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 reporter for Bloomberg Politics

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Television

See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 10:44 AM Bull---- Market America is overlooking a plentiful renewable resource: animal manure.
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 10:59 AM “For People, Food Is Heaven” Boer Deng on the story behind her piece “How to Order Chinese Food.”
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 10:48 AM One of Last Year’s Best Animated Shorts Is Finally Online for Free
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.