Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Dan Balz writes this column in today's Washington Post about whether Evan Bayh was overstating the degree of partisanship in Congress and whether, notwithstanding that, he should have stuck around to deal with the problem.

I don't think any of us have been alive long enough to know whether the first is true. Politics always seems at its worst when you are in the middle of it. It may be, though, that the existence of social media has made it more combative, for the old-style behind-the-scenes sausage making is no longer possible. Also, clever users of these media can create a "movement" in just a few hours, pushing positions to the extreme. Though politicians have become experts in using social media to run election campaigns, they have not yet figured out how to use these tools to help build bipartisan coalitions to govern.

And, on the second, we have no right to judge this gentleman on his personal decision. If he no longer wants to try to stay in Washington to work on the problem, there will be plenty of other candidates. No one is indispensable.

But I was struck by this quote, ""If I could create one job in the private sector by helping to grow a business, that would be one more than Congress has created in the last six months." Senator Bayh's statement is emblematic of an underlying philosophy of government that might be at the heart of the current partisanship. In this country, many people feel that it is really not the job of the government to be the job creator.

I think lots of people intuitively understand the Keynesian imperative to use federal fiscal policy during a recession in a counter-cyclical manner to boot-strap the economy. But there comes a point where the cost of doing so, and the burden it puts on future generations of taxpayers, becomes a political argument against further expansion along those lines. In my view, that is the tectonic fault line currently in Congress.

I don't dispute that nasty tactics are in use, by both parties. But I am suggesting that there is a legitimate public policy debate behind the discord.

Thus far, President Obama has not figured out how to bridge this gap. Bill Clinton did, after he lost the Congress to the Republicans. He moved their way politically and was able to build a bipartisan coalition on several issues. The first George Bush did likewise with the Democrats.

Obama does not model the behavior he asks Congress to employ. He calls for civility, but then he demonizes or rails against industries and people (banks, bankers, insurance companies, even Cambridge police officers.) Parts of his speeches are brilliant; but parts make him sound like a partisan legislator. He has never really run anything, and he is still getting his leadership legs. He has not figured out how to make his voice count for something in the Senate. There is thus no role model to provide coverage for moderate people in both parties who might be able to build the winning coalition.

A basic rule of negotiation is to give the other side something they can take home to their constituency. That is also an inherent characteristic of the republican form of government that comprises our Congress. Someone has to model that behavior. In these times, it has to be the President.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you that President Obama is behaving like a rookie President, but I think he deserves a little more slack given the catastrophic situation which he inherited, thus I am giving him a bit more time in my mind. I also believe the Republicans are exploiting this dysfunction by being the party of "no" to gain political advantage, therefore he can give them nothing they would be happy with, except to resign.
As far as people thinking it is not government's function to create jobs, the people who think that are people WITH jobs. Ask those without.
I worry that the Congress currently reflects the people - e.g. government should stay out of my life and not tax me, until I have a problem - then government should solve it for me! No wonder our representatives are gridlocked.


Anonymous said...

I don't think the Republicans are as monolithic as you imply, but I agree that it would take a lot of work to get several of them on board.

But, also, don't assume that the Democrats are unified either. The recent NLRB appointment was killed by the President's own party, not the Republicans.

Congress does broadly represent the public view in many ways. So it is a mistake to view opposition as inherently partisan: It often reflects underlying divides in the national psyche. The health care bill was in trouble in the Senate, even among the Democrats: That's why it became a "Christmas tree" of presents for the holdout Senators.

Anonymous said...

ps I couldn't resist this link, where Steven Pearlstein of the WaPo captures both our sentiments pretty well, I think:


Anonymous said...

Really? I've watched President Obama offer things over and over again to the Republicans in an attempt to win even one Republican vote for reform.

He waited for Sen. Baucus to go through months of talks with the Republicans on his committee that went no where.

Progressives badly wanted a strong public option open to anyone and tied to Medicare reimbursement rates. That was gradually watered down and then jettisoned altogether in an attempt to win even a handful of Republican votes.

Obama made compromises with groups that have previously helped Republicans killed reform -- like Pharma, the AHA, and the AMA -- to persuade them to hold their fire.

He forced the unions to accept taxes on their members' benefits -- something they had been completely against.

Even before those compromises, Obama's plan is no radical government takeover. It's not that different from the plan that Sen. Bob Dole was talking about back in 1993.

And yet after all of these attempts to compromise and offer places to find middle ground, Republicans have not given an inch. You can't with negotiate with people who have no intention of trying to make an agreement under any circumstance.

Anonymous said...

So, I guess you have just declared defeat. What's your plan now? You can play the victim over and over, but it doesn't get the job done.

(BTW, to say this -- "He forced the unions to accept taxes on their members' benefits -- something they had been completely against." -- in light of the giveaway that he then negotiated to exempt union worker health plans from the 'Cadillac' tax seems a bit inaccurate.)

As I noted above, I am not denying bad behavior. I am saying that there has to be a more sophisticated view as to how to build a coalition.

Anonymous said...

Who is declaring defeat? I'm still hopeful that the Democrats will find a way to pass a bill in the next few weeks. That will be a big step forward.

I'm just dissenting from your view that Obama has failed to model an attempt to find middle ground and compromise.

Contrast that responsible negotiation with the behavior of the other side.

One small but telling example...

When Obama responded to Republican demands for open debate on the proposals on C-SPAN and agreed to schedule next week's summit -- even though there have been countless hours of committee testimony and floor debate on TV already -- House GOP Leader John Boehner issued a lit of demands, including the demand that Obama post a detailed proposal online 72 hours before the event.

Obama agreed to put his plan online. Progress, right? Not in this environment.

Now Boehner is attacking Obama for not walking in with a blank piece of paper.

No wonder people are frustrated and confused. And it's bewildering to see smart observers like you claim that Obama "negotiated to exempt union health plans" from getting tax. Surely you're aware that the exemption would have been temporary and that taxes on union members' benefits would in fact be phased in within 7 years.

The unions won a delay in taking the medicine, but ultimately they have to swallow the bitter pill of taxes on workers' benefits, while surrendering on their key goal of establishing a public option open to anyone with rates set by Medicare.

Anonymous said...

"Surely you're aware that the exemption would have been temporary and that taxes on union members' benefits would in fact be phased in within 7 years."

Well, tell that to the non-union workers. What kind of taxation policy is based on whether you are a union member or not? It was that kind of kowtowing that set the stage for Scott Brown to win the MA Senate race.

Anonymous said...

Transferred from Facebook:

Edward: How do you figure that the President's rhetoric is at least as large a part of the problem as the opposition's obstinance to propose a workable solution? Or am I misreading you? On the one hand we've got an administration at least attempting to address jobs and the health care crisis in this country. And on the other hand, we've got a party content with scoring points with their increasingly extremist base by suggesting the President's policies are "socialist".

Bayh can say what he wants about his resignation, but it's a weak move in my opinion. When the going got tough, Evan Bayh got going.

me: I'm not taking sides or assigning relative magnitudes. I'm just saying that the best leaders figure out how to make it possible for the other side to agree. It is clear that he has not yet figured out how to do that. I hope he can.

Anonymous said...

Where is the evidence showing that voters were mad that, cops, fire fighters and teachers got time to renegotiate their benefits to take the tax into account?

This NY Times piece -- -- shows that many voters in Mass supported Brown because they were furious over the agreement to tax benefits -- not because they were angry that unions negotiated a compromise to delay the tax.

Anonymous said...

The point is that they were upset about all the special deals.

John Greenbaum said...

Paul, you're right, the president's inexperience is clearly hampering his ability to "get things done". Building consensus is not about being right when the opposition is wrong, it is about finding and cultivating that delicate middle ground. I think that the democrats were overly enthralled with their majority and at the urging of their leadership (Ms. Pelosi in particular) completely closed out the republicans and any adgenda that was inconsistent with their aspirations for a public option. That some senators want out of this environment is no suprise but it reflects on their own situation not on the system in which they participate.

Anonymous said...

Is this blog about running a hospital or spreading your political views?

Anonymous said...

This blog is about a variety of topics, ranging from running a hospital to coaching soccer! Pick the parts you like, and don't read the rest.

Anonymous said...

Ah, but running a hospital these days is inextricably tied up with politics, therefore the Prez' ability to accomplish his agenda is legit fodder.....


Chris said...

As a young American and part of an overwhelming group of voters that helped Obama get into the White House last year, I appreciate Mr Levy's consideration of future tax payers. While our government continues to spend and spend without raising taxes "a single dime," the interest keeps building on the massive deficit that I will be paying back. It seems to be a rarely discussed matter...

Anonymous said...

Transferred from Facebook:

Edward (continued from above); I hope he can too, but I have my doubts that it's possible in the current climate. The two sides can't even agree on a baseline for reality.

---Obama: GOP, please join me to discuss issues related to health care and the economy. Bring your best solutions with you.

---GOP: We can't. Any amicable discussion with you will be seen by our extremist base as conciliation to socialism. Our reality dictates that not only can we not agree with your policies, we can't even recognize your legitimacy because you weren't born here and ACORN stole the election.

Stephen: I think it is very difficult if not impossible to get the other side to agree to your points if from the get go your attitude is sit down and shut up! Not only did they ignore the Republican suggestions, they locked them out of the meetings! That is not bipartisanship and it is not the way to get agreement from two sides.

Francine: It's also difficult to engage in any time of discussion between sides when the goal is not to actually pass any legislation but to make the other side look bad. A new Wash Post/ABC news poll showed that 8 in 10 people surveyed opposed the supreme court ruling on corporations being considered individuals in terms of campaign contributions but Mitch McConnell and crew indicated that they would oppose any attempt to set limits in congress. I think this also shows how out of touch the republicans are with their individual constituents.

Margie: As I said on my blog posting on Bayh, Bayh's solution to excessive partisanship - taking a hike - is sure to worsen it. It is exasperating!

Alex: Why hold Bayh to a higher standard than we would hold those in our workforce who are not elected officials. The guy hates his job. I respect the decision of anyone who hates what they're doing to choose to do something else. And, really, what person without a serious personality disorder WOULD NOT hate being in congress these days?

Margie: To paraphrase something David Broder once wrote about presidential candidates, anyone who willing to do what it takes to run for the office should be Constitutionally barred from holding the office. A sad commentary.

Jerry: The problem is that with a major mid-term election coming, neither side wants to give the other ammunition for the campaign. A bipartisan solution doesn't serve the best interests of either party even though it may serve the best interests of the people of this country. Its all about retaining power or regaining it.
I don't think anything will get accomplished until after the mid-terms. Hopefully the Republicans will be the slim majority in one of the chambers of Congress (not both). With power split it should make it difficult for both parties to grandstand and hopefully they can begii

Anonymous said...

Read Bayh's op-ed in the NYTimes for his suggestions on how to change things for the better. I don't have the link, but it was Saturday 2/20.

ps I have been in his position where you are miserable but powerless. Sometimes all you can do is walk away for your own sanity.


Anonymous said...

As I said at the start,I don't think any of us have a right to judge him for his decision.