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February 17, 2010

What Makes America Ungovernable
Posted by Michael Cohen

So two weeks ago I wrote a piece for Newsweek in which I described the United States as an increasingly ungovernable country. In the Wall Street Journal, Pete Wehner has responded by defining my argument as “unserious,” because I described the Republican Party as a “party of nihilists” focused on the achievement of political power above all else.

By a unique scientific principle known as the Wehner Paradox (which is an offshoot of Jon Chait’s Wehner Fallacy) a charge of unseriousness from Pete Wehner is actually proof of the fundamental seriousness of ones argument. So thanks Pete! I’m only hoping that soon Pete Wehner will soon describe me as being “un-wealthy” in the pages of the Wall Street Journal . . . or declare that the Detroit Red Wings will NOT win the Stanley Cup this year.

But jokes aside, today’s New York Times provides even more evidence of our fundamentally broken political system and the unique role played by the Republican party in perpetuating that cycle of dysfunction.  Part of the problem here is the seeming incapacity of reporters to state the obvious: we have a broken political system that is undermining America’e economic competitiveness and sapping American power and influence on the global stage - and Republicans are overwhelmingly to blame. Consider this quote from the Times story:

Yet rarely has the political system seemed more polarized and less able to solve big problems that involve trust, tough choices and little short-term gain. The main urgency for both parties seems to be about pinning blame on the other, before November’s elections, for deficits now averaging $1 trillion a year, the largest since World War II relative to the size of the economy.

I wonder if Jackie Calmes really believes that the main urgency for Democrats is to pin blame for the deficit on Republicans . . . when the main urgency of Democrats seems to be passing health care reform, which would go a long way toward resolving the country’s long-term debt issues, and Republicans are doing everything in their power to obstruct it (and it should be mentioned did nothing to deal with the country’s health care crisis during the past eight years when they controlled wide swaths of the federal government).  Even the notion that Democrats don’t want to deal with entitlement spending is undermined by the fact that the party’s health care reform legislation would help put Medicare on a more secure financial footing and reduce health care costs in general (not that this stopped the GOP from accusing the Obama Administration of wanting to cut Medicare spending).

Indeed Calmes counts the many ways in which Republicans have made “bipartisan compromise” impossible – or created the current problem:

Republicans today see opposition as a way back to power in November, and their party is more ideologically antitax than in the past.”

“Conservative activists so oppose compromise of any sort that several lawmakers have drawn primary challengers for working with Democrats.”

“Sensing political advantage, Republicans are resisting President Obama’s call for a bipartisan commission to cut the debt, although recent studies have implicated the tax cuts and spending policies of the years after 2000 when they controlled Congress and the White House. Even seven Republican senators who had co-sponsored a bill to create a commission nonetheless voted against it recently.”

In searching for examples of Democratic obstructionism to deficit reduction, Calmes only cites President Obama’s admittedly ill-advised declaration in the 2008 campaign that he would not raise taxes over anyone making less than $250,000. What goes unnoted here is that even with that pledge – even with the hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts in last year’s stimulus package - Republican leaders continue to falsely claim that Obama HAS raised taxes - and most Americans believe them. I wonder if this had something to do with Obama making that pledge.

Finally, only at the end of the article does Calmes make perhaps the essential point about the failure to tackle America’s growing debt - voter incoherence on the issue:

Yet politicians’ failure to reduce deficits has long reflected voters’ opposition to the necessary steps. By a two-to-one ratio Americans oppose cutting health care and education; 51 percent oppose lower military spending.

The CBS/NYT poll she cites doesn’t ask about raising taxes or cutting entitlements, but take a wild guess what those numbers might look like. 

But none of this should be a surprise; forty years of anti-government rhetoric that taxes are evil, cutting “wasteful” spending is easy (even when consistently it's not) and reducing our bloated military budget or paring back our international commitments will put America at risk has fundamentally narrowed the governing options for America’s leaders.  And on this front it’s not just Republicans who are to blame – it’s folks like the “centrist” Evan Bayh, who on the one hand preaches fiscal sanity and then supports tax cut giveaways for the wealthiest Americans. To sound a bipartisan note here, Bayh and other pseudo-centrists are absolutely complicit in helping the GOP grind the wheels of effective governance to a halt.

Generally speaking I have been trying to avoid sounding an overly partisan note here at DA; and as any long-time reader will attest I have not been shy in criticizing the current Administration for some of its foreign policy decision-making. But there is nothing partisan about stating that “Party Gridlock” is not fueling America’s debt crisis, it’s the Republican Party. That’s a fact. 

A party that is unable to fathom the very notion of raising taxes on any American, that treats any efforts to curb military interventionism and spending as a treasonous act, and has consistently demonstrated a fundamental unseriousness about reducing spending – and has actually in positions of political power perpetuated the country’s addiction to deficit spending – IS THE PROBLEM. That Democrats lack the confidence in their own beliefs to stand up to this obstructionism is not helping; but it's hardly the root of the issue.

And look, one can certainly make the argument that such an approach is completely consistent with a conservative ideology that looks askance at the overweening influence of government. One can argue that the GOP approach is consistent with the belief that the most effective government is one that does not provide for its citizens or perhaps more charitably, is one that does not try too deeply to influence their lives.

Fine. I'll buy that. As long as everyone accepts that this is the defining source of gridlock in American politics today. Deal?

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Comments

Michael, you're doing stellar work and you had me in the palm of your literary hand until this:
Democrats lack the confidence in their own beliefs

Come on, Michael, we're adults, we can take the truth. It's the money, isn't it, and surely not any lack of confidence in any supposed beliefs.

Hi,
As far as I know while no government is free from undue influence, the American federal system is remarkably corruption-free for a government of its size and power.

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