Do you want to know why so little is getting done in Washington, D.C.? In my humble opinion, it’s because of the absence of moderate legislators. Granted, this would not have been obvious to me a dozen years ago. But today, as I see the actual result of virtually totally polarized government, I am starting to understand that if anything meaningful is to happen in our government, it will require electing a lot of moderates.
DailyKos (where I guiltily hang out regularly) is a progressive on-line community and is all about electing what it calls “better” Democrats. Yes, we’ll vote for a moderate Democrat if there is no other choice. A moderate Democrat counts as well as a liberal Democrat when claiming a majority, and a majority holds the bulk of the power in a legislature. What they really want though are very liberal Democrats: the green tea drinking, carbon-neutral, gay-friendly, single-payer type of Democrat. The thinking goes that if we get enough of them elected, we’ll actually become a green country with marriage rights for all. Naturally, over at sites like Red State, they are recruiting the Ted Cruzes of the Republican Party. It seems like there is no logical end to how deeply conservative they want their candidates to be. Lately the litmus test includes repealing the amendment that allows for the direct election of senators.
I am all for green tea drinking, carbon-neutral, gay-friendly, single-payer Democrats, at least in the abstract. It’s when we actually get them to Congress and need them to legislate that it usually all goes to hell. This is because they are trying to legislate with the other side, which is also polarized. The more partisan you are, the less likely you are to accommodate suggestions from the other side. It’s my way or the highway. And so you get episodes like last October’s government shutdown, a costly and deeply counterproductive boondoggle. You get highly principled legislators so principled they cannot do what they were sent to Congress to do: legislate. Instead, they spend their time complaining.
Congress has given up on the deliberative process. Most committee chairmen spend their time promoting their party’s grievances with the other party, not working on legislation. Congress simply isn’t weighing the nation’s needs anymore. About all they can agree on, and only after a lot of warring, is to continue spending at about the same level we spent the year before. There is little in the way of direction to the agencies of government on how to spend money.
Unsurprisingly, when Congress refuses to do its job, the president gets antsy. We saw it on display at the State of the Union address. President Obama basically said that if Congress is going to sit on its hands, he will act. He’ll use the full measure of his executive powers to make change happen. This, of course, ticks off the Republicans in Congress, and leads to silly vitriol like the president is a Nazi or a dictator. This of course ignores that presidents of both parties have routinely pushed the boundaries of executive power. It was not that long ago when Democrats were complaining about President Bush’s many signing statements, basically saying which parts of a law he will choose to enforce. There is little evidence that President Obama has taken his executive authority to such absurd levels.
There is a solution to this problem: enacting real legislation. Real legislation is not the fiftieth vote by the House to repeal Obamacare, but it might be a reasonably bipartisan vote to change some unpopular aspects of it, perhaps the president’s not entirely true claim that if you like your health policy, you can keep it. That would reflect some debate and consensus. It would also acknowledge reality that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay, so we might as well amend it rather than foolishly think we can abolish it. To actually do this though you first have to acknowledge that you can’t always get what you want. You have to, like, compromise.
Democrats are no better. The people at DailyKos want a Congress full of senators like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. I like and admire both senators. But I also know if the Democratic-side of the Senate were nothing but Elizabeth Warrens and Bernie Sanders not a whole lot of legislation would get enacted into law. Our polarized Congress would just get more polarized.
There are exceptions of course. Great change can be made when one party seizes control of both the White House and the Congress. That’s how the imperfect Affordable Care Act got enacted. It’s how social security became law. It’s great for the party in charge when this happens, but it is invariably a fleeting experience. For the party out of power, these laws simply get their dander up. You can bet when they get power again, as happened to Republicans after the 2010 elections, their pent up resentment will be felt. In the case of House Republicans, it meant fifty fruitless votes to repeal Obamacare. More importantly, it also meant that they controlled the power of the purse, since appropriation legislation must originate in the House. And so we got fiscal cliffs, reduced stimuli and endless brinkmanship over debt ceilings, not to mention boatloads of Tea Partiers. We also got dysfunctional government. That was the price of Obamacare.
Electing “better” (i.e. more extreme) Republicans and Democrats simply ensures more of the same. So at some point a rational voter must ask themselves: is this really in my best interests? Is it really in the nation’s best interest? Does it really make sense to, say, not do anything serious about global climate change until my hypothetically green-friendly legislature is in power because the other side is being so unreasonable?
My answer is no. It’s in both my interest and the nation’s interest to do something about these issues, even if only half measures and imperfect. This is because time is our most precious commodity, and we are spending our future by doing nothing today. Hence, I need to be pragmatic about who I vote for.
I am not thrilled with Mark Warner as my senator. He’s a Democrat, but he’s very middle of the road and business-friendly, and arguably more than a little worker-hostile. However, he has crossover appeal. Even in this partisan climate he is working with Republican senators to try to move legislation, even though it seems impossible much of the time. The nation needs a lot more senators like Mark Warner, even though I do not agree with him on many issues.
The choice is like eating your vegetables instead of a slice of greasy pizza. I’d prefer the pizza any day, but I need to eat my vegetables instead. Ultimately, both I and my country will be better off if I put that clothespin on my nose and pull the lever to reelect Mark Warner. The logical part of my brain tells me I need to reelect him. The emotional side of me though wishes Elizabeth Warren would move to Virginia, so I could vote for her instead.
For the sake of my country, I’ve got to use my left brain.