The NYT Should Be Ashamed of Itself

…for printing yet another round of nonsense from Drew Westen. John Sides demolishes the public opinion and voters side of things completely, so I won’t talk about that, but I can’t less this pass. Westen:

Democrats on the other hand react so strongly against taking “marching orders” that they can scarcely stay on message even if their political lives depend on it (which they often do). Whether because he wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do or because he took the laissez-faire attitude toward leadership that bedevils the Democratic Party, President Obama let a Democratic Congress craft his signature legislation on health care. The result was a patchwork quilt that took 15 months to sew, and was stitched so sloppily that it left the average American cold.

To begin with…I don’t know why it bothers me so much that Westen gets the basic fact here wrong, but this is the second time I’ve noticed him saying that it took 15 months for ACA to pass. In fact, ACA passed in March 2010, which was 14 months after Obama took office (not 15) — and  the last time I noticed this whopper I think I was generous in dating the beginning of the health care push to right after the stimulus was passed, which means it took 13 months. I guess I should be happy; at least this time he didn’t use as a comparison the idea that Dodd-Frank passed in record time (when in fact Dodd-Frank took the same 13 months as ACA).

So, fine, Westen can’t count as high as 15.  13 months was still a long time, and hey, it felt like 15 months, right?

But what about the rest of what he’s claiming, that Obama “let” Congress write the health care law. Westen needs to get a good pocket copy of the Constitution, or at least watch I’m Just a Bill a few dozen times: presidents don’t get to write laws themselves without Congress’s participation. That was true for Lyndon Johnson, it was true for Bill Clinton, and it was true for Republican presidents, too. And no, George W. Bush didn’t always get his way with Congressional Republicans.

Anyway, ACA didn’t take 13 months because Obama wasn’t involved (in fact, the White House was heavily involved throughout), or even for the most part because Congressional Democrats would not stick with him — after all, when it mattered all 60 Democratic Senators voted for the bill. It took over a year because major legislation is really complicated and, when you care about the results, it takes time to get it right. Now, I’ve argued that they could have accelerated their pace by a few weeks, mostly in fall 2009, and the “gang of six” negotiations did slow things down somewhat, although not nearly as much as legend has it. Realistically, I think something like 8 months would have been vaguely possible but well above par.

Never mind any of that, however, because Westen’s claim — that the lengthy debate and, I think he’s saying, poor legislative crafting are responsible for ACA’s lousy public opinion results. That’s certainly not true. How do I know? Because ACA became unpopular very early in the game, with anti- passing pro- in July 2009. It’s not possible that the lengthy process caused trouble in the polls because the trouble came first; and it’s highly unlikely that anything in particular about the legislation caused it’s unpopularity since no one knew what was going to be in the final law back then. (If passing laws quickly made them popular, then the Obama stimulus should have been very popular — and TARP should be even more wildly popular).

Or perhaps Westen thinks that it’s the “stitched so poorly” portion that is the problem. I have no idea what that means, however. Is the problem that it was passed using reconciliation? Can’t be that, since it was already unpopular. Is it that it includes a variety of cost-saving ideas in addition to the exchanges? Is it because of the student loan reforms included in the final reconciliation bill? No one even knows about those things, so that can’t be the case. I can’t find even a little hint of what he doesn’t like about the law might help make sense of his complaint.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.