Feature

Washington: Is the political system broken?

With each party intent on winning and on blaming the other party for intransigence, effective compromise no longer seems part of the political process.

“It’s hard to remember a more dismal moment in American politics,” said Jacob Weisberg in Slate.com. Last week’s reckless debt-ceiling showdown in Washington revealed a government that can no longer address our nation’s problems. The humiliating credit downgrade and stock-market crash that followed are just the beginning, because our political system “is broken in every possible way.” With the Tea Party faction of the GOP now holding the nation hostage, “compromise is dead.” The causes are numerous, said Timothy Garton Ash in the Toronto Globe and Mail. From the “undue influence of money” on elected officials to the toxic partisanship of cable news and talk radio, a “hysterical polarization” now grips the U.S. political system and has stripped us, in the dry language of the S&P downgrade, of the “effectiveness, stability, and predictability” one expects from the government of a First World nation. In short, it is no longer “vaguely original to describe the U.S. political system as ‘dysfunctional.’ Now it’s official.”

Both parties are not equally at fault, said Michael Cohen in Politico.com. The core problem is the “radical behavior” of congressional Republicans, who are gleefully “violating the customary rules that have long defined national politics.” The party’s ideological firebrands are determined to destroy President Obama by any means necessary, even if they must vote against policies—such as cutting the payroll tax—that they would usually support, or push the economy off a cliff, as many were clearly willing to do during the debt-ceiling standoff. The GOP’s rabid obstructionism isn’t “coming from a logical place,” said Steve Kornacki in Salon.com. At its core it’s an “emotional phenomenon, the product of the intense resentment of and resistance to Obama that has defined the party’s base” since this interloper with the foreign-sounding name moved into their White House.

There’s a word for the rancor and division you describe, said Charlie Cooke in NationalReview.com. It’s “democracy.” Republicans are blocking Barack Obama’s agenda for the simple reason that they disagree with him on nearly every issue, including adding trillions more to the nation’s debt. When liberals say the GOP should just “compromise” for the good of the nation, what they really mean is that the “enlightened” classes should be free to dictate terms to the rest of the nation. To that, we conservatives say, “No, you won’t.” The Founding Fathers created the separation of powers to keep men like Obama in check. The fact that there’s bitter conflict in Washington is not “a sign that the system is broken, but that it is working.”

Even in politics, though, conflict must eventually give way to productive choices, said Ross Douthat in The New York Times. That’s no longer the case. For that, I blame “the seductive dream” that partisans on both sides now share: a historic “realignment” in which Democrats or Republicans rule as the majority party for a generation. Karl Rove thought the GOP was in reach of just such a realignment in 2004; so did Obama’s brain trust in 2008. The fantasy of realignment drives each party to overreach after its victories—with the second Bush tax cut, with Obamacare—and to dig in its heels after defeat. “Why cut a deal today if tomorrow you might overthrow your rivals permanently?” This thinking has left elected leaders locked in mortal combat, as circumstances now carry the nation toward disaster. Before it’s too late, both Democrats and Republicans must start “to govern as though that final victory might never quite arrive.”

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