The Corner

A Reply to Jonathan Chait

Jonathan Chait is irritated with me for having pointed out the likely practical consequences of some advice that he gave the Democratic party yesterday morning: those being, a) that if he wishes to preserve his gains, President Obama will now have to become what the less literate observers of the constitutional scene term an “obstructionist,” and b) that this is rather amusing given how willing the Left has been to describe Republicans who refused to agree with the president in such terms. In the course of my response, I praised Chait for his political advice, which I called “first rate,” but I wondered aloud why Democratic intransigence was newly acceptable while Republican intransigence was not. Progressives have screamed bloody murder, I noted, when the House has stood fast in the face of pressure from the White House and the Senate. And yet here we have a progressive writer conceding that Obama, and maybe the next Democratic president, will have no choice but to block Republicans for the foreseeable future. For having offered this critique, Chait suggests that I cannot read and that I should drop one of my middle initials.

Engaging a writer as Chait is, his rebuttal seems to rest upon an entirely questionable presumption: To wit, that Republicans were in some way out of line for playing hardball when they controlled only the House and that, in consequence, my characterization of their behavior as legitimate obstructionism was unfair. I reject this wholly, as should any right-thinking person. As I argued last year, the Republican party was entirely within its rights to use its position within the House to try to stop or to change government policy. That, as the Federalist Papers make abundantly clear, is why the House is there and why it enjoys the power of the purse. Sure, as a matter of practical politics, I opposed the attempt. Why? Because I did not believe that the GOP could win the play. (Rather obviously, it did not.) But it had every right to try, and it was by no means historically anomalous in having done so. I also noted that when progressives such as Chait pretend that House Republicans were engaging in “hostage taking” for doing their jobs, they are taking aim at the country’s system of government itself.

Pushing back against my criticism of his reaction to last year’s fight, Chait writes that:

The 2013 column did not argue that Republicans had some moral obligation to submit to Obama’s agenda. The contention of that column was that Republicans were not willing to settle for a mere stalemate and were instead using extraordinary tactics to force Obama to accept their terms. The tactics I referred to included shutting down the government, threatening to default on the debt and trigger a potential worldwide economic meltdown, and blocking any appointments unless the laws those appointees carried out had changed.

There is so much that is wrong here. First, exactly why the House was to blame for shutting down the government but Harry Reid and Barack Obama were not is never explained. The shutdown happened because all three entities refused to agree to a plan. That’s what happens in a divided system. Is there perhaps something different about Republican Houses that renders as unacceptable their willingness to use their limited power? (It seems that Chait has some extremely screwy theories about what constitutes a legitimate mandate, so perhaps he thinks there is.)

Second, it is never outlined why Obama’s intention to use veto threats to change the content of future Republican-drafted legislation is less egregious than the House’s refusal to sign off on Senate-drafted and Obama-endorsed legislation in the past. Instead, it’s just declared as if it were self-evident.

Finally, Chait seems to presume that there will be no shenanigans or brinksmanship from a newly defensive Obama White House, but that it will instead sit respectfully within the system, never digging in or causing problems. This an extremely peculiar supposition given that, as I write, the chastened President of the United States is not only threatening to unilaterally rewrite the nation’s immigration laws, but is making no secret whatsoever of the fact that his doing so would be an attempt to force Congress to pass legislation that it does not want to pass.

All in all, if you presume a) that Chait’s “obstruct!” advice to Obama should be seen in the best possible light, thereby stripping it of its force; b) that his previous column criticizing the House for obstructionism should be regarded as a serious constitutional critique and not as a childish temper tantrum, and c) that the results on Tuesday have left President Obama as the undisputed channel of the American majority, then you will like his contribution this morning. If you do not presume these things, however, then you will likely see the reaction for what it is: an impressive piece of partisan post-rationalization, decorated with insecure-albeit-amusing ad hominem attacks on somebody who noticed the ruse. On Twitter, Chait tells his followers this morning that if they are “tired of political analysis and want to read some takedowns, I have ‘em.” Never were truer words spoken.

 

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