During Obama’s presidency, a critique emerged that, if only he tried hard enough, he could be more successful in enacting the Democratic agenda. Brendan Nyhan famously labeled this the “Green Lantern theory of the presidency.”
According to Brendan Nyhan, the Dartmouth political scientist who coined the term, the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency is “the belief that the president can achieve any political or policy objective if only he tries hard enough or uses the right tactics.” In other words, the American president is functionally all-powerful, and whenever he can’t get something done, it’s because he’s not trying hard enough, or not trying smart enough.
Nyhan further separates it into two variants: “the Reagan version of the Green Lantern Theory and the LBJ version of the Green Lantern Theory.” The Reagan version, he says, holds that “if you only communicate well enough the public will rally to your side.” The LBJ version says that “if the president only tried harder to win over congress they would vote through his legislative agenda.” In both cases, Nyhan argues, “we’ve been sold a false bill of goods.”
That theory was embraced by both Obama’s critics on the left and most of the mainstream media. For the latter, it became the basis of their obsession with bothsiderism. Any failures of Obama to successfully negotiate with Republicans were explained by a lack of compromise on both sides.
None of that took into consideration the fact that, on the day of Obama’s inauguration, Republicans settled on a policy of total obstruction. Their position was that, no matter the issue or the proposed solution, they would vote as a block against it.
We are now witnessing how far Republicans are willing to go with that level of intransigence in their refusal to hold Donald Trump accountable. Senate Republicans will not only refuse to hear from witnesses, they will vote to exonerate the most corrupt president in this country’s history.
While the Green Lantern theory was initially tied to the presidency, we’re already watching it be applied to congressional Democrats. For example, take a look at how Dana Bash employs it in a question to Senator Amy Klobuchar.
A preview of the questions we're likely to see from DC press about outcome of trial. pic.twitter.com/4A5xvlH3tm
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) January 30, 2020
As Josh Marshall wrote, “there’s always a strong tendency to take consistent and insistent misbehavior as a baseline.” So because Republicans have now become the party of intransigence, that is the new norm and gets a pass when it comes to accountability. The burden is placed on Democrats to conjure up some magic trick to stop Republicans from employing a strategy that has worked marvelously for them—partly because the media fails to identify the source of the problem.
Here is how an NPR affiliate reported on the fact that Republicans are poised to refuse to hear from witnesses in the Senate trial. They suggest that “Democrats may have fallen short,” not that Republicans are intent on covering up the facts.
Democrats may have fallen short of securing the votes needed to call witnesses in the impeachment trial.
— Here & Now (@hereandnow) January 31, 2020
Todd Purdum applies the Green Lantern theory to Representative Adam Schiff in a piece titled, “Democrats Never Found Their Hero.”
Since Election Night 2016, Democrats have been searching for a savior, no matter the party or rank of the individual…
Now, with the defendant’s foregone acquittal in sight as soon as tomorrow, it’s all come down to Schiff, the terminally earnest chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Schiff’s powers, while formidable, have proved just as un-super as everyone else’s in the near-lockstep partisan loyalty that fear of Trump has produced.
While Purdum at least acknowledged the “near-lockstep partisan loyalty” of Republicans, his point is not about how they are putting party over country in defending the most corrupt president in this country’s history. Instead, he focused on the fact that Schiff and the House managers failed to break through a wall that Mitch McConnell ensured would be impenetrable.
Perhaps Purdum actually knows some Democrats who were looking for a savior. But they won’t be found among the ranks of the people who called their Senators demanding witnesses, nor will you find them among these folks.
You keep asking when people are taking to the streets.
— Red T Raccoon (@RedTRaccoon) January 29, 2020
— Peter Morley (@morethanmySLE) January 29, 2020
All of those people have accurately diagnosed the problem. It doesn’t lie with the lack of magical powers on the part of Democrats. Instead, it is the way that Republicans have determined to march in lock-step to defend the indefensible.