New York’s passage of same-sex marriage legislation Friday was immediately followed by praise for Governor Andrew Cuomo’s leadership and his ability to assemble a coalition of Republican and Democratic lawmakers. The New York Times ran a glowing account of his maneuvering, highlighting his willingness to define a goal, stick to it, and use every method available to reach it. Analyzing the situation, Nate Silver writes that Cuomo’s brand of leadership is very much “a brand of leadership that many Democrats I speak with feel is lacking in President Obama.” Matthew Yglesias responds with a caveat:
I would say that the bigger difference isn’t so much about the leadership style as it is that Cuomo won. Suppose that the New York State Senate operated according to the rules of the United States Senate and a bill failed unless it secured a 60 percent supermajority. What would people be saying about Andrew Cuomo now? Well, it seems to me that many people would be castigating his failed leadership.
To extend the counter-factual, imagine a United States Senate with the rules of its New York counterpart in the 111th Congress. Without the constant threat of a Republican filibuster making a supermajority necessary for most legislation, North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan becomes the marginal vote in February 2009, and Barack Obama can safely ignore the moderate Republicans (Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and Arlen Specter) as well as the most conservative Democrats (Ben Nelson, Evan Bayh and Blanche Lincoln). Congress passes a $1 trillion stimulus, and we hail Obama’s impressive leadership.
Repeat for each major initiative in the 111th Congress. With Republicans, Blue Dogs and Joe Lieberman no longer needed to pass health care, reform passes in August 2009; Obama is hailed as visionary for pushing through the public option. Financial reform avoids a similar hurdle; the president signs a bill that combines tough regulations with powerful regulators. In addition, despite their division on comprehensive immigration reform and climate change, Democrats muster enough unity to pass the DREAM Act and a modest tax on emissions. Democrats also pass the Employee Free Choice Act, with Vice President Joe Biden as the deciding vote on the latter.
There’s no doubt that Andrew Cuomo exercised impressive leadership on gay marriage, but institutional rules matter too, and this story would have been very different had Cuomo faced a supermajority requirement in the New York state Senate. The same goes for political barriers. As the Times details, conservative activists failed to mobilize against this push for same-sex marriage: The Catholic Church was nearly absent from the fight; and Senate leadership was mostly hands off, leaving GOP lawmakers to their own devices. The opposite has been true for the Obama administration. In addition to motivated conservative activists, the administration faced a highly disciplined Republican minority, led by John Boehner in the House and Mitch McConnell in the Senate. Without that, the administration could have been much stronger on everything from health care to economic relief.