Too Many Charlie Cooks

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Political forecaster Charlie Cook explains that Democrats lost the midterm elections because they made the “horrific choice” to “focus almost exclusively and obsessively on health-care reform.” The Democrats did pass a major economic rescue package, he concedes, but they are “paying dearly for having simply checked the box on an economic-stimulus package in early 2009.

Cook’s argument makes some sense if you accept a few premises. The first is that the sole goal of an elected official ought to be winning power, so that using political capital to enact a transformative social reform is an inherently stupid idea, unless somehow it also happens that you win the next election. The second is that the “horrific” choice to address a massive humanitarian and fiscal problem cost the Democrats dearly in 2010 and 2014 but the effects somehow did not arise in 2012. The third is that Obama needed to find some clever way to override the objections of centrist Senators that arose immediately in 2009.

The last objection is certainly one to take seriously. The 2009 stimulus was too small, and too much of it was consumed with things that had little stimulative impact, like extending the Alternative Minimum Tax exclusion. And why was the stimulus too small and insufficiently stimulative? Because moderate Senators, in a completely misguided attempt to control short-term deficits in the face of a massive jobs crisis, demanded those changes.

One can argue that Democrats should have passed a second stimulus later that year, using budget reconciliation so deficit-obsessed Republican moderates couldn’t have blocked it. But Cook isn’t the person to make that case. Cook is the guy who was scolding Obama is 2009 for being too partisan:

But the great hope that a master of change had arrived in Washington was quickly dissipated as the House-passed stimulus package “suggested an effort exclusively of, by, and for Democrats, and it played to some of the worst stereotypes of the Democratic Party and of politics as usual on Capitol Hill,” writes Cook. “It implied that Obama had become a captive of, rather than the victor over, old-style politics.”

The House stimulus debacle belied Obama’s determination to build a large and durable coalition — not to merely win with a very narrow majority, Cook says.

History shows that the biggest and most meaningful public policy changes of the last century were achieved through bipartisan efforts, not by one party muscling its agenda through,” he writes.

Congress didn’t pass more stimuli because moderate Republicans who controlled the veto point in the Senate didn’t want to pass more stimuli. Obama passed the biggest stimulus he could secure while still holding onto the handful of Republican Senators he needed to pass the bill. Even the stimulus he got went too far for Charlie Cook. If 2014 Charlie Cook wants to argue for a bigger stimulus in Obama’s first year, he should have that argument with 2009 Charlie Cook.