A paralyzing system

A PARALYZING SYSTEM…. David Roberts notes that much of the left has been dispirited as much of President Obama’s ambitions have “crash[ed] on the shoals of the status quo … and the status quo isn’t budging.” Kevin Drum adds that conservatives were thinking the same thing not too long ago.

They wanted a revolution, but instead they got NCLB. And a wimpy stem cell compromise. And Sarbanes-Oxley. And McCain-Feingold. And a huge Medicare expansion. And complete gridlock on Social Security.

Not exactly what they signed up for. The tax cuts were great, of course, but what about abortion and gay marriage and entitlement reform and slashing the size of government and ANWR and the Endangered Species Act and everything else on the conservative wish list? They got most of what they wanted on the national security front (missile defense, big Pentagon budget increases, a couple of nice wars), but on the domestic front most of them felt like Bush ended up delivering almost nothing.

It wasn’t quite that bad, of course. They did get the tax cuts, after all. And they got a new bankruptcy law and a bunch of right-wing judges. But for the most part, their domestic agenda crashed on the shoals of the status quo too. Washington DC is a tough place to get anything done.

It is, but I find the differences interesting. After all, Bush had a Republican Congress for most of his tenure, just as Obama has a Democratic Congress now. D.C. is tough place to get anything done, but it’s a heckuva lot easier when a president is working with allies running the Hill.

So, what stood in Bush’s way? There were, to be sure, some institutional hurdles. But more important was the realizations that Americans didn’t really support the conservative agenda, and only voted GOP because national security dominated the landscape, and Republicans were perceived (incorrectly) as more trustworthy on the issue. Bush and his allies could have pushed harder for more of the conservative wish-list, but there was no mandate, no public demand, and the very real likelihood of a public backlash (which, as it turns out, happened anyway in the face of war, scandal, corruption, and almost comical incompetence.)

Obama is finding that D.C. is tough place to get anything done for entirely different reasons. The White House agenda is popular, but his obstacles are almost entirely institutional hurdles — the Senate operating as if every bill demands a supermajority, the Kennedy/Byrd illnesses, and the prevalence of center-right Dems in both chambers who look askance at the progressive agenda and who the president has no real leverage over.