If I were a more autocratic boss, Tim Fernholz would be having a very bad day for his rather sanguine reaction to the news that Sen. Chris Dodd is retiring. Yes, Tim, it is a bad, and sad thing -- unless one's only interest is in "freeing up resources for other races" at the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.
Sen. Max Baucus and Sen. Harry Reid, Dec. 24, 2009. (AP Photo/Mannul Balce Ceneta)
"The most troublesome task of a reform president," Henry Adams wrote in his autobiography, is "to bring the Senate back to decency." President Barack Obama did not accomplish that task this year, far from it. But what he and other Democrats did accomplish this morning is something that eluded every reform president before him and is, in a sense, all the greater an accomplishment for the fact that the institution -- not just the Senate itself but the Washington culture that surrounds it -- was at its most indecent.
What President Barack Obama needs to do is .... No, let's try this again. The problem with Barack Obama is ....
Stop! I can't bear to read another column that starts like that, much less write one. As the administration's first year in office comes to an end, the most distinctive thing about it is the degree to which people who should long ago have outgrown Great Man theories of history remain transfixed by a single individual. Every success is interpreted as a measure of Obama's skills and priorities; every disappointment is read as a revelation of his excess caution, naiveté, or other flaws.
The very word "progressive" implies a linear view of social progress. We try to move forward, the bad guys try to take us backward. So it's not surprising that progressives have an equally straight-line assumption about what happens in legislative negotiations. We try to set the most ambitious goal possible, assuming that in the congressional process, things are likely to get steadily worse. Like labor negotiators, we try to go in with the strongest starting position, and at the end, decide whether the final result has gotten so bad that we'd rather have nothing.
For those of us who had a reasonably close view of the early months of the Clinton administration, certain parallels to the current political situation are eerie. One is this: The price of a landmark domestic accomplishment seems to involve turning next to the federal deficit, particularly reducing spending on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security -- aka "entitlements." In order to obtain the 50th vote on his 1993 budget reconciliation bill -- which created new programs such as direct student loans, and realigned federal spending and tax policy toward progressive goals -- President Bill Clinton had to promise the quixotic, self-important Democratic senator Bob Kerrey that he would create a commission on entitlement spending.