Monday, January 07, 2013

"A broken system, a lousy deal, and no end in sight ...."

That line comes from the cover of the latest Economist.  What country's political system do you suppose they're talking about? Actually, there are a lot of plausible candidates, but the country they have in mind is the US, and they're right. That description nicely captures our situation in the wake of the last-minute stop-gap non-solution to the artificial crisis generally referred to as the "fiscal cliff".  (The analysis spelled out inside the magazine is more uneven in quality, but one can't have everything.)

Joe Nocera captured the same point in his New York Times column on Saturday.  Some elements of his analysis are problematic too, and I'll get to those in a moment, but this part is absolutely on-target:
On Thursday, the Capitol was full of happy people. The trauma of the 112th Congress — which ended 36 hours after yet another frenzied round of kick-the-financial-can — was starting to lift. It was a new day. Hope sprang eternal.

The new Congress was being sworn in. The 14 new senators and 84 new members of Congress walked around the Capitol in a giddy daze.[....]

I bumped into Hawaii’s new senator, Brian Schatz, who replaced the late Daniel Inouye toward the end of the last Congressional session. “The fiscal-cliff vote shows that it is possible to have a bipartisan vote,” he actually said.

If only.

What the fiscal cliff vote showed, in fact, is just how rudderless and polarized Washington has become. The only way Congress could end the last debt-ceiling crisis was by creating a cliff so steep — with its combination of tax increases and deep spending cuts — that both parties would be forced to find an acceptable middle ground.

Instead, they punted again. Though President Obama got a watered-down version of his tax hikes for the wealthy, the spending cuts were pushed off into the future, infuriating many Republicans. Because Republicans will no longer negotiate with Obama, he had to outsource the negotiations to his vice president, Joe Biden. Speaker John Boehner was humiliated by his own party, of which two-thirds voted against the deal in the House. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, quickly promised a new fight over the next debt-ceiling vote.

That’s less than two months away. After which, we’ll hit the fiscal cliff — again. [...]
Then the biggest weakness of Nocera's column is brought out by the next two sentences, where he slips into the lazy and misleading formulas of supposedly 'responsible' mainstream political punditry:
They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same action, and expecting a different result. By that measure, Congress has lost its mind. [....]
Some major players in US national politics have gone bonkers, for sure. But attributing this condition to an undifferentiated "Congress" is deeply misleading and harmful to public discourse, because it obscures the actual roots of the problem, lets the real culprits off the hook, and makes it harder to hold them politically accountable. Putting the matter that way, without distinguishing between Democrats and Republicans, does have the advantage of sounding even-handed, 'bipartisan, 'sober', and 'objective'; unfortunately, it has the disadvantage of being unrealistic and objectively false.

Any honest assessment of the current dysfunctions and pathologies of our political system has to acknowledge that there is plenty of blame to go around, and that Republicans and right-wingers don't deserve all of it. But anyone who tries to pretend that there is moral and practical equivalence between the two major parties in these respects is simply not facing reality, or is being deliberately disingenuous, or both.

Ever since the 2008 election the Obama administration, which is basically a very moderate just-slightly-left-of-center administration, has shown itself willing and eager to compromise with the Republicans, even to to an excessive degree; but the Congressional Republicans have almost uniformly responded with immovable and escalating intransigence, making small-scale tactical accommodations only in last-ditch looming-end-of-the-world situations like the one in December 2012—and even then the House Republican caucus overwhelmingly rejected the Obama-McConnell compromise package. The Senate Republicans, not the Democrats, are the ones who have brought systematic, indiscriminate, and monolithic obstructionism to a historically unprecedented level that makes it increasingly impossible for the Senate to function as a serious legislative body. It was the Congressional Republicans, not the Democrats, who took the historically unprecedented and breathtakingly irresponsible step of weaponizing the debt ceiling and turning it into a routine tool of political blackmail and extortion that they threaten to keep using indefinitely and without compunction, despite the fact that every time they create one of these artificial debt-ceiling crises they are (cynically or mindlessly) putting the financial credibility of the US government at risk for partisan advantage. And so on.

No, any honest analysis of these issues must explicitly face up to, rather than evading or obscuring, a key reality that was spelled out reluctantly in 2012 by two quintessentially sober, centrist, and knowledgeable long-term analysts of US politics, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein:  Fundamentally, the Republicans are the problem.

I've quoted from their analysis before, but it's worth quoting some highlights again:
[....] We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party. [....] It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

“Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach.

It is clear that the center of gravity in the Republican Party has shifted sharply to the right.[....] The post-McGovern Democratic Party, by contrast, while losing the bulk of its conservative Dixiecrat contingent in the decades after the civil rights revolution, has retained a more diverse base. Since the Clinton presidency, it has hewed to the center-left on issues from welfare reform to fiscal policy. While the Democrats may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25, the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post.

What happened? Of course, there were larger forces at work beyond the realignment of the South. [....] But the real move to the bedrock right starts with two names: Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist.

From the day he entered Congress in 1979, Gingrich had a strategy to create a Republican majority in the House: convincing voters that the institution was so corrupt that anyone would be better than the incumbents, especially those in the Democratic majority. It took him 16 years [....]

Ironically, after becoming speaker, Gingrich wanted to enhance Congress’s reputation and was content to compromise with President Bill Clinton when it served his interests. But the forces Gingrich unleashed destroyed whatever comity existed across party lines, activated an extreme and virulently anti-Washington base — most recently represented by tea party activists — and helped drive moderate Republicans out of Congress. (Some of his progeny, elected in the early 1990s, moved to the Senate and polarized its culture in the same way.)

Norquist, meanwhile, founded Americans for Tax Reform in 1985 and rolled out his Taxpayer Protection Pledge the following year. The pledge, which binds its signers to never support a tax increase (that includes closing tax loopholes [without an offsetting tax cut—JW]), had been signed as of last year by 238 of the 242 House Republicans and 41 of the 47 GOP senators, according to ATR. The Norquist tax pledge has led to other pledges, on issues such as climate change, that create additional litmus tests that box in moderates and make cross-party coalitions nearly impossible. For Republicans concerned about a primary challenge from the right, the failure to sign such pledges is simply too risky.

Today, thanks to the GOP, compromise has gone out the window in Washington. In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly every presidential initiative met with vehement, rancorous and unanimous Republican opposition in the House and the Senate, followed by efforts to delegitimize the results and repeal the policies. The filibuster, once relegated to a handful of major national issues in a given Congress, became a routine weapon of obstruction, applied even to widely supported bills or presidential nominations. And Republicans in the Senate have abused the confirmation process to block any and every nominee to posts such as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, solely to keep laws that were legitimately enacted from being implemented.

In the third and now fourth years of the Obama presidency, divided government has produced something closer to complete gridlock than we have ever seen in our time in Washington, with partisan divides even leading last year to America’s first credit downgrade.

On financial stabilization and economic recovery, on deficits and debt, on climate change and health-care reform. Republicans have been the force behind the widening ideological gaps and the strategic use of partisanship. In the presidential campaign and in Congress, GOP leaders have embraced fanciful policies on taxes and spending, kowtowing to their party’s most strident voices. [....]

The results can border on the absurd: In early 2009, several of the eight Republican co-sponsors of a bipartisan health-care reform plan dropped their support; by early 2010, the others had turned on their own proposal so that there would be zero GOP backing for any bill that came within a mile of Obama’s reform initiative. As one co-sponsor, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), told The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein: “I liked it because it was bipartisan. I wouldn’t have voted for it.”

This attitude filters down far deeper than the party leadership. Rank-and-file GOP voters endorse the strategy that the party’s elites have adopted, eschewing compromise to solve problems and insisting on principle, even if it leads to gridlock. Democratic voters, by contrast, along with self-identified independents, are more likely to favor deal-making over deadlock.
It's worth noting one feature of the recent "fiscal cliff" drama that helps underline the points in that last paragraph. Over the last generation, the Congressional Republicans—but not the Congressional Democrats—have achieved a level of party discipline that I believe is unprecedented in US political history, and that is usually seen only in parliamentary parties.  (Unfortunately, in a non-parliamentary system like ours, that kind of down-the line party discipline can make effective governing close to impossible.)  And on those rare occasions when Congressional Republicans break with party discipline, the reasons almost never involve an impulse toward moderation or a desire to seek pragmatic compromises with the other party. Instead, it's almost always because they think the Republican leadership is not being extremist or intransigent enough. Thus, it's not really surprising that almost two-thirds of the House Republicans voted against the Obama-McConnell compromise package, which passed the House only because the great bulk of House Democrats voted in favor.
Democrats are hardly blameless, and they have their own extreme wing and their own predilection for hardball politics. But these tendencies do not routinely veer outside the normal bounds of robust politics. If anything, under the presidencies of Clinton and Obama, the Democrats have become more of a status-quo party. [JW: Too true, alas.] They are centrist protectors of government, reluctantly willing to revamp programs and trim retirement and health benefits to maintain its central commitments in the face of fiscal pressures. [....]

We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

Our advice to the press: Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?

Also, stop lending legitimacy to Senate filibusters by treating a 60-vote hurdle as routine. The framers certainly didn’t intend it to be. Report individual senators’ abusive use of holds and identify every time the minority party uses a filibuster to kill a bill or nomination with majority support. [....]

In the end, while the press can make certain political choices understandable, it is up to voters to decide. If they can punish ideological extremism at the polls and look skeptically upon candidates who profess to reject all dialogue and bargaining with opponents, then an insurgent outlier party will have some impetus to return to the center. Otherwise, our politics will get worse before it gets better.
At the moment, the latter outcome looks more likely, at least for the medium term. But if we're ever going to improve things, a necessary first step is for everyone to start facing up to some unpleasant realities.

—Jeff Weintraub