About a month ago, Drew Westen, an Emory psychology professor, had a fairly long, much-discussed New York Times piece that strongly resonated with many of President Obama’s liberal detractors. It also generated a fair amount of criticism from, among others, me.
Westen continues to defend his premise, though, and wrote another lengthy piece for CNN. Jonathan Bernstein notes a few of the problems with Westen’s latest effort, but there was a separate flaw that caught my eye.
…George W. Bush pushed through virtually every piece of legislation he proposed without ever having more than 52 senators on his side of the aisle. Like most modern presidents, Bush simply appealed over the heads of members of Congress if they wouldn’t move.
Obama’s apologists never address why Democrats require 60 votes in the Senate to pass legislation, but Republicans require only 51 — 50 in the case of the disastrous tax cuts that bankrupted our Treasury in the first place, without which we would never have had a trumped-up budget crisis.
It’s hard to overstate how wrong this is, and only reinforces the larger concerns about Westen’s thesis.
First, the notion that Congress approved “virtually every piece of legislation” Bush proposed isn’t even close to being accurate. The failed former president had a handful of legislative accomplishments — most notably, No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and the creation of a new cabinet agency — but these successes were largely on Democratic issues, expanded government, and came after the White House made all kinds of compromises (the kind of compromises Westen now believes Obama shouldn’t be making, and wouldn’t have to make if he told better “stories”). What’s more, they came in Bush’s first term, which was followed by an accomplishment-free second term. To argue that Bush batted 1.000 with Congress is silly.
Second, the idea that Bush racked up this non-existent record of accomplishments by occasionally appealing to the public when Congress balked is simply untrue. The only meaningful policy initiative Bush took to the electorate to rally support was his plan to privatize Social Security. If memory serves, the effort didn’t go well.
Third, as striking as this may seem, I get the sense Drew Westen is writing lengthy pieces for major media outlets about the presidency and the legislative process without understanding the basics of the reconciliation process. Look at that pulled quote again: “Obama’s apologists” can’t explain why Bush passed his failed tax policy with a simple majority, but Obama can’t do anything in the Senate unless measures get 60 votes.
Actually, “Obama’s apologists,” along with everyone else who understands the process, “address” this fairly easily. Bush and his Republican allies passed tax cuts through reconciliation — which meant the proposals couldn’t be filibustered. The end.
There are a variety of other problems with Westen’s latest piece, some of which Jon Chait flagged yesterday, but at this point, it’s increasingly difficult to take his critique seriously.