Political Rule #1: In a fight between the Congress and the President, if the President takes a stand, the President always wins.
It works with either party, this is a strictly non-partisan rule. Politics is a game and it is like any other, it has rules. This one applies because of two factors perhaps unique to American politics and culture.
1) The President’s popularity is measured on a scale of one to one-hundred, so we have seen presidents with approval ratings up to ninety percent (both Bushes, one in the build-up to the Gulf War, and one after 9/11.) Historically, the Congress has never polled much above forty percent. So, a president who consistently polls at that rate is doomed in the next election, while the party that controls Congress, which polls even at twenty-eight percent, say, will probably hold the House in the next election.
2) The first factor exists because of this second: generally, Americans like an individual and distrust a group. It is a saying in politics, “I like my Congressman; I hate the Congress.” A president that takes a strong position and won’t back down looks to the voters in the middle, who decide elections, like an underdog and a rebel, someone who will put his beliefs above his political future. Culturally, America likes such figures, even if they essentially disagree with them. A willful Congress, on the other hand, looks like a giant blundering, faceless bureaucracy. If an issue has been debated long enough for the President to look like he has been a reasonable individual before taking a stand, the President will always win.
Like any rule in a game, this rule can be overcome by another rule: Congress wins if they go to the public and they convince the President to never take a stand because of public opinion. In a strange way, the public likes a President who defies them even against a Congress they might be convinced is right. It is basic human psychology. It comes down to the fact that politicians are hired by the public to fix something, say like maybe your car. If a committee of mechanics debates and tells you how it should be fixed, and a guy you hired to be in charge seems half-hearted, most will cringingly go with the committee. If that guy takes a stand against the committee and tells you what is wrong personally, and what should be done, you are much more likely to accept his view, even if you are suspect about it, than the committee.
This is why Mitch McConnell, Senate Republican leader, recently came up with a plan to put the deficit ceiling in Obama’s hands. He remembered 1995, when a wave of anti-government sentiment swept Republicans, headed by Newt Gingrich, into control of Congress. They had tried to force Clinton to sign off on their budget cuts. Clinton took a hard stand and they shut down the government. Clinton’s popularity rose, Newt Gingrich and the Congress’s fell. The Congress lost. When Obama finally took a stand against cuts for everybody, and none for the rich, saying, “I will not yield on this,” the Congress and McConnell were left with little choice. When none other than Newt Gingrich criticized McConnell for his plan, he said, “[W]e knew shutting down the government in 1995 was not going to work for us. It helped Bill Clinton get reelected. I refuse to help Barack Obama get reelected…”
The old horse knows where he gets his feed, when the President takes a stand, the President always wins. Learn that and you will be able to see the real machine at work.