Jonathan Chait

Still Not Done Arguing Yet

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My plan is to stay here blogging the next couple of days, and since it's my last couple of days at TNR, I may as well go out in a blaze of hippie-punching. Democratic message consultant Drew Westen, whose New York Times cri de coeur of liberal frustration gained wide acclaim despite, or perhaps because of, its massive factual and historical errors, has another piece responding to your truly. He begins by implying that my response to him was part of a coordinated administration campaign:

[I]n a cover story in The New York Times a month ago, I questioned whether he has it in his DNA to lead. The White House in turn sent out talking points to "friendly" journalists, who fanned out to "stand by their man."

Fareed Zakaria wrote four opinion pieces for CNN and an article in Time and delivered a commentary on his television show, "GPS." Jonathan Chait wrote two articles attacking it in New Republic and yet another in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine.

In fact, I did not communicate with any member or supporter of the administration in any capacity while writing or conceiving either piece.

Westen:

In an appearance with me on the PBS show "Charlie Rose," Zakaria and Chait suggested that the president has a "remarkable record" of success. As I replied, the 25 million people looking for a job would probably not see it that way. Nor would the millions who have lost their homes as their tax dollars have been used to bail out the banks foreclosing on them.

Westen is making two assumptions here: That the only relevant portion of Obama's record pertains to his response to the economic collapse, and that he had the legislative or executive room to materially do more than he did in response. He makes no effort to bolster either of these assumptions, the first of which is absurd, and the second of which is, at the very least, contestable.

The second is the "he had 60 votes in the Senate only for a few months" defense. As this story goes, the president had the entire House and a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate for only a few months. No matter that he started with approval ratings topping 80% or that he had between 58 and 60 Democrats until he lost Ted Kennedy's seat to Scott Brown in 2010 -- a referendum on his performance, like the "shellacking" Democrats took at the polls nine months later. No matter that, beginning with his first major bill, the stimulus, he began his trademark practice of negotiating away what he wanted before the Republicans even sat down at the table.

So I pointed out that Democrats had only a few months in which they could break a Republican filibuster. Westen, characteristically, calls this a "story" as opposed to, you know, a fact. He rebuts it by asserting that Obama, as opposed to Martha Coakley, lost the Senate seat in Massachusetts. He also asserts that Democrats had almost 60 seats for a while, which is true, but doesn't get around the problem that you still need to win over a Republican or two under such circumstances. I suppose Westen would reply with his assumption that Obama telling a good "story" would force Olympia Snowe to decide to sacrifice her seat to a Tea Party challenger and vote for a bill she doesn't like.

Westen continues:

Perhaps most problematic for the "Senate made me do it" defense is that George W. Bush pushed through virtually every piece of legislation he proposed without ever having more than 52 senators on his side of the aisle. Like most modern presidents, Bush simply appealed over the heads of members of Congress if they wouldn't move.

Obama's apologists never address why Democrats require 60 votes in the Senate to pass legislation, but Republicans require only 51 -- 50 in the case of the disastrous tax cuts that bankrupted our Treasury in the first place, without which we would never have had a trumped-up budget crisis.

In fact, I did explain this rather clearly:

Yes, Bush passed his tax cuts by using a method called reconciliation, which can avoid a filibuster but can be used only on budget issues. On No Child Left Behind and Medicare, he cut deals expanding government, which the right-wing equivalents of Greenwald denounced as a massive sellout. Bush did have one episode where he tried to force through a major domestic reform against a Senate filibuster: his crusade to privatize Social Security. Just as liberals urge Obama to do today, Bush barnstormed the country, pounding his message and pressuring Democrats, whom he cast as obstructionists. The result? Nada, beyond the collapse of Bush’s popularity.

I'm not sure what else to say. If Westen has a response, he hasn't made it.

In my first response to Westen, I pointed out that he makes no attempt to substantiate his claims that "stories" drove the success of past presidents. Westen cited Roosevelt's rhetoric about using government spending to end the deficit, but he ignores the fact that the public actually remained opposed to deficits even at the height of Roosevelt's popularity. Here's Westen's response to my rebuttal on that point:

The argument that great oratorical powers have little or no impact on the course of events would have come as a surprise to Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, who both changed American politics for decades with their capacity to reassure the American people and to offer a new vision of government -- in one case of an active government that could make people's lives better and in the other of a bloated government that was picking their pockets.

In other words, Westen simply ignores the rebuttal and restates his unsubstantiated premise again.

This point from Westen is especially hilarious:

The final way all the president's men have attempted to address his failures is to label his critics as "liberals." This is perhaps the most egregious defense, because the allegedly liberal apologists of the liberal president know that liberal is a discredited term used by the right to attack its opponents. Zakaria, Chait and others are using the term to evoke the same connotations of "outside the mainstream," "elite" and "out of touch," accusations that have often been leveled against people like them.

I'm a liberal. I describe myself and other liberals as liberals. Democratic message consultants, probably with good reason, consider the "liberal" label unhelpful and urge people to use other terms like "progressive." That's fine. But I'm not part of the progressive or Democratic message machine, and it's bizarre to interpret my lack of interest in adopting movement-approved terminology as opposition to liberalism itself.

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