Memories of a bygone era

MEMORIES OF A BYGONE ERA… This argument comes up from time to time, and it’s always frustrating to see. Megan McArdle is the latest, but by no means the first.

I’m reliably informed that the Democrats think they’re better off doing this alone than not doing it at all, and so it has to pass. If so, it will be the first time in history that I can think of that a single party passed anything of this size — certainly not a major new entitlement. Medicare and Social Security both had considerable Republican votes, something I don’t see this time around.

About a month ago, Michael Goldfarb made the same argument — landmark progressive legislation used to get Republican votes. “Maybe President Obama should stop wee-weeing and start trying to get some Republican support for his bill — as both Johnson and FDR successfully did. Getting a bill like this is not, in fact, always messy,” Goldfarb said.

For McArdle and Goldfarb, Republican hostility for reform points to a Democratic failure — if the health care proposals had more merit, they’d have GOP supporters. After all, just look at all the moderate Republicans who backed Social Security and Medicare.

This is nonsense. Scott Lemieux had a good item on this yesterday.

Noting that Medicare and Social Security had significant Republican support is about is relevant as noting that prior to 1992 it was extremely unusual for a Democrat to win the White House without carrying Mississippi. The rather obvious difference with the current situation and the laws that McArdle cites is that parties have become aligned ideologically. Of course Medicare and Social Security had lots of Republican support: There were lots of northern liberal Republicans in Congress, whose support was often needed to counterbalance the reactionary segregationists in the Democratic caucus. In the current context, conversely, the liberal northern Republican is virtually extinct, and the few remaining ones are 1) subject to much stronger party discipline than was the case in 1937 or 1965, and 2) are more heterodox on social than fiscal matters. So thinking that the same kind of legislative coalition was viable would be silly.

Given how obvious this is, I cringe a little every time I read the complaint from the right. FDR and LBJ governed during a time when moderate and center-left Republicans were still fairly common. Neither Democratic president had trouble finding sensible GOP lawmakers who were anxious to work on progressive policy goals. President Obama, however, is stuck trying to find common ground with a right-wing reactionary party that not only opposes common-sense reform measures, but is running a scorched-earth campaign to destroy his presidency.

Harold Meyerson recently explained, “[B]ipartisanship ain’t what it used to be, and for one fundamental reason: Republicans ain’t what they used to be. It’s true that there was considerable Republican congressional support, back in the day, for Social Security and Medicare. But in the ’30s, there were progressive Republicans who stood to the left of the Democrats…. Today, no such Republicans exist.”

Nicholas Beaudrot put it this way: “[I]t’s simply not meaningful to compare the present circumstances to those faced by Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt when it comes to bipartisanship…. Barack Obama faces partisan polarization not seen since Woodrow Wilson was President.”

Stepping back, it’s certainly possible that McArdle and Goldfarb are aware of this. Indeed, the talking point, such that it is, likely intends to put some kind of historical asterisk next to health care reform, should it ever pass. Sure, they’ll say, Obama and Dems delivered, but it doesn’t really count since Republicans voted against it. This is about undermining the historic victory, if it happens — success isn’t success unless it’s bipartisan success.

I tend to think voters will know better. For the typical American family, reform would be judged on its efficacy, not on its ability to clear legislative procedural hurdles and satisfy the demands of opponents.