Greenwald Switches Methods

by Jonathan Chait | June 22, 2010

Last week I pointed out that it's folly to insist that President Obama could conjure a tough cap and trade bill through the Senate merely by giving a powerful speech, acting more determined, or using legislative procedures that turn out not to exist. In response, Glenn Greenwald pulled out a pure ad hominem argument. Now, having acknowledged this, he is turning to his next favorite argumentative device, the straw man:

Apparently -- to hear Bernstein, Chait and their "weak presidency" excuse-makers tell it -- the country, once every four years, spends twenty-four straight months completely fixated on who is going to be elected to a weak and powerless office.  What a strange thing to do.  And we probably all owe George Bush and Dick Cheney a huge apology for blaming so many of America's problems on them when -- as it turns out -- they really had very little power over our political system (and were Bernstein, Chait and friends chiding Democrats during the Bush presidency for excessively blaming Bush and Cheney for problems that they couldn't possibly solve [or cause] given their powerless positions?).  And all Democratic anger at Ralph Nader for helping to elect Bush and defeat Al Gore surely must be misplaced, since the presidency is just a weak and impotent office without much influence anyway.  And I guess all that stuff about the "imperial presidency" we heard so much about over the last decade was pure fantasy; it turns out the office is so weak it barely has any purpose beyond the purely symbolic.  Who knew?

Uh, right. Obviously the president has enormous influence over foreign policy and civil liberties issues. Greenwald's disagreements with Obama in these areas arise not because Obama is helpless to act otherwise but, mainly, because the administration has substantively very different views. The problem is that left-wing critics like Greenwald have allowed their sense of betrayal in issue areas where Obama wields tremendous influence to bleed over into issue areas where he does not.

As Jonathan Bernstein argues:

More to the point, on the public option (which is presumably Greenwald's complaint, since as he might recall the actual, landmark health care bill did, as a matter of historic record, actually pass), well, the public option only had somewhere around 51, 52, or 53 votes in the Senate.  Oh, and that's for a very weak public option, something that the actual policy experts believed was largely inconsequential.  For better or worse, a "robust" public option didn't have the votes in the House, and certainly didn't have the votes in the Senate -- a strong public option had somewhere between 45 and 48 votes in the Senate, by my count.

Greenwald replies that the administration has leverage in the form of its fundraising apparatus and other points of political pressure. The trouble, though, is that the pressure goes both ways. Moderates who hail from right-leaning districts have an incentive to demonstrate independence from the administration. Picking a fight with them is as much a carrot as it is a stick. Greenwald cites as a positive example the GOP's move to strip Arlen Specter of his chairmanship in 2004. That did work, although subsequent efforts to hold Specter's feet to the fire resulted in Specter bolting the party and casting the decisive vote for the most important domestic reform in at least four decades. Likewise, Bill Clinton's effort to punish conservative Democrat Richard Shelby resulted in Shelby switching parties.

I don't agree with Greenwald's positions on foreign policy and civil liberties, but he does have a valid beef with Obama in these areas. But when he insists that Obama secretly opposed the public option and has never wanted more stimulus, in the face of overwhelming evidence that the administration pushed the Senate as far left as it would go on those bills, he is revealing himself as a fanatic.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/75752/greenwald-switches-methods