In the wake of a spate of recent legislative victories during the post-November 2 lame-duck session of the 111th Congress, including Senate ratification of START, the repeal of DADT (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell), an extension of unemployment benefits and of the Bush-era tax cuts, pundits were quick to proclaim the rebirth of the Obama presidency. “A politically rejuvenated” president was said to be enjoying his holiday break, fresh off his legislative “wins”.
At the risk of sounding Scrooge-like during the holiday season, let me suggest that these “wins” signify no resurgence of the Obama presidency whatsoever. Instead they are a reminder of the limits on presidential power. Consider the Senate’s ratification of START, the strategic arms treaty with Russia that will lower the number of nuclear war heads both nations possess by a modest amount and, more importantly, will reinstate inspection procedures first implemented when the original START treaty was negotiated by President Reagan and signed by his successor President George H. W. Bush more than a decade ago.
Let’s be clear: this treaty was always going to pass the Senate for the simple reason that the alternative – allowing a lengthy lapse of inspections – was unacceptable to almost all parties. As we heard ad nauseum from leading Democrats for weeks, the treaty had the backing of every former Republican Secretary of State, arms control experts, military leaders and, not incidentally, my Mom (who knows a thing or two about unannounced inspections). The only question was on whose terms would ratification take place, and in which Senate session – the 111th or the 112th? To be sure, historically there has always been a bloc of conservative Republicans who oppose negotiating with the Russians/Soviet Union in principle, and thus who will vote against almost all arms control treaties. But they rarely have the votes to block arms control treaties, and certainly did not this time around. Remember, for ratification to occur the Constitution mandates that treaties must get the votes of 2/3 of the senators present. This means that if all 58 current Senate Democrats (including Lieberman and Sanders) supported the treaty, ratification in the full Senate would still require 9 Republican aye votes. If we utilize a simple spatial model in which Senators are arrayed in a single ideological line, from Left (most liberal) to Right (most conservative), the 67th and most pivotal vote was likely to come from among a bloc of moderate Republicans, encompassing Dick Lugar, Kit Bond, Judd Gregg, Bob Bennett, Thad Cochran and Lamar Alexander. (Although Mark Kirk falls within this ideological grouping, I don’t include him because of his sparse voting record since he joined the Senate last month).
That is, our simple spatial voting model would suggest that any resolution in support of ratification would have to address the interests of these pivotal senators. And that is precisely what happened. The Senate ratified the treaty by a vote of 71-26. All Democrats voted in favor of the treaty, as did 13 Republicans, including five of the six “swing” Senators. (Bond did not vote.) The other Republican supporters included Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Susan Collins of Maine, George Voinovich of Ohio, Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Scott Brown of Massachusetts. Of these, Brown, Snowe, Murkowski and Collins are located to the ideological left of our pivotal group of six senators, and thus under our simple model were expected to support the treaty. Voinovich, Bennett and Gregg, meanwhile, are stepping down after the end of this session and thus were free to vote their “conscience.”
This leaves Isakson, Corker, Alexander, Johanns, Lugar, and Cochran’s votes to explain. In looking more closely at the actual vote, we can see that almost all of them did, in fact, gain concessions in return for their support. Most notably, the resolution in support of the treaty was largely drafted not by the majority Democrats, but instead by Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations committee. And that resolution included language designed to win the support of wavering Republicans, including a provision stating that the treaty doesn’t infringe upon U.S. missile defense development and deployment. Both Corker and Alexander voted in favor of the treaty after receiving assurance that additional money would be appropriated for the modernization of the nation’s nuclear weapons programs. Not coincidentally, the Oak Ridge nuclear facility that would benefit from the additional money is located in Tennessee – the state Corker and Alexander represent. Johanns’ support came after several amendments he cosponsored were approved by the Senate, including provisions requiring an annual report certifying the implementation of a program designed to modernize the United States’ nuclear weapons stockpile, and clarifying that the United States can withdraw from START if the modernization plan is not adequately funded. Several of these pivotal senators also sponsored an amendment certifying that development of a U.S. missile defense system would not be jeopardized by ratifying START.
My point here is not to argue that Obama and the Democrats fail to benefit by the START ratification – clearly they do. Look no further than the media spin! It is to claim however, that START ratification does not signal a resurgence in Obama’s “influence”, or his regaining political “momentum”. Instead, it illustrates the reality of the political context that dominated congressional proceedings for most of the 111th Congress. Simply put, Obama’s “success” in Congress was largely determined by Democrats’ ability to craft legislation that targeted the moderate legislators occupying the pivotal voting positions along the ideological spectrum, or by “pairing” legislation, as with the extension of unemployment legislation and the Bush tax cuts that I discussed in an earlier post. When Obama would not or could not frame legislation in this way, it failed to pass. Indeed, stories heralding Obama’s resurgence overlook Democrats’ failure during the lameduck session to pass the DREAM immigration act, the inability of the Democratically-controlled Senate to confirm a number of Obama’s judicial nominees and, most notably, Congress’ failure to pass a new budget.
Did we just see the reboot of the Obama presidency along with a change in presidential-congressional dynamics? Hardly. Instead, what we saw was a reminder of the limits of presidential power. When presidents “succeed” in getting their legislation through Congress, it is usually not because they have changed legislators’ minds. Instead, it is because they have framed legislation to appeal to the pivotal congressional members’ political interests, as determined primarily by these members’ constituency-driven electoral calculations. The ratification of START is a clear reminder that a president’s “persuasive” power is largely conditioned by the interests of those with whom he is bargaining.