If George Washington could witness the partisan warfare that has come to dominate the nation’s capital, he would probably ask to have his name removed. I’d suggest calling it Dysfunction Junction, at least until that seemingly distant day when politicians can again demonstrate a fundamental ability to govern.
As evidenced by the ginned-up debt-ceiling crisis and the jerry-rigged fiscal deal that virtually guarantees more episodes of brinkmanship, the Democratic-Republican duopoly now appears bent on alienating as many voters as possible. And it’s doing a heckuva job. Never before in the history of polling have Americans voiced so much contempt for politicians or yearned so fiercely to throw the bums out.
The problem is that today’s elected leaders (I use that word advisedly) are far more ideologically polarized than the general citizenry. Too many politicians — especially the tea-party Republicans who held the debt ceiling hostage and drove us to the brink of default — do not believe in the art of compromise as practiced by the Founding Fathers they profess to revere. Meanwhile, according to a new national poll, 85 percent of Americans want lawmakers to compromise for the greater good.
Poor view of Congress
This disconnect helps explain why only 14 percent of Americans (and only 11 percent of swing-voting independents) have a favorable view of Congress, while only 15 percent believe most of its members deserve to be reelected. This is unprecedented: People are angrier now than they were going into the 1994, 2006, and 2010 midterm elections, all of which turned out to be tsunamis that toppled or severely weakened the ruling party in Congress.
A historic anti-incumbent wave seems to be in the offing — one that could portend power shifts in Congress and the White House. The polls suggest that swing voters are disillusioned with President Obama and angry at congressional Democrats, but they’re even more ticked off at congressional Republicans. What we don’t know is whether anything better would emerge from the wave’s wreckage.
If, for instance, we wind up with a Republican president and divided power on Capitol Hill, gridlock would likely continue. The debt standoff was no sudden freak of nature; it had been developing for decades, ever since deal-making centrists began to disappear (in the 24/7 media as well as in government) and uncivil ideologues began to take their place.
The risk of governmental paralysis will remain no matter how the voters sort out the political players. Indeed, the credit downgrade by Standard & Poor’s was in part a thumbs-down verdict on our current politics — a dire forecast of further paralysis. Granted, the rating agency has rightly taken heat for its hands-off behavior during the subprime-mortgage scandal, but its vote of no confidence in this case seems right on the money.
A third-party solution?
As often occurs during hard times, many Americans are yearning for a magical solution — for instance, a third party that would break the dysfunctional duopoly. Gallup says 68 percent of independent voters currently embrace that idea. Third-party fans are fond of pointing out that Ross Perot garnered 19 percent of the vote in 1992 despite being widely perceived as nuts. And that was in an era when Capitol Hill was still dominated by across-the-aisle deal-makers such as Sam Nunn, Bill Bradley, Bob Dole and Mark Hatfield (who died last week).
The latest brainstorm on the third-party front is Americans Elect, which is financed with $20 million from mostly anonymous donors (wait, wasn’t secrecy supposed to be a bad thing?) and fronted by an impressive board of directors, including ex-Bush strategist Mark McKinnon and Democratic pollster Doug Schoen. True to our digital era, the group is inviting Americans to nominate an independent presidential ticket via a virtual primary conducted on the Internet. It’s also working to get on all ballots nationwide — which may be a tall order given election laws that protect the duopoly in Pennsylvania and many other states.
The goal is to seize the middle ground — what Colin Powell has called the “sensible center” — that the polarized major parties seem to have abandoned. It’s an admirable plan, but it has an inherent flaw: Voters have very different definitions of the sensible center.
Last autumn, 62 percent of tea-party-affiliated Americans told Gallup that a third party would be a swell idea. Their idea of centrism includes preserving the Bush tax cuts for the rich and shredding the federal safety net that has protected average citizens since the New Deal. Sixty-one percent of liberals also told Gallup that a third party would be a swell idea. Their centrism would kill those tax cuts and keep the safety net.
Americans Elect leaders have reportedly been fantasizing about a Gen. David Petraeus-Michael Bloomberg ticket. (Bloomberg’s name has been floated for higher office every year since 2006, often by Bloomberg.) But for now, that scenario seems as solid as skywriting. All we know for sure in these dolorous dog days is that the major parties will continue to test our patience.
GOP held hostage
And I won’t pretend that both parties are equally at fault. The bottom line is that the polls show most Americans want compromise and believe the budget chasm can be narrowed effectively only with a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases. But the Republicans, hostage to tea-party absolutism, do not want compromise and refuse to entertain any revenue increases. Senate Republican leaders said last week that they reserve the right to threaten future credit defaults and government shutdowns to get what they want.
In response, the Democrats — with Obama “leading from behind” — will likely sustain their habit of going belly up when the chips are down.
This is no way to run a country, but it’s a guaranteed way to stoke even more public anger. We’ve long been comforted by Winston Churchill’s assertion that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” But these days, much to our detriment, the duopoly seems to be woefully short of democratic values.