrats, it's cap and trade.

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posted in: jonathan chait, david leonhardt, senate, white house

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