The context for yesterday’s Cromnibus showdown, which saw a near failure of the rule vote in the House (only a last minute vote switch by two Republicans allowed its passage) followed by a desperate whipping operation for Democratic votes from the White House and Wall Street, is a truly fascinating dispute going on within the Democratic Party. Ultimately, the 1.1 trillion dollar spending + goodies package passed the House with 57 Democratic votes, over the objections of Nancy Pelosi and 67 House Republicans. Obama sent his chief of staff to beg Democrats to support the measure in a closed caucus meeting, and Jamie Dimon himself phoned lawmakers to urge them to back the measure, favored by the Big Banks, which eliminates a key provision of Dodd-Frank. The emboldened populist Elizabeth Warren wing of the party put up a fight, but ultimately decided to go along one more time with the White House’s demands. In the next 48 hours we’ll see if Warren goes full Ted Cruz on this one, or if (as I expect) this is more of a rhetorical positioning endeavor than an attempt to really change her party. Still, always fun to see Warren cite Redstate from the floor.
RedState applauding Elizabeth Warren is the Washington equivalent of cats and dogs living together. I so enjoy this town during a crisis.
— Francis J. Underwood (@RepUnderwoodSC) December 12, 2014
But back to the issue of context: this battle really is about the ideas expressed back in that Chuck Schumer speech at the National Press Club – that is, an internal debate within the Democratic Party about how much President Obama matters for their future. Why did the White House have to put all their political strength on the line to pass this measure? It was a gamble to prove that Barack Obama still matters. Denis McDonough’s whole hat-in-hand pitch came down to “we know you hate this deal, but we’re so far out on a limb on this one that if you lose now, no one will pay attention to the White House for the next two years.” The response of some Democrats, as the Schumer speech demonstrated, is … “And?”
For Democrats who understand (correctly) that Obama is a fading political factor, an albatross for their party, not the future of their coalition… dusting the president in 2014 would be a feature not a bug. Just as we saw for Republicans after 2006, the White House’s demands of loyalty don’t work with people who think you’re trying to threaten them with damage you can no longer inflict and goodies you can no longer offer. The media doesn’t get this, because they don’t understand a world in which President Obama doesn’t matter. That’s why, when it comes time to defend Obama, who do you get? The Vietors, the Lovetts, the Favreaus – the fanboys who can’t believe how quickly power fades. “What do you mean, you don’t like Gnarls Barkley? They were number one in 2008! Number! One!”
As for conservative objections to Cromnibus, one thing that’s interesting (in a good way) is how quiet conservatives were over the past few weeks. They avoided the usual situation you see in these cases, where leadership triangulates, waiting for conservatives to lose patience and go haywire so the grown-ups can ride in to save the day. There was no big rhetorical push against the rule or this measure. Instead, conservatives kept quiet, and this mess was all leadership’s – it’s become an item of note that the one sign they don’t have the votes is when they insist they have the votes. They needed the White House’s help, and Wall Street’s help, to make this deal happen. I’d think Mike Lee’s recommended path of open source strategy would be a better way to approach such things in the future. But I doubt Republican leadership will take that lesson away from such a near failure – they’ll just insist this was the plan all along – oh, look, Steve Scalise is already doing that.
GOP Whip Scalise: Tonight we set the stage for a battle with the president.
— Chad Pergram (@ChadPergram) December 12, 2014
The left-right alliance against cronyism isn’t large enough to block something like this yet, even something so obviously corrupted. But it is growing, and getting louder, and I expect will only increase as more on the left are willing to break publicly with the White House and decry its corporatist approach to governance. And conservatives shouldn’t object to this just because they dislike the Warrens of the world. The anti-cronyist message isn’t just right, it’s philosophically consistent with their past, as Samuel Gregg notes in a piece on Edmund Burke and Adam Smith:
“Both men fiercely criticized the mercantilist economic system that dominated eighteenth-century Europe. But neither Burke nor Smith limited his attack on mercantilism to its economic inefficiency. Each also denounced the way in which mercantilism gave those with access to government officials an unfair advantage over those with real economic creativity who were meeting consumer demand but lacked political connections. Given the extent to which crony capitalism’s growth has accelerated in recent years, a similarly penetrating moral critique bears repeating by contemporary conservatives if they’re serious about addressing a problem that’s corrupting American economic and political life.”
In hindsight, Cromnibus may come to be viewed as the last big thing President Obama was able to do, his last in a short list of legislative achievements. It seems fitting that it was a deal as old-Washington as it gets: crammed with goodies for special interests, negotiated behind closed doors, and pulled along at the behest of the powerful. For a presidency that has been marked by how often the chief executive was willing to undermine things he claimed to believe in for the sake of political expediency, this is a fitting denouement.