Will centrist Democrats kill Obama's agenda?

Jonathan Chait warns of a party in disarray, saying it could tank the president's plans, but the moderates' self-interest might prevent that.

Published March 30, 2009 9:35PM (EDT)

Jonathan Chait has an excellent essay up at the New Republic's Web site, in which he argues that the worst danger on the horizon for President Obama’s legislative agenda doesn't come from Republicans. At least, not Republicans alone.

In their near-unanimous opposition to the president’s proposals, Republicans have been getting a vital assist from Democratic centrists like Sens. Ben Nelson and Kent Conrad, whose constant defections make the Democrats into what Chait calls “a congressional party that is congenitally unable to govern.”

Chait arrives at his pessimistic view by examining the self-interest of centrist Democrats, who are looking to ensure their own reelection by hedging against a potential downturn in their party's fortunes. But while Chait is worried about death to Obama’s agenda by a thousand cuts, the cutters are better off if they don’t go for the jugular. By opposing only certain parts of the larger agenda, they can claim to have stood up for their states against the president -- and if they do this without killing his agenda entirely, then they can bask in any glow that passage of his proposals brings to the Democratic Party in general.

Centrist Democrats like Nelson and Conrad, Chait argues, are slavishly loyal to parochial interests, even when that means they have to oppose reforms that are favored by just about every expert in the field -- reforms like cutting agricultural subsidies, or cutting out the predatory middlemen in student lending. Conrad, you see, is from North Dakota, so he can hardly wave goodbye to giveaways to agriculture, while Nelson's home state of Nebraska is also home to a big student lending corporation.

But, Chait warns, because people like Nelson and Conrad are able to employ Senate procedure to stop up the legislative process and burnish their own red-state credentials, centrist Democrats are helping ensure Obama's failure. He writes:

It seems impossible to believe that this party, with the challenges before the country so great and the opportunity to address them so rare, would once again follow the path to self-immolation. Yet, somehow, the Democrats can't help themselves.

This diagnosis of the Democrats’ ills seems mainly right-on, but it’s worth remembering that we had almost exactly this discussion -- even the characters were the same -- during the stimulus debate.

Nelson sits at what a political scientist would call the "pivot" of the Senate. Because of the filibuster, almost no bill will pass without his approval, so he gets to extract what he wants. In this case, that will probably mean the weakening, or outright elimination, of much-needed student lending reform.

But note that the complaints of the centrists tend to be with smaller (not to say unimportant) reforms. Hence, there’s a scenario that gives Nelson, Conrad and the rest the best of both worlds. They shave off student loan reform, agricultural subsidy cuts, and other more minor measures that hurt their parochial interests, while still allowing the core substance of Obama’s agenda to pass. Or, on a major issue, like cap-and-trade rules for carbon emissions, they insist on exemptions for their key industries at home, weakening the reform’s force without killing it outright. This way, the Democratic brand -- their brand, remember -- is strengthened, and simultaneously, their images as home-state champions shine brighter than ever.

This is how Obama got the stimulus passed. He let Nelson and his allies, both Democrat and Republican, rewrite it. They struck from the bill what was an essentially arbitrary amount of money -- but it was enough that they could go home and claim to have stuck up to the president, boosting their eventual reelection bids. Meanwhile, the country got a stimulus, presumably forestalling a slide into economic depression, also boosting their reelection bids. 

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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