Institutions matter

Late Friday night, New York became the sixth state to make same-sex marriage legal, and given the state’s large population, the number of Americans able to take advantage of marriage equality laws has effectively doubled.

Success on this proposal wasn’t easy, and a lot of people deserve credit for making this happen. But New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), just six months into his first term, invested a great deal of energy into making the law a reality. It’s not at all an exaggeration to say the measure would have failed were it not for Cuomo’s leadership.

This, in turn, is generating quite a bit of national praise for the rookie governor, and Nate Silver lauded Cuomo for “setting a lofty goal, refusing to take no for an answer and using every tool at his disposal to achieve it.” Nate added, however, this is “a brand of leadership that many Democrats I speak with feel is lacking in President Obama.”

In response, Matt Yglesias’ point about institutions rings true.

Suppose that the New York State Senate operated according to the rules of the United States Senate and a bill failed unless it secured a 60 percent supermajority. What would people be saying about Andrew Cuomo now? Well, it seems to me that many people would be castigating his failed leadership. Instead of Michael Barbaro’s account of his behind-the-scenes leadership reading like a virtuoso performance it would be reading like a story of a failed inside game. The meeting with high-dollar pro-equality Republican donors would seem not savvy, but naive and weak.

Conversely, if the US Senate operated on a 50 vote rule, then both the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank bill would have gone further in advancing progressive priorities, there would have been more economic stimulus in the 111th Congress, the DREAM Act would have passed, and it’s conceivable that some kind of nationwide carbon pricing scheme would be in place.

Which is just to say that political institutions matter, a lot. Getting concurrent majorities in two legislative houses, as Cuomo did, is very hard. Getting a 60 percent supermajority is harder.

This, obviously, is not to take away from Cuomo’s inspiring success on marriage equality. He’s receiving great accolades, and as far as I’m concerned, he deserves them.

But to argue that Cuomo has demonstrated great leadership and President Obama has not is a mistake. Cuomo worked with a state Senate where a handful of moderate Republicans still exist and won a simple majority. The president has no such luxury — GOP moderates are all but extinct in Washington and a Senate that was designed to function by majority rule no longer does.

Indeed, facing the kind of obstructionism that has never existed in American history, Obama still managed to pass a Recovery Act, health care reform, Wall Street reform, student loan reform, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, New START, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the biggest overhaul of our food-safety laws in 70 years, new regulation of the credit card industry, new regulation of the tobacco industry, a national service bill, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, most sweeping land-protection act in 15 years, health care for 9/11 rescue workers, and the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices.

In several of these cases, success was by no means assured, but President Obama, to borrow a phrase, “set lofty goals, refused to take no for an answer, and used every tool at his disposal to achieve them.” He obviously could have achieved more if the Senate operated, as it used to, by majority rule, but it’s not up to the White House to dictate how the legislative branch conducts its business.

Regardless, if Cuomo deserves credit for advancing a tough bill through a difficult terrain, Obama deserves at least as much credit for his 2009 and 2010 achievements.