There was a time when something like the “Supercommittee” set up to cut a relatively modest $1.2 trillion over ten years at a minimum (with hope for a larger deal) would have been almost certain to succeed. There was a time when the top political leaders would get behind closed doors and say “let’s do what needs to be done, and craft find a deal each of us can live with.” They’d agree to split the political costs and put the country ahead of the next election.
Those days are long past. Now DC is divided by a deep partisan rift. That much isn’t new; partisan division has been the norm in the US since the founding of the country. Now, however, it has led to political dysfunction as ideology creates a kind of jihadist mentality. No tax increases ever! Social Security must be untouched! Ideology trumps rationality.
I’ve pointed out many times that ideology is a very poor way to interpret reality. Ideologies are overly simplified visions of reality that, when taken as dogma, make it possible to interpret reality through that lens. That doesn’t mean you can’t have some kind of ideological world view, it just means one needs to remember that the ideology itself both a simplified version of reality and only one take on it.
Take FOX news for example. They are perhaps the most blatant “news” source that interprets what they report through a clear ideological prism. The result: Fox viewers know less about what’s going on in the world than even those who watch no news. Interpreting the world through an ideological lens without critically reflecting on that lens or the information means one has a poorer understanding of reality. The survey cited isn’t extensive enough to prove that broader theme, but the evidence fits.
If mediocre minds (and most politicians fit this bill) get comfortable with ideology driven understandings of reality, they can feel they are on like a holy crusade to get the “right” policies passed. Compromise is seen as weakness. Yet compromise is the essence of the American political system. We’ve always had hyper partisan political fights, but the politicians in the end built personal relationships with each other, recognized the need to problem solve, and did what was necessary. Even the Republican hero Ronald Reagan was a pragmatist when it came to Congress — that’s what the founders intended; the founders were above all else pragmatists.
They looked to Montesquieu and took concepts such as checks and balances and separation of power — something Montesquieu learned about by studying the old Roman Republic — and shaped a system that could not easily be dominated by one party or person. With frequent elections alongside such divisions of power, it is almost always a necessity that politicians compromise. Even when one party controls all branches of government compromise can be difficult, as the health care battle of 2010 demonstrated.
However, the system requires the political leaders to want to govern more than just campaign. The country has to be more important than the next election. Getting the job done has to be more important than ideological purity. There are still politicians like that in each party, but they’re getting drowned out by the ideologues. In the case of the super committee the Republicans are more to blame for its failure, and they perhaps have the most to lose.
Democrats generally supported a plan like that of President Obama to mix dramatic cuts in spending with moderate tax increases, as well as some reforms of medicare and social security. This would be a high stakes agreement, with the GOP losing the political weapon of saying “we never raise taxes” while Democrats could no longer say “we won’t touch entitlements.” If done right neither side would be happy, but an important step in fixing the economic imbalances would have been taken.
The Republicans balked at any tax increase. Even when members of the committee seemed to warm up to the idea it may be necessary to reach a compromise, the message from the rest of the GOP Congress was clear: don’t you dare. The Democrats may have ultimately had problems with entitlements, but it never got that far — and without tax increases a budget deal is DOA.
When the Supercommittee was created it appeared that it was a victory for the Republicans. Speaker Boehner said he got “98%” of what he wanted, and President Obama’s approval ratings sank. He was seen as weak in standing up to the Republicans, and unable to lead in a time of crisis, leading to a downgrade of US bonds by Standard and Poor’s. Yet now the Democrats find that the triggered $1.2 trillion cuts that get made without an agreement don’t look so bad. They contain a lot of defense spending cuts that Democrats genuinely find more appealing than do Republicans. Medicare and the entitlements are protected. The cuts sting the GOP more than they do the Democrats, and they set up an election that could play into Democratic hands.
First, one has a do-nothing Congress that can’t reach agreement. The GOP in the House can pass their own plans, but that’s a kind of political masturbation. The trick is to pass something that both can agree too. The Democrats in the Senate could face similar criticism but they’ve appeared more willing to compromise and anyway, the House takes the lead on spending and revenue bills.
Second, as Americans start to wake up to how relative wealth has shifted away from the middle class to the wealthiest, the election will pose a simple question: given the crisis we’re in and the spending cuts that we know we need to make, should the wealthiest Americans play slightly higher taxes? Recognizing that the cuts hurt the middle class and poor, and that even with higher taxes wealthy Americans will still be the least taxed wealthy of the industrialized world, that is an argument the Democrats are poised to win.
Finally, it will appear that the GOP class of 2010 blew its chance to make a difference. People voted them in not to get a right wing crusade — many of these voters also voted for Obama in 2008. They wanted to force the two parties to work together and felt that with health care and other issues the Democrats were using their control of Congress to push through their own agenda. Indeed, the 111th Congress under Nancy Pelosi was one of the most effective in history at getting legislation passed. But rather than forcing the Democrats to compromise the GOP put up a brick wall, and Congressional approval is lower than ever. This means the Democrats have a small chance to take the House back in 2012.
It’s up to the voters. If they vote out Obama and give the Senate to the Republicans, the GOP can start making cuts with no tax increases — and the Democrats will be ready to bounce back in 2014. If the status quo is maintained the GOP will realize it has four more years of Obama and can’t stall hoping to have the White House soon. If the Democrats regain power in the House it will be narrow enough that they may see a need to compromise in order to avoid a debacle by 2010. But the politicians aren’t going to do anything major until they hear from the voters next year.