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Hullabaloo


Monday, August 05, 2013

 
Dear Ron Fournier: just passing laws does not make a President great. Passing good laws does.

by David Atkins

When asked why I spend so much time writing on a blog, one of my first responses is that political opinion journalism shouldn't be left to opinion journalists, especially those closest to powerful people. The perspective of thoughtful outsiders is important to highlight simple truths that often elude the elite opinion makers who walk the halls of power.

Among the most perpetually obtuse of those powerful opinion makers is Ron Fournier, formerly of the AP's Washington bureau and now of the National Journal. Largely in response to those like Greg Sargent, myself and many others who lay the blame for dysfunction in Washington at the hands of a radically obstructionist Republican Party, Fournier believes that the President could simply will his way into forcing legislation through, and that Presidents Clinton and Bush both forged a path crafting legislation through compromise. His response to the sensible notion that President Obama should stand his ground against further budget cuts is that it would be a failure to attempt to govern. Hence this sarcatstic tweet on Saturday.



Sargent ably deconstructs the silliness of that "green lantern" argument by noting that the President has already done all that can conceivably be done. The current GOP is far more extremist and obstructionist than previous opposition parties dating all the way back to the Civil War, and the President has seriously angered the progressive base on a range of issues but still gets nothing but hostility from the GOP.

But one point that hasn't been made often enough to the "both sides are to blame" pundits like Fournier is that simply passing legislation does not make a President great. Passing good legislation makes a President great. This is a crucial distinction that many pundits and Washington operatives fail to notice. Simply passing a budget isn't a win. Passing a good budget is a win.

No one but history buffs care about the Presidents who forged that awful compromises in the decades preceding the Civil War. We remember and care about Lincoln. Few care about the presidents of the 1920s, and what they may or may not have done to solve the ills of the day. We do care about FDR, in large part because he refused to pass bad legislation in order to compromise with those who destroyed the economy in the lead-up to the Depression. Where FDR did compromise with his racist Dixiecrat base to water down or kill good laws, he displayed weakness, not greatness. When compromising helps pass good laws with a few bitter pills for everyone, that's good governance. But when compromise creates bad laws, it's terrible.

Which brings us to Ron Fournier's example of Clintonian "leadership." Yes, it's true: after Republicans contemptibly derailed universal healthcare and swept to office on yet another wave of fear and resentment in 1994, Bill Clinton and corporate-friendly Democrats did compromise with Republicans on a large number of laws. Laws like NAFTA, Gramm-Leach-Bliley, welfare "reform", DOMA, and V-chips.

It would take a creature like Ron Fournier to believe that killing American manufacturing, deregulating Wall Street, enshrining discrimination by sexual orientation, permanently eliminating safety nets during an unprecedented boom, and wasting time with remote control prudery made Bill Clinton a great President. They didn't. Far from it. If anything made Bill Clinton a great President, it was his willingness to go toe-to-toe with Newt Gingrich to initiate a government shutdown rather than pass a horrible budget. That was Bill Clinton's shining moment in defense of America's well-being. By contrast, most of the laws he racked up by cooperating with Republicans constituted the greatest demerits of his Presidency.

It's important to note that while President Obama hasn't been hard enough on Wall Street, he did oversee the passage of Dodd Frank reforms. His predecessor deregulated Wall Street. One of those acts was divisive and partisan, while the other was a bipartisan celebration of goodwill. The divisive, partisan law was a good one, while the bipartisan bonhomie delivered awful results. The same goes for instituting versus killing DOMA, creating the ACA instead of pushing welfare reform, etc.

And if the President does manage to get his desperately sought Grand Bargain by cutting Social Security, Medicare and essential services enough to get some token concessions out of Republicans, it will not be seen by historians (or the next election's voters) as an act of courage or greatness. It will be seen as an act of weakness, corruption and betrayal.

It shouldn't take a political outsider on a blog to see that.


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