It went a little under the radar, but the Washington Post’s long Sunday feature was an excellent look at the forces driving Republicans to intransigence on the debt deal. In fact, it’s worth reading the story as somethng of a companion piece to Drew Westen’s long op-ed in the Sunday New York Times. Westen, a political consultant, blames President Obama’s political troubles on a failure of rhetoric. If Obama had given better speeches or “connected” with the American poeple, then his administration would have stood a better chance against an intransigent and right-wing Republican Party.
As John Sides points out at The Monkey Cage, this is a massive overestimation of rhetoric’s power to shape the public narrative, and it is a poor analysis of the actual constraints faced by the president of the United States. As Sides puts it, “We can learn little about Barack Obama’s presidency from 3,000 words about speeches never given and the alleged character flaws implied therefore. Presidents are embedded in a political system that is full of other actors who themselves have agency, who shape outcomes, and who[m] the president cannot control, least of all by telling stories.”
The Washington Post feature acts a great rebuttal to Westen’s op-ed if only because it details the extent to which this month’s debt deal is a product of political events that were largely out of the president’s control. In last year’s Congressional elections, on the strength of their right wing, Republicans won a large and unprecedented majority in the House of Representatives, which had important implications for 2011’s budget fights.
To wit, the House would have a huge number of GOP members who fell on the far right of their caucus, and who were most interested in sharp budget cuts. Here’s how the Washington Post describes it:
Rep. John Boehner (Ohio), the incoming House speaker who also had worked hard on behalf of many candidates, quickly grasped the potential dilemma posed by eighty-seven newcomers with steep expectations. The House was now stocked with people who had little interest in rubber-stamping another debt-limit increase.
“I’ve made it pretty clear to them that as we get into next year, it’s pretty clear that Congress is going to have to deal with” the debt limit, Boehner told reporters on Nov. 19. “We’re going to have to deal with it as adults. Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations, and we have obligations on our part.”
Moreover, because of their ideological fervor and stated opposition to raising the debt ceiling, these members would wield a tremendous amount of leverage, both within their caucus and in negotiations with Democrats and the White House. And this is exactly what happened: by occupying a powerful place within the GOP majority, Tea Partiers could exercise an effective veto on actions by the entire Republican caucus. In effect, this meant that Tea Partyers could exercise a veto over Congress as a whole, since the Constitution mandates agreement by both chambers in order for a bill to become a law.
I’ve said this before, but any political analysis of the last several months needs to begin with November 2010. Yes, Obama could have been a better negotiator; Republican leverage over the debt ceiling was a product of the midterm elections. Insofar as there’s any lesson to learn, it’s this: liberals need to worry less about narratives, and more about winning elections.