Washington is gridlocked because of very real structural reasons. More salesmanship or a new president won’t change that.
A recent article in The Washington Post gave us a glimpse into what sort of themes Hillary Clinton might run on in a potential bid for the White House in 2016. One of the biggest is the idea that Washington is gridlocked and overwhelmed with far too many partisan battles. As Hillary Clinton put it in a recent speech at the liberal think tank The Center for American Progress, “We are careening from crisis to crisis instead of having a plan, bringing people to that plan, focusing on common-sense solutions and being relentless in driving toward them.”
A fairly obvious conclusion from these types of critiques is that President Obama has failed to live up to his 2008 campaign rhetoric of bipartisanship. In fact, Bill Clinton has implied this quite strongly recently. On the campaign trail in Virginia for his longtime friend and candidate for governor Terry McAuliffe, Bill Clinton was ever more outspoken in criticizing the Washington political status quo that his wife was earlier. As he put it, “When people sneeringly say, ‘McAuliffe is a dealmaker,’ I say, ‘Oh, if we only had one in Washington during that shutdown…It’s exhausting seeing politicians waste time with all these arguments. It is exhausting. People deserve somebody who will get this show on the road.”
This might sound good to a shutdown weary nation, but this sort of narrative is fundamentally flawed. The idea that Washington is gridlocked because of a lack “dealmakers” is simply not true. Washington is gridlocked and going from crisis to crisis for very real structural reason. And these reasons can’t be surmounted by cocktail hours, schmoozing or vague platitudes about leadership.
One of the biggest reasons Washington seems gridlocked is simply historical. Right now we are living in a time of a profoundly polarized electorate and profoundly polarized political parties. As the political scientist Keith Poole pointed out on his Vote View blog back in 2012, you would have to go back more than a hundred years to find a time of similarly highly polarized parties. And while the Democrats have grown more liberal in the last 30 years, the most striking change is how extreme the GOP has become. Simply put the Republican Party is now more ideologically extreme than its been since the 1870’s. There really isn’t a parallel to it since the Civil War.
Another reason for the troubles that plague Washington is that the current GOP seems ideologically opposed to compromise as a principle. Take the example of the often cited idea for a bipartisan “Grand Bargain” that would lower future deficits by trimming future entitlement spending and also raising taxes on the rich. The idea is simple enough, Republicans would have to compromise on taxes and Democrats would have to compromise on entitlement spending. President Obama has been pushing for this since at least 2011 and while Republicans often give such a hypothetical bargain lip service, over the last four years it’s never gotten off the ground. Why? Well because every time taxes get included in a hypothetical deal it gets torpedoed by Republicans. Democrats may be willing to swallow entitlement cuts in exchange for things they want, but they won’t do it in exchange for nothing. Thus every time we try and get to a grand bargain, it just doesn’t work out.
As Slate’s David Weigel pointed out recently, Congressman Paul Ryan has begun stating this plainly in light of the possibility being raised of yet another round of grand bargaining. Ryan recently put his position as being, “Taking more from hardworking families just isn’t the answer. I know my Republican colleagues feel the same way. So I want to say this from the get-go: If this conference becomes an argument about taxes, we’re not going to get anywhere.” Basically Republicans are willing to end gridlock, as long as Democrats surrender and give them everything they want. Since this isn’t going to happen, we get the gridlock status quo.
Finally there is something wrong with a lot of the common truisms we hear about politicians needing to “come together” or end “partisan bickering” themselves. Disagreement is part of the fundamental nature of our democracy, any democracy really, and has been since writing the Constitution. When people begin telling us that disagreement is wrong or the sign of some kind of character flaw in a politician or group, what they are really doing is complaining about how democracy is difficult. Well of course it is, if you want political or social change in a nation of 300 million plus people of course it’s going to be hard.
Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP