The most annoying and ultimately destructive defense of President Obama’s legislative record is to constantly cite the filibuster myth. It is the argument that poor weak Obama couldn’t do anything without 60 votes in the Senate. The latest in a long line of examples comes from Jonathan Chait’s criticism of Cornel West.
But West, and much of the American left, doesn’t merely believe that. It also believes that a world where Obama can govern without constraints is the actual world we live in, or, at least, a reasonable approximation thereof. More inspiring speeches, harder fighting, or some other unspecified application of willpower is all it would take to have forced Olympia Snowe to vote for a larger stimulus or Scott Brown to go along with tougher financial regulation. Because they cannot conceive of any limits to Obama’s power, betrayal and haplessness are the only causes they can imagine for their distress. (West: “What I hear is that, ‘[Obama] pimped us.’ I heard that a zillion times. ‘He pimped us, brother West.’”)
While people often overstate the power of the Presidency, continuing to pretend the filibuster was an insurmountable hurdle is just plain silly. As we saw just last year when Democrats changed the rules regarding executive nominees, a simple majority of senators can easily amend or completely eliminate this minor procedural issue.
I’m not upset Obama couldn’t get Snowe to play nice — I’m disappointed he actively refused to go around her. For example Democrats could have used reconciliation to adopt a larger stimulus with only a simple majority, or just eliminated the filibuster. This is exactly what George W. Bush did to get his tax cut when a Senate minority tried to stand in the way.
While House Republicans are currently a real impediment, from 2009-2010 the Republicans were not the problem, because they were a minority with no actual power. The problem was that Democrats had a majority but actively refused to use it. As a result, the blame for that time rests entirely with them.
Sadly, nothing will improve next time Democrats win back a majority if writers like Chait make it clear they will always find excuses so Democrats are never held accountable for their choices.