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Is Washington’s Dysfunction Only Skin Deep?

American democracy has reached a low point in its natural arc, but the pendulum in a few years could well be on the upswing.

February 21, 2014

During the inflation-ravaged, gas-lined summer of 1979, Jimmy Carter’s approval ratings tumbled to below 30 percent. Carter’s collapse prompted Big Thinkers and elite opinion-molders to sadly conclude that the era of successful national leaders – let alone two-term presidents – was at an end. Not since the Fillmore-Pierce-Buchanan era leading up to the Civil War had there been such a litany of failure at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The evidence supporting the “Twilight of the Presidency” (a book title by LBJ’s former press secretary George Reedy) appeared irrefutable. Lyndon Johnson’s liberal dreams died in the jungles of Vietnam and Richard Nixon became the first former president who needed a White House pardon. While Jerry Ford modestly toasted his own English muffins in the White House kitchen, his accidental presidency ended up more about WIN (“Whip Inflation Now”) buttons than winning. And the Carter years left America with a sense of (no, I will not use the word “malaise”) disappointment.

Picture a blue-ribbon conference in 1979 on the waning of executive power and the rise of an all-powerful Congress. It is a safe bet that none of the distinguished participants, brooding about the incredible shrinking presidency, could have imagined what would come next. To them, it would have seemed unfathomable that four of the next five presidents would have been elected to a second term. And both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton left the White House as popular figures with second-term approval ratings averaging more than 55 percent.

Big Think alarmism about structural problems in Washington boasts a long and distinguished pedigree. But often these intractable difficulties – like the purported end of successful two-term presidencies – vanish just when the outlook appears bleakest.

That was my contrarian feeling during a Brennan Center conference last week on “democratic dysfunction” and the governing crisis in America. Panels on topics such as gridlock on Capitol Hill, partisan gerrymandering, ideologically rigid political parties and unregulated campaign spending all produced a collective sense of Henny-Penny-ism.

But I kept thinking that everything in politics comes in cycles—and that the tears and Taps are exaggerated. Sure, American democracy has reached a low point in its natural arc, but the pendulum in a few years could well be on the upswing.

Reformers have a natural tendency to favor dire diagnoses because pessimism reinforces their it’s-never-been-worse arguments for change. But a case can be made that many seemingly structural problems in Washington stem from Barack Obama’s 2010 decision to bet his presidency on the Affordable Care Act. Nearly four years after its passage, Obamacare currently has the support of less than 40 percent of the electorate. The president’s choice of legislative priorities and the partly resulting Democratic wipeout in the 2010 elections has shaped redistricting, empowered the Tea Party movement and contributed to scorched-earth partisanship in Washington.

But after the (Ted) Cruz-missile folly of GOP extremism, there are signs that the Republicans are slowly stepping away from the brink. The debt-ceiling vote shows that the House Republican leadership finally understands that no political party can prosper by shutting down the government and defaulting on the national debt.

In the Senate, the filibuster is more imperiled than it has been for decades. By detonating the neutron bomb that killed the filibuster for judicial and executive branch nominees, Majority Leader Harry Reid may have sealed its ultimate fate. If the Republicans win back the Senate in 2014, I can imagine Mitch McConnell retaliating by preventing the Democrats from filibustering anything. Liberals undoubtedly would hate the legislation that would then emerge from a filibuster-free Republican Congress, but that would be the result of something called elections rather than the dysfunction of democracy.

The standard laments about democracy in 2014 revolve around the failure of the White House and Republicans in Congress to compromise on officially certified big problems. In particular, many establishmentarians continue to rend their garments over the lack of agreement on a Grand Bargain on the deficit like the Simpson-Bowles plan. But that supposed irresponsibility of Congress may simply reflect the reality that investment bankers and hedge-fund managers care far more about the national debt than the voters. In every poll over the last year, Americans say that the major problem facing the nation is the stagnant economy rather than the budget deficit.

This is the moment to mention that the projected 2014 deficit, while still high, is down to a manageable $514-billion shortfall. And, as Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution pointed out at the Brennan Center conference, the hated sequester succeeded in accomplishing something that had eluded liberals for decades – making real cuts in the military budget.

Another common symbol of the breakdown of governing in Washington is the refusal of the House Republicans to take up the immigration bill that passed the Senate with bipartisan support. But that may reflect the rational calculus by House Republicans that while passage of immigration reform would help burnish the GOP’s image as a party, voting for it would cause personal reelection complications. Let’s be honest here—how often in congressional history have members of either party put the national interest ahead of political self-interest?

Also, we would not be having this debilitating debate over immigration policy if either of the last two presidents had made the issue their central priority. A bipartisan constituency was poised to pass immigration reform in 2005 if George W. Bush had not imprudently decided to use his second-term mandate to push Social Security privatization. And Obama, of course, had two years to pass immigration reform while the Democrats controlled Congress.

Please understand that I am neither a professional Panglossian nor an apologist for the status quo. My point is that many of the things that are widely cited as symptoms of the dysfunction of democracy stem from decisions made by elected political leaders.

Yes, the political partisanship in Washington is poisonous. But the vitriolic attacks are fueled by economic changes in the structure of the news media that downplay traditional journalistic objectivity in favor of the shrill tenor of Fox News and MSNBC. Even rigid European-style party-line voting on Capitol Hill is not permanently set in stone. If Congress were debating, say, NSA eavesdropping, the competing bipartisan coalitions would be as complicated as they were in the heyday of moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats.

About the only historical figure who would feel inspired by being transported to today’s Washington is Maurice Stans, Richard Nixon’s 1972 bag-man and Commerce secretary. Stans would undoubtedly revel in the free-market bazaar of anything-goes political fund-raising in the wake of Citizens United. You could just imagine the Super PACs that Stans would mobilize on behalf of Nixon’s latest comeback. But hidden amid the bleak landscape of Stans-style 21st-century campaign finance is the yet to be fully realized potential of massive small-donor online fund-raising.

The truth remains that many of the worst aspects of contemporary politics are self-correcting. For example, the power of partisan gerrymandering diminishes the further away you get from the decennial Census as population movement undermines one-party House districting. A new president with a clear electoral mandate in 2017 might make Washington appear governable again.

The wise and wry Republican White House economist Herb Stein left as his legacy Stein’s Law which states, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Stein originally meant it in economic terms, but it applies equally as well to the purported current dysfunction of democracy. If life in Washington cannot go on as it has for most of the Obama presidency, it won’t.

(Photo: AP)

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The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.