President Obama and the House of obstructionism

Updated
Chris Hayesby Chris Hayes
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COMMENTARY

This was, I think, my favorite moment in the President’s speech on Thursday night:

And yes, my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet because climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They’re a threat to our children’s future. And in this election, you can do something about it.

A-fricking-men, I say. Climate change was only invoked at the RNC as a laugh line, and hardly mentioned at all the DNC, save for three references. So it means a lot to hear it from the President’s own lips. 

But there was also something distressing in that line, something that haunted both me and haunted the entire Democratic National Convention. It was this line: “And in this election you can do something about it.”

After the spectacle of dysfunction and obstruction over the last two years, it’s hard to take that proposition at face value.

Remember in 2009, Barack Obama had a House majority by a 79-vote margin and a Senate majority of 60 votes and, to his credit and the credit of him and the Democratic party and especially Nancy Pelosi, they worked tirelessly through a long, hard legislative slog to produce a bill that would cap carbon emissions. 

The Waxman Markey bill passed Congress by seven votes.

In the Senate, Lindsey Graham had once been a co-sponsor of a similar cap and trade bill. He’d even passionately argued for the need to address carbon pollution:

Our country doesn’t have a vision on carbon, we need one, and we need to lead the world rather than follow the world on carbon pollution. 

But ultimately, Lindsey Graham did what nearly every Republican in his cohort has done, which is to conveniently forget his previous beliefs and instead commit himself to opposing any and all major legislative initiatives that bore the President’s mark. 

And so cap and trade died. Now, keep in mind all of this was before the Republicans took over the House in 2010. Since then, things have only gotten worse.

The record of Republican opposition and obstruction is legion at this point: the record number of filibusters, the unprecedented foot dragging on judicial and executive nominees, and, of course, the explicit threat to provoke a possible new financial crisis by holding the nation’s full faith and credit hostage in pursuit of a savage austerity agenda. 

In fact, since the emergence of the Tea Party and its electoral success in the 2010 elections, the central political story of our time is of Republican obstruction: The ways in which, with remarkable discipline and fervor, the Republican Party has overturned the previous norms of congressional behavior in order to create a country that is nearly ungovernable. This is the reality that looms over this election, and yet the GOP opposition was almost entirely absent from the President’s speech. 

Unless the Democratic Party manages to retake the House—possible, though not probable feat—the President’s second term will face precisely the same obstacles it now does: a Republican congress bent on his destruction and humiliation. The President, however, told Time magazine that if he wins in November, the stark choice voters will have made would “pop the blister” of polarization.

If you’re laughing at that line, I don’t blame you. But, of course, whether the President believes that or not, he kind of has to say next time will be different. Otherwise all of his articulation of his vision for the country in his speech on Thursday night is more or less for naught. 

The cruel irony of the Mitch McConnell plan to sandbag Barack Obama is that it creates a devilishly cynical, implied reason to elect a Republican president: It’s the only way to restore the country to normal governance. 

The Republican Party is so wildly irresonsible, so sociopathically maximalist that it cannot be trusted in opposition. You can only get compromise when Republicans have the power and the Democrats are the ones doing the compromising. Republicans won’t let it work the other way around. It would be a true low point for American democracy if this argument were persuasive. 

But the President and Democrats need to acknowledge it head on in the remaining two months of this campaign. You can’t simply ignore the tanned weepy elephant in the room. If the President and Democrats are going to lay out their agenda for the next four years, they have to make an explicit case either that it is vital the president be given a Democratic Congress (my strong preference); or some new set of policies, tactics, approaches, or innovations to overcome (or run around) Republican opposition.

The decision to offer DREAM Act eligible youth a form of administrative repireve was a great example of what this would look like. Whatever the case is, whatever the solutions are, we need to hear them, because the Republican Party and its agenda of political destruction cannot be ignore or willed away. Nor can the politics of self-immolation be perpetuated by rewarding them with electoral success. 

The President himself has suggested he will use executive powers, as he did with the DREAM Act, to circumvent an obstructionist Congress, but that is only the second-best way to deal with Republican obstruction. What President Obama did not say in Charlotte was that the best way to stop Republicans from holding them hostage is to strip them of the power to do so in November.

Barack Obama

President Obama and the House of obstructionism

Updated