Ross Douthat gets Washington right, then very wrong

June 24, 2013

How out-of-touch is Washington? This out-of-touch:

As President Obama began his second term, the Pew Research Center asked Americans to list their policy priorities for 2013. Huge majorities cited jobs and the economy; sizable majorities cited health care costs and entitlement reform; more modest majorities cited fighting poverty and reforming the tax code. Down at the bottom of the list, with less than 40 percent support in each case, were gun control, immigration and climate change.

That's from Ross Douthat, who goes on to note that "six months later, the public’s non-priorities look like the entirety of the White House’s second-term agenda."


Gridlock'd. (Andrew Harrer - Bloomberg)

It's a good catch. Washington is about as responsive to the American public as the weather is to folks dancing hopefully in circles. The question, of course, is why.

There's an explanation for the distance between the public's priorities and the administration's agenda, and Douthat spies it immediately: "this disconnect between country and capital reflects the limits gridlock puts on governance. The ideological divides in Washington — between right and left, and between different factions within the House Republican caucus — make action on first-rank issues unusually difficult, so it’s natural that politicians would look for compromises on lower-priority debates instead."

But then something odd happens. Douthat simply moves on from this incisive and correct point. He doesn't say it's wrong. Nor does he say it's right. He just...puts it down. The more "cynical take," and the one he appears to prefer, is that "D.C. gridlock has given the political class an excuse to ignore the country’s most pressing problem — a lack of decent jobs at decent wages, with a deeper social crisis at work underneath — and pursue its own pet causes instead."

The problem is the more cynical explanation is wrong. And it distracts from the very real problems -- and, possibly, the solutions -- signaled by Douthat's first, accurate, interpretation.

Much of the work here is done by bundling all the relevant players into a disappointing, elitist mass Douthat simply calls "Washington." It's "Washington" that's failing. "Washington" that is not "readying, say, payroll tax relief for working-class families." "Washington" where "we’re left with the peculiar spectacle of a political class responding to a period of destructive long-term unemployment with an agenda that threatens to help extend that crisis."

The use of "Washington" is important because the column would read nonsensically if it broke "Washington" down into individual players.

When Barack Obama was elected to the presidency, he promised to make climate change a top priority and to pass an immigration-reform bill in his first year. Neither happened. And, to invert the old saying, it was indeed for a want of trying. The Obama administration put jobs, the economy and health care far ahead of immigration reform and climate change. That was true in year one. But it was also true in years two and three and four and even at the start of year five.

That's what Douthat leaves out of his column. Even in 2013, jobs and the economy and deficit reduction and health care fronted the White House's agenda. The election ended and the fiscal cliff negotiations immediately began. Then came the State of the Union, which was centered around a new and more aggressive jobs-and-deficit-reduction program, which included everything from a headlines-grabbing plan for universal pre-kindergarten to a massive infrastructure investment plan. Then came the president's budget which took all these proposals and made them into actual policies.


President Obama reads the State of the Union speech. (AFP/Getty photo)

But none of those policies moved in Congress. And there it wasn't for want of trying. The White House infuriated liberals by adding chained-CPI to its budget in the hopes that a preemptive concession could unlock a bargain. They responded to criticisms that they didn't engage enough with Congress by launching a charm offensive in which Obama began taking meal after meal with Republican legislators. None of it worked. If Douthat has any ideas for what putting more energy into this agenda would've looked like, he doesn't share them.

With that agenda stalled, the administration has moved onto the items that seem -- or seemed -- like they might pass: gun control, immigration reform and climate change. Douthat describes those issues as "pillars of Acela Corridor ideology, core elements of Bloombergism, places where Obama-era liberalism overlaps with the views of Davos-goers and the Wall Street 1 percent." But though Douthat's column suggests that elite consensus has put these policies on a glide path, the truth is that they, too, are mostly stymied by gridlock.

Obama's emotional, unusually public campaign for a gun control bill led to watered-down legislation that failed in the Senate. Immigration reform is moving through Congress, though no one knows if it will actually pass -- and while the Obama administration clearly supports the bill, they've hung back from the proceedings because they worry a firmer presidential intervention will activate partisan gridlock and doom the effort. And the White House isn't even trying to push a serious climate change bill through Congress: Instead, they're using the bully pulpit to justify regulatory maneuvers that would crack down dirty sources of energy.

That is to say, exactly one of these problems might receive a serious and plausible solution -- and even that's a maybe.

This is a rather less impressive record than Obama racked up on bread-and-butter issues in his first term. The stimulus and the health-care bill and the repeated tax cuts did, after all, pass. And even today, health reform is absorbing vastly more of the federal machinery than climate change regulations -- it's still coming first, in that way. That is the opposite of what you'd expect if the problem in Washington is elite opinion favoring issues unrelated to the economic concerns of everyday Americans.

At the same time, Obama's major bread-and-butter achievements -- and, frankly, his major achievements, full stop --  came when Democrats held large majorities in both chambers of Congress. That's exactly what we'd expect if the gridlock hypothesis is right, which it is.

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Dylan Matthews | June 24, 2013