Commentary Magazine


The Democrats’ Bad Credit

In Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, the band led by one of the characters gets a streak of decent reviews in the press despite never attaining a large audience or good record sales. At some point, those press mentions disappear, and he figures out what happened: “he’d been buying press attention on credit all along, without realizing it, and that the press had finally concluded that familiarity with the Traumatics was never going to be necessary to anyone’s cultural literacy or street credibility, and so there was no reason to extend him further credit.”

You can see something similar happening with ObamaCare: consistently positive press despite the public’s distaste for it and the assumption that eventually, association with the project will pay off, followed by the sudden realization that public opinion on something they hated is actually likely to stay that way–or that the public was right all along, and the product stinks. But the “credit” extended in this case leaves the debt not primarily on President Obama or the press. It’s on the Democrats who are associated with the law and still have to stand for election.

As the Washington Post reported over the weekend, the president took full advantage of his line of credit by postponing the parts of the law that would reveal the full extent of the harm it would do and thus turn the country against the president before his reelection. It wasn’t just ObamaCare either; much of the president’s policy agenda was considered unpopular, and he had to wait until he was safely reelected to put into place policies he knew the public didn’t want:

The White House systematically delayed enacting a series of rules on the environment, worker safety and health care to prevent them from becoming points of contention before the 2012 election, according to documents and interviews with current and former administration officials. …

The Obama administration has repeatedly said that any delays until after the election were coincidental and that such decisions were made without regard to politics. But seven current and former administration officials told The Washington Post that the motives behind many of the delays were clearly political, as Obama’s top aides focused on avoiding controversy before his reelection.

The number and scope of delays under Obama went well beyond those of his predecessors, who helped shape rules but did not have the same formalized controls, said current and former officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

But though there may have been a greater number of delays, surely the Obama administration was simply using the same process as that of his predecessors, only to greater effect, right? Wrong:

Previous White House operations have weighed in on major rules before they were officially submitted for review. But Jeffrey Holmstead, who headed the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation in the George W. Bush administration, said the effort was not as extensive as the Obama administration’s approach.

“There was no formalized process by which you had to get permission to send them over,” Holmstead said, referring to rules being submitted to the White House.

But the federal government keeps expanding; perhaps the slow-walking of regulatory action prior to the election was just the new pace of government? Nope:

The recent decision to bring on Democratic strategist John Podesta as a senior White House adviser is likely to accelerate the number of new rules and executive orders, given Podesta’s long-standing support for using executive action to achieve the president’s goals despite congressional opposition.

Back to speed, now that the president is no longer accountable to the voters. But members of his party are, and they’re fairly nervous:

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Oversight, Federal Rights and Agency Action, said he’s concerned about the real-world impact of the postponements in the first term.

“Legal protection delayed is protection denied,” Blumenthal said. “I’ve spoken to officials at the top rungs of the White House power structure and at OIRA and we’re going to hold their feet to the fire, and we’re going to make sure they’re held accountable in a series of hearings.”

It should be noted that the Democrats had plenty to gain from Obama pulling out all the stops to ensure his own reelection. Had the president lost, the Democrats would likely have suffered in down-ticket races and perhaps even more at the state level. As it stands, though ObamaCare has been a disaster thus far, the Democrats still control the White House and the Senate, the latter being even more powerful now that they have shoved aside the filibuster and with it any deference to minority rights.

So postponing parts of ObamaCare to give the reform time to hit its stride was always a better option even for congressional Democrats than a broad Republican victory that would have wasted the Democrats’ early sacrifices on behalf of ObamaCare. This gave them a fighting chance. The problem for Democrats is that Obama’s second term seems focused on piling even more unpopular rulemaking–which congressional Democrats cannot stop or water down–on top of the ObamaCare mess. Obama got his second term on credit, but congressional Democrats are now on the hook for it.

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