Monthly Archives: August 2011

The 14th Amendment: Once More, With(Out) Passion

 As the nation approached the August 2 deadline for resolving the debt crisis, a chorus of voices arose, mostly on the Left, urging President Obama to end the budget impasse by unilaterally invoking the 14th amendment. That Civil War-era amendment contains a clause, Section 4, which reads: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, should not be questioned.”  According to proponents of this idea,  by invoking the 14th amendment, President Obama negated any need for Congress to vote on raising the debt limit, since under the Constitution the government is obligated to pay its debts, congressional approval or not.  Under this plan, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner would be ordered by Obama continue borrowing money to pay the government’s debts.   House Republicans, went the argument, would be in no position to stop Obama, since he could say his action was necessary to prevent the nation from enduring the calamity that would occur if it defaulted on its debt.  If Republicans pursued the matter in court, the issue would take months to resolve – assuming the Court even took up the case.  Meanwhile, the debt crisis would be averted.

As I discussed in an earlier post,  this was an absolutely terrible idea.  And yet, as it appeared we were on the brink of default, more and more people sincerely believed Obama was preparing to take this drastic step.  Harvard professor Paul Peterson, in a guest post on this blog, made perhaps the most cogent case for why Obama might be preparing to do so.  I confess that when I read Paul’s post, I thought he was acting as provocateur – a role Paul has played very effectively in the past.  (Full disclosure: Paul was a former colleague of mine at Harvard and served on my dissertation committee there as well).  But if Paul was operating as intellectual gadfly, others quite sincerely thought Obama was preparing to end the crisis by invoking the 14th amendment.

Let’s be clear – and I said this before the debt deal was consummated – Obama was never going to invoke the 14th amendment. In my previous post, I laid out the reasons why this made no political sense, but let me briefly review the logic driving my argument.  The mistake proponents of the 14th amendment route made is to think the end goal was to solve the debt crisis on terms favorable to Obama.  If Obama could end the standoff without giving away the budget store in negotiations, he would be judged as having “won” the debt debate. But, from Obama’s perspective, this narrow focus on the debt negotiations missed the bigger picture.  Obama’s actions in the debt debate, by necessity, were driven by his electoral calculations looking ahead to 2012.  It was never simply about “winning” the debt clash – it was about solving it with the least political controversy in order to move it off the table. Invoking the 14th amendment would have had the opposite effect – it would have guaranteed that the issue remained simmering on the front burner for the next year, and it almost certainly would have become a Republican rallying cry – Obama as dictator! – in the coming presidential campaign. Partisans on the Left, as is their wont, became so focused on beating the Right in the debt game that they lost sight of Obama’s larger political interests.  And this is a problem for issue activists on both sides of the political aisle more generally – they tend to approach each battle with a scorched earth, take no prisoners, it’s us or them mentality.  Presidents, however, cannot afford this zero-sum approach to political conflict because, under our system of shared powers, they must actively collaborate with Congress to get most anything done.

But there was a second reason why Obama would not invoke the 14th amendment – it is not in his political nature. Longtime readers should not be surprised by my claim. In several previous posts dating to before Obama’s inauguration, I have pointed out that he is not a risk taker, and he is not one who makes decisions based on emotion.  In a December, 2008, blog post titled Obama the Centrist I noted that as early as his days as editor of the Harvard Law Review, Obama had a penchant for splitting differences, avoiding controversy and minimizing risk.  Caution, pragmatism and the politics of moderation are in his DNA, and nothing that has happened in his presidency to date has persuaded me otherwise.

Invoke the 14th amendment?  It was never going to happen.

A Clinton Challenge: Good for Democrats, and Good For The Nation

The reaction to my last post, (cross listed here at Salon) was a replay of the 2008 primary Democratic primary battle; closely fought, with passions running deep on both sides.  Strong cases were made both for and against my argument, made in the guise of a generic Democrat, that Hillary Clinton should challenge President Obama in 2012.  Boiling down the comments to their essence, supporters of a Clinton run make two essential points:  First, Obama is in electoral trouble, and Clinton will likely run stronger in the general election, particularly among independents.  Second, Obama has had his shot, and the results just haven’t been good.  It’s time for change.  Those opposing a Hillary run think it will divide the party, thus weakening whoever gets the Democratic nomination, and that it will likely cost Democrats a significant chunk of African-American support.  More generally, they don’t think his record  merits a nomination challenge.

Just to clarify, I should make clear that I’m not necessarily advocating the Clinton run – I’m merely making the case that I know many Democrats believe to be true: that the party is in deep trouble if Obama wins the nomination in 2012, and that Clinton is the best alternative.  My goal was to get people (including Hillary) to think about it.  Clearly I succeeded (well, I haven’t heard from the Secretary as yet).

There’s been a lot of debate about this on other websites as well. The always useful and interesting Jon Bernstein weighed in at his plainblog political site   in opposition to my argument.  Jon claims that, “a challenge from Clinton would be a complete disaster, both for her and for the Democrats.”   His post builds on an earlier one he wrote that made the argument that had Clinton won the presidency in 2008, it’s not clear she would have done any better than Obama.  Jon’s case against a Clinton challenge in 2012 rests on a point that lots of my readers have made: it would infuriate Democrats, and that she wouldn’t do any better than Obama.  I think the first point is exactly right, and I think Jon could have gone even further to point out, that despite the vocal reaction among progressives against the recent debt deal, it actually got stronger support, according to Gallup, among Democrats and Liberals than independents or Republicans.


 In short, Obama retains strong support among the party faithful, progressives’ protests against the debt deal notwithstanding Moreover, Jon notes, as did many readers, that previous primary challenges in the modern, post-1968 nomination era – by Reagan in 1976, Kennedy in 1980, and Buchanan in 1992, all failed. Why should Clinton do any better? Jon concludes, with a sentence that I confess I don’t understand, by writing: “Basically, it’s pretty simple: if Barack Obama is unpopular enough that he’s vulnerable for nomination, then the nomination isn’t worth very much.”  I’m guessing that means that if Obama loses the nomination, whoever wins it can’t win the general election?  If that’s what Jon means, I disagree.

In any case, here’s the response I would make if I was a Clinton Democrat:  .Look again at that Gallup poll – it’s not good news for Obama’s reelection chances.  Sure, the deal is viewed favorably by Democrats, but independents hate it – and that’s the group Obama was targeting when he made the deal.  So far, and these are only initial results, the payoff doesn’t seem to be high.  And to compare Clinton to these previous challengers ignores 2008.  She’s not an upstart – she’s someone who already lays claim to substantial support within the party, and who fought Obama to a nomination draw.  Do you think after the last three plus years in office Obama is now a stronger candidate, and that she’s weaker?

Nor do I think she’d find it difficult to make the case for a nomination challenge. People are digging too deep, I think, if they are trying to parse Clinton’s motivations in running. This isn’t a case of “What’s in it for her?”  Nor is it, contrary to Jon’s claim, a run that would be based solely on Clinton’s “resume” (which, by the way, I think matches up far better to Obama’s than Jon does; Obama’s not just president – he’s president at a time when things are not going well on his watch. Not sure that bolsters the ‘ol c.v.) In short, Clinton’s challenge would be justified by the quite reasonable calculation that Obama is going to lose in 2012. How do we know Clinton would do better?  We don’t, but there’s case to be made that, in a general election race, although Clinton may lose a chunk of African-American support, she would more than compensate by running stronger among independents and – if a different type of identify politics comes into play – among older women too.  In short, this is an empirical question – one that Clinton would undoubtedly try to answer before throwing her hat in the ring.   And she would still have to convince Democrats to swallow their misgivings and look at the party’s broader interest in retaining the presidency.  But the bottom line is that she probably won’t do worse, and she might do better.

I would make a final point – there seems to be an underlying sentiment among some of those opposing a Clinton challenge that it is somehow demeaning to the President.   The implicit suggestion is that he is owed the Democrat nomination for a second term, and to challenge that is to show disrespect. I confess that I can’t understand this logic – indeed, this runs against the grain of American presidential politics, which are premised on the idea that presidents preside with the consent of the governed, and when they lose that consent, we throw the bums out.  Heck, we have a deep and honorable history of doing just that.  I don’t see why Obama should be the exception!

Anyway, that’s the response I think a Hillary supporter would make.  I’m pretty sure it won’t convince Jon, or many Obama supporters.  Nor do I think Clinton is going to run – or even that she should. But if she did, she’d join a long line of candidates who challenged their party’s incumbent president.  And that’s how it should be: presidents aren’t handed the nomination for a second term – they have to earn it. Here I disagree with Jon: a party challenge would be good for Democrats, and for the nation.

An Open Letter to Madam Secretary: Run, Hillary, Run!

(Cross-posted at

She won’t, of course.  But if I were a Democrat, here’s why I think she should.   (Please note the disclaimer: I’m posing as a Democrat!)

To begin, the President is in deep political trouble.  I’ve presented some basic economic indicators earlier that show the historical comparisons indicating that Obama is in Jimmy Carter territory.  These are crude measures, of course.  But more sophisticated forecast models, such as Yale economist Ray Fair’s, which uses per capita growth of real Gross Domestic Product during the three quarters preceding the election; the growth in inflation during the incumbent’s term; and the number of quarters during the incumbent’s term in which real GDP grows by more than 3.2 percent to predict the popular vote, now show Obama winning slightly less than 50% of 2012 popular vote.  Given current economic projections, there’s not likely to be any more strong growth quarters between now and November, 2012 meaning the odds for Obama’s reelection are probably not going to get better. To be sure, most of the political science forecast models don’t kick in until a year from now, so it’s a bit early to rely on them.  But if Clinton is going to run, she can’t wait.  And right now Obama is very vulnerable to a strong Republican challenger.

Of course, the fundamentals won’t change if she’s running. But note that the forecast models aren’t predicting a Republican blowout – they are forecasting a race that is, at this point, too close to call.  That means marginal changes in turnout among key groups are crucial. Here’s where Hillary has the advantage.  To begin, her stint as Secretary of State has done wonders for her approval rating, as indicated by Gallup poll surveys dating back to her time in the White House.  While the President, mired deep in the political muck of Washington politics, sees his approval falling to 40%, Hillary’s has climbed close to 70% approval – and even higher in other surveys. Yes, this is a partly an artifact of her position, which places her above the fray of domestic politics, and yes it will fall if she enters the race.  But the fact remains that her public profile has been bolstered in the last several years, and she enters the race with that advantage.  Indeed, she can use that non-partisan vantage point to frame her decision to run: it’s not about politics – it’s about the future of this country both here and abroad.

Her second advantage relates to the first:  she’s not part of the mess at home. She didn’t weigh in on the stimulus bill, or health care, or the banking overhaul, and she certainly bears no responsibility for the state of the economy.  In this respect, she’s the Obama of 2012: a candidate who can run on the promise of change, without specifying the nature of that change.  And she’s has an added advantage: years of governing experience in the White House, the Senate and most recently within the foreign policy establishment.  To be blunt, her resume outshines the incumbent’s. Meanwhile, her liabilities (the health care fiasco, Hill and Bill) have largely receded from public consciousness.  And in any case they are now dwarfed by Obama’s baggage.  In 2008,  Obama was the unsullied one. Not anymore.  Heck, even the Big Dawg has been largely rehabilitated.

This leads to a third point: buyer’s remorse.  It’s not one she can directly bring up (after all, she’s above politics), but others will certainly remind voters that she did warn you.  Remember that 3 a.m. phone call?  Remember the warning about the rose-colored petals falling from the sky?  Remember about learning on the job?  Sure you do. Doesn’t a part of you, deep down, realize she was right? If I heard it once this past week, I heard it a thousand times: you were duped by Obama’s rhetoric – the whole “hopey-changey” thing. And you wanted to be part of history too – to help break down the ultimate racial barrier.  That’s ok.  We were all young once. But now it’s time to elect someone who can play hardball, who understands how to be ruthless, who will be a real…uh….tough negotiator in office.   There won’t be any debate about Hillary’s, er, “man-package”.

All of these factors mean Hillary will appeal to precisely those voters who are most disillusioned with Obama, and who the Democrats lost in the 2010 midterms: older voters, the less educated and independents.  Moreover, she has stronger support in the key battleground states of Ohio and Florida and maybe even Pennsylvania, whose electoral votes may determine the 2012 election.  And the chance to finally put a woman in the Oval Office will energize voters in a way that Obama’s candidacy cannot.

The problem with this scenario, of course, is that it ignores a very big obstacle: the nomination fight.  The reality is that, at least until the recent debt deal, Obama continues to have strong support among Democrats.  Why should we expect Clinton to prevail in a nomination fight?  Indeed, a Gallup poll survey from last September shows Obama beating Clinton in a hypothetical nomination contest.

Politically speaking, however, that poll came out ages ago.  Since then, it has become clear that the economy is not going to rebound any time soon.  Obama’s approval ratings continue to drop, and this is before the full impact of the debt negotiations on Democratic support – particularly within Obama’s base: those Democrats with higher incomes and better education, as well as minorities and younger voters.  The other fact to remember is that despite the gaffes in Clinton’s 2008 primary run – the failure to fully contest caucus states, the mishandling of the Florida and Michigan delegates issue, she essentially fought Obama to a nomination draw.  Indeed, by some estimates she won more popular votes than he.  In the end, his nomination was secured not by winning enough delegates at the ballot box, but by gaining support from the non-elected superdelegates.  Four years later, who do you think has gained more politically among likely Democratic voters?

Make no mistake about it: a contested nomination would be a nasty, brutish spectacle. But in all likelihood the winner would come out stronger.  Think back to 2008 – despite the appeals from Obama backers that Clinton should drop out for the good of the party, she stayed in until the end – and in so doing exposed vulnerabilities in his candidacy in time for him to address them before the general election.  A primary challenge will be good for the party – it will give Democrats a real choice. It will mobilize the base. And it will expose candidate strengths and weaknesses leading into the general election.  Remember, there’s no evidence that previous primary challengers weakened incumbents.  The causal arrow runs in the other direction: incumbents like Carter in 1980 were challenged because they were already weak.  A Clinton run won’t damage Obama, and may strengthen him – if he fends her off.

And really – isn’t it time to elect a qualified woman as President? We are way behind the rest of the world in this regard.

But there’s a more important reason why Hillary should run – one that transcends party, or personal gratification, or payback, or breaking barriers.  She should run for the good of the nation.  She should run to prevent a rollback of health care, to make sure the Bush tax cuts are not renewed, to protect entitlement programs, to make sure Republicans – who are poised to regain the Senate in 2012 – don’t control all three governing institutions through 2016.  It’s not about her – it’s about the future of the country.

Madam Secretary, if you are reading this – the President is a good man who happened to be very unlucky in office.  He inherited problems of almost unprecedented severity.  But this is no time for sentiment to cloud your judgment.  You need to do what’s right.

If not now, when?  If not you, who?  The nation cries out for leadership.

Run, Hillary, Run!

Is the Tea Party Fracturing?

 With the media coverage predominantly centered on the sense of betrayal felt by many on the Left regarding Obama and the debt deal, it is easy to forget that the debate also divided the Tea Party.  In the House, members of the Tea Party caucus split their vote almost evenly, with 32 supporting the debt legislation, and 28 voting against.  In an article for the French news agency AFP yesterday, Olivier Knox raised the question whether this split might portend a fracturing of the Tea Party movement heading into the 2012 elections.

As I told Olivier, my answer is that I don’t think it will.  First, let’s look at the House Tea Party vote.  The split doesn’t seem to reflect differences in district-level factors.   Anna Esten calculated the average winning vote percentage and the support for Obama for the Tea Party members in 2010.  As you can see, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in the district level totals between those who support the debt legislation, and those who opposed it.

Instead, the determining factor seems to have been the Tea Party representatives’ ideological leanings, as captured in the scoring of their votes.  (The data on ideology in the chart below is taken from Simon Jackman’s website). Although most of the Tea Party caucus members are located in the more conservative half of the Republican caucus, those voting “no” on the debt legislation are, as a whole, much more conservative than those who voted yes.  Many of them, echoing  Bachmann’s viewpoint, were against raising the debt ceiling without passage of a balanced budget amendment. Bachmann, of course, is positioning herself to capture the Tea Party vote in the Republican presidential nominating process.  Here’s Esten’s comparison of the “No” and “Yes” House Tea Party votes.

Doesn’t this suggest, then, that the Tea Party may fracture along ideological lines come 2012?  Not necessarily. Remember, the debt vote was compromise legislation designed to cobble together enough votes to prevent default. Even its supporters voted yes with one hand holding their nose – that’s why House Democrats’ votes were equally split for and against as well. Those voting in favor essentially chose the lesser of two evils. As Tea Party-backed Senator Rand Paul told Knox in the AFP interview, “I think this is a deal, not a solution.”

In short, the debt vote notwithstanding, the Tea Party caucus remains united on the need to reduce spending, hold down taxes and balance the budget. I expect that they will coalesce behind a single candidate during the nominating process and in the general election. The debt debate will likely recede from public consciousness and 2012 will primarily be a referendum on jobs, government spending and Obama’s handling of the economy.

The more important issue is whether the debt resolution will redound to Obama’s benefit among independent voters.  I’ll take that question up when the polling data begins coming in.


Obama and the Debt Deal: I Am Right. You Are Wrong.

Today, as White House officials fan out in an effort to tamp down liberal criticism of the budget deal, the Senate is poised to pass the measure and send it on to President Obama’s desk for his signature.  Yesterday the House, in a bipartisan 269-to-161 vote, easily approved the measure. The nay votes included 66 Republicans and 95 Democrats, most of them from their party’s ideologically extreme wings. Once signed into law by Obama, the legislation will immediately grant the Treasury $400 billion in borrowing authority, preventing a government default. It is the first of three increases in the debt ceiling that should extend borrowing authority through the 2012 election.

I will spend time dissecting the elements of the legislation in the next several posts, but keep in mind that, as with the health care legislation, the full impact of the debt agreement will not be known for months. For starters, no one knows what the joint congressional debt committee will report back in November – heck, we don’t even know who is on the debt committee as yet.  Similarly, the details of the spending cuts must still be worked out through the appropriations process.  So it is somewhat premature to gauge the merits of this bill, although that won’t stop many from doing so.

But, since so many of you took the time to weigh in in response to my last post,  cross listed at Salon, that argued Obama did not cave but instead made a perfectly predictable strategic calculation in agreeing to a debt deal, I want to at least give you the courtesy of a response.  The prevailing tone of your comments is nicely captured in this response: “Does anyone really have an answer for such a pile of garbage? What a bunch of horseshit. Dickinson, to be blunt — you are an idiot.”

To be sure, most of you made more nuanced comments, but the tone was similar. After looking through these, I can safely say:

I am still right. You are still wrong.

Now, having said that, I realize it will change nobody’s mind.  Nor should it. That’s an assertion backed with no evidence. But, let me ask you, before engaging in a point by point rebuttal of your arguments – is there really anything I can say that will persuade you that Obama actually made a very rational choice to negotiate a debt deal on the terms he did, when he did?  I suspect not – and that’s my point.  The reason is because you disagree with the outcome.  And because you disagree, you believe there must have been an alternative strategy he could have embraced that would have achieved your preferred outcome.

I understand the sentiment that is driving that belief. To quote a former president, “I feel your pain”.   I know that many of you feel sincerely, passionately betrayed by this president for his evident failure to fulfill what you saw as the central tenet of his presidential campaign: to transform American politics in a more progressive direction.

To that, I have two responses. First, there was never any real possibility that Obama was going to move politics significantly in the direction you anticipated.  I said as much in my posts immediately after his election. Heck, I said it on election night (several hundred students can attest to that!) – and many times before that.  Don’t take my word for it – read my back posts on this site.

Second, I told you what the outcome of the debt negotiations would be, and when it would occur: not before both sides were on the brink of the abyss.  We can quibble with how accurate my prediction was, but I think it was darn close to what we got.

Now, how was I able to do that?  It’s not clairvoyance.  It’s not even rocket science. It’s political science.  The fact is, presidents operate in an environment that, although fluid, is nonetheless somewhat predictable because of the laws and institutions that largely determine what presidents can do, and how.  The key is to look dispassionately at these fundamentals first, rather than starting with your preferred outcome and then trying to divine ways that presidents could have avoided the fundamentals to get to that point.  That’s what I try to do here.  Note that this is a different goal than what you find on many blog sites: they are designed to allow like minded people who worship from the same hymnal to gather together and react to political events.  They are led by the High Priests of their particular congregation – the Krugmans and Limbaughs.  I get that.  But it’s not what I do.

So, you have a choice: stick to your belief that Obama’s fooled everyone, and that, metaphorically, he lacks the proverbial stones to lead.  Or, perhaps gain a better appreciation of the rules, norms, laws and institutional constraints and incentives that largely determine how much power presidents have.

Note that I’m not discounting Obama’s individual traits as a causal factor here.  But critics are acting like they were duped – that he’s now revealing his true stripes.  In fact, as I’ve posted many, many, many times here since before his election, Obama is not a risk taker.  He is a mediator by nature, a man focused on getting to yes, but not one who is focused on a particular version of yes.  He has always been this way, dating back to his time on the Harvard Law Review.  His behavior these past few days is vintage Obama. You may rail against his evident lack of core convictions, but you should not be surprised.

Look, I’m not asking you to give up on your progressive principles. But don’t let your commitment to them blind you to the realities that dictate what presidents can and cannot do in the American political system.  Except in rare circumstances, presidents are weak.  They have always been weak.  Barring a fundamental change to our system of shared powers, they always will be weak.

Ok, enough of the preaching. Back to analysis.  If I can clear time, I’ll try to respond more directly to some of  the more detailed criticisms and questions you’ve raised.

In the meantime,  keep those comments coming….I think I responded to every one from the Salon/Did Obama Cave posting, but if I missed yours resend it and I’ll try to get back to you.  (Note, since I was late in getting to your comments to the “Did Obama Cave?” post, my responses are stacked up at the bottom.  But don’t worry I did read and respond to you.)