Why All Presidents Fail

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 28 2010 11:40 AM

Why All Presidents Fail

Everywhere I've been recently, I heard a version of an argument that I hear a lot of Democrats -- more accurately, liberal supporters of Democrats -- make on TV and in print now. It was: "Why can't Democrats get stuff done the way that Republicans could under Bush?" One activist in Wisconsin asked me why Democrats didn't ram more things through reconciliation "like Bush did."

I think this argument leaves out a lot of history. What were the biggest domestic legislative accomplishments of the Bush administration? To what degree did they involve Republicans using their power in a way Democrats are too wimpy too? Let's run them down.

* The tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. Those actually passed in the reconciliation process -- the 2003 package passed 50-50 in a 51-49 GOP Senate.

* No Child Left Behind. That was huge but it wasn't a conservative accomplishment. Conservatives hated it, and considered it a compromise with the federal education apparatus.

* Medicare Part D. Again, enormous, but apart from the creation of HSAs, conservatives loathed it, considered it a Republican laying-down of arms on the welfare state.

I don't think I'm leaving anything out -- even Fred Barnes, in a top 10 rundown of Bush's achievements, limited the domestic wins to NCLB and Medicare reform as the big domestic wins. By contrast, the big dreams of the conservative base -- privatization of Social Security, deep spending cuts, abolishing the Departments of Education and Energy -- got nowhere. Go back and read the campaign pledges in Bush's second convention address, which is a pretty good gauge of what voters expected and Republicans wanted.

* In a new term, I will lead a bipartisan effort to reform and simplify the federal tax code.

* We must strengthen Social Security by allowing younger workers to save some of their taxes in a personal account, a nest egg you can call your own and government can never take away.

And so on, with big conservative pledges matched lots of pledges that were, frankly, not conservative -- expanding Pell Grants, expanding access to SCHIP, expanding cheap home ownership via the tools available to government.

I don't think you have to make excuses for either man, Bush or Obama, to point out the gap between what voters think they're getting -- a king who can enact his promises -- and what they actually get, an executive who has to get his agenda through the veto points of House committees, House votes, Senate committees, Senate votes, filibusters, holds, and conferences.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.