Winning is losing.
Less is more.
A congressional majority is less mighty than a minority.
Such is the conventional wisdom floating around now in certain Democratic circles. Faced with the near-insurmountably difficult task of governing for the past two years in the face of an historic recession, twin Middle Eastern military quagmires and widespread national political disillusionment, it seems to some that President Obama would be much better off as a figurehead.
You see, Obama's greatest problem is that he has simply been too powerful. He came into office with majorities in both houses of Congress, and the defection of Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter to the Democratic caucus in April 2009 gave Democrats a short-lived 60-vote supermajority. This being too great an obstacle for the president to overcome, it has been determined by Those Who Know Things™ that he needs a foil operating closer to his wavelength.
Or, as ostensibly Democratic pollster -- and frequent Fox News contributor -- Doug Schoen told Peter Baker of the New York Times for an article published this past Sunday, "The best possible result for Obama politically is for the Republicans to gain control of both houses ... That's what Obama should want."
Or, as University of Oklahoma history professor Steven Gillon put it to Baker in that same piece
"If the Democrats keep both houses, then Congress will hover over him and he's going to have less room to maneuver."
Analysis such as this is, unfortunately, occurs all too frequently and becomes all the more common the closer one gets to what may be considered insider circles. It forms part of an outlook exemplified by the Politico coverage model, which uses a lens for analysis that seeks to continuously anoint "winners" and "losers" in lieu of election results and policy success. In this universe, controlling the "message," whatever that may mean, is more important than legislative progress. The president should not engage in any action until considering its impact on his "political capital," so the wisdom goes, which as it is spent decreases in direct proportion to his "momentum."
This is all, of course, obvious. The first thing those who lost their jobs in the economic meltdown, those who have loved ones fighting for their country overseas and those who worry about paying their bills care about in relation to the present administration is whether or not they can dictate a 24-hour news cycle.
The wrongheadedness of this world view extends beyond the president day. When historians -- except perhaps for Professor Gillon -- judge the first term of the Obama presidency, they will not care who Roger Simon of Politico or Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post deemed to have been the winners and losers of a given week. (Or, to use the language of one of Cillizza's weekly editorial features, who had the "Worst Week in Washington.")
They will care whether or not Obama left Iraq and Afghanistan in a more or less stable and secure position. They will care whether the February 2009 stimulus legislation succeeded in heading off a depression. They will evaluate last year's health care legislation with regard to how well it increased health insurance coverage, made such coverage more more affordable and streamlined the health care industry. They will care about the president's education policies and his judicial appointments.
What makes this view all the more galling, however, is that it's incorrect. Having a Republican foil is most definitely not worth the inefficiency and gridlock that would follow. What this analysis forgets is that congressional majorities mean power. California representative Darrell Issa, ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, would have subpoena power and thus the ability to hamstring the administration. (Bill Clinton could tell everyone a thing or two about that.) Obama has already achieved paltry success in having his judicial nominees approved; that process may grind to a halt entirely depending on how many senate seats Republicans gain. Ultimately neglected by President Bush and the 108th, 109th, 110th and this past Congress, comprehensive immigration reform is still an imperative. Yet Republican gains will in all likelihood render the issue too controversial for Obama to proceed.
But then again, if Democrats lose their majority in the House of Representative Obama will be able to crack more jokes about presumptive-Speaker John Boehner's ridiculous tan. And you just know that Politico will eat that up.