It's starting to look like there's a pattern when a Democrat becomes president: The president's party starts with huge majorities in Congress. He puts forward an agenda, one that seems modest by progressive standards. Nonetheless, the agenda meets endless trouble, much of it from the president's own party, and he bleeds momentum and political capital.
It's the story of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and, it seems likely, of Barack Obama.
And yet, while the pattern looks identical from a distance, up close the three presidencies are actually very different. The details tell the story of a transformation in American politics and society since the 1970s, one that is still unresolved.
Carter and Clinton were both outsiders who ran against Washington, staffed their administrations with newcomers, and stumbled in trying to maneuver through the privileges, protocols, and personalities of the permanent government -- which includes not just the grandees of Congress but lobbyists, executive-branch officials, and much of the media establishment. In turn, they were met with dripping contempt. As Washington Post columnist David Broder said of Clinton, quoted by journalist/hostess Sally Quinn, "He came in here and he trashed the place ... and it's not his place."
In both cases, arrogance met arrogance: a White House that didn't understand Congress, and congressional Democrats who never felt they had even a small stake in whether the president succeeded or failed. Their attitude was that they'd been there before the president, and they would be there long after. (Except that, with the elections of 1980 and 1994, many of them weren't.)
There was every reason to expect that this time it would be different. Obama may not have been master of the Senate, but he did at least know the institution, and recent accounts of the campaign have revealed that he was much more the insider's favorite than was known. He staffed his White House with congressional veterans, led by Rahm Emanuel. More important, Hill Democrats who had spent more than a decade in a state almost approaching internal exile had to appreciate that their fates and those of the president were intertwined.
Apparently they didn't. From the most powerful committee chairs to the most recently elected, congressional Democrats quibbled with and opposed Obama on health reform, climate change, financial regulation, and economic stimulus. The slightest risk of losing re-election sent them into a tizzy. And the White House has tiptoed gently around those fears. This is a clash not of arrogance but of mutual timidity.
There's been a lot of nostalgia recently about legislative giants of an earlier era -- retiring Sen. Evan Bayh, dull and cautious, compares unfavorably to his father, Sen. Birch Bayh, who in the same span of three terms compiled a record of both accomplishments and ambitious but failed crusades. The giants of past decades were not necessarily smarter or better people. What's different is that those men (in the mid-1970s, there was not one woman in the Senate) had no hesitation about their entitlement to rule. They never went to town meetings where constituents had read pending legislation on the Internet and asked detailed questions about Section 547 -- indeed they rarely went home at all. Many of them barely worried about re-election.
Today we'd welcome the arrogance and insularity of those giants, who bravely cast unpopular votes. Progressives have been asking both legislators and the president to be more arrogant, to exercise the raw power of the majority without hesitation. But how much real democracy would we have to give up to re-create the environment? Today as voters, we can read legislation, find the backroom deals, make our own judgments, and know in real time how members vote. Congress and the White House are also coming gradually closer to looking like America. With accountability and transparency come legislators who are going to be a little less sure of themselves, a little more worried about each move. It's hard to separate the arrogant bravery of the giants of the past from the isolated white-male entitlement that produced it.
The Republicans, of course, still have a good dose of that sense of entitlement to rule -- and further, they point it all in one direction. This creates an asymmetry of power. Democrats have to find a way to govern in this new era, not by imitating either the past or the Republicans but by fully embracing the transparency and accountability of the new political world.