Parliament on the Potomac

In a rare moment of reduced fog, Ross Douthat comes within a few hundred yards of a clue today. Yes, 10,000 monkeys in a room full of typewriters, etc. But let’s take a look.

Douthat dutifully concedes that American government has become, in S&P’s words, “less stable, less effective, and less predictable.” He says this has happened because with each election, politicians of both parties (ahem) are trying to force a transformative realignment of power that will establish their overwhelming dominance over the nation’s policy.

Both parties, you say? We know that’s what Republicans have been doing. Karl Rove openly admitted he was working for a “permanent Republican majority.” However, Douthat writes,

The dream of realignment has become the enemy of such compromises. It inspires politicians to claim sweeping mandates from highly contingent victories: think of Dick Cheney insisting on another round of deficit-financed tax cuts in 2003 because “we won the midterm elections” and “this is our due,” or the near-identical rebukes that President Obama delivered to Eric Cantor (“Elections have consequences — and Eric, I won”) and to John McCain (“the election’s over”) during the debates over the stimulus and health care.

So, to Douthat, the President asking the minority members of Congress to stop obstructing his policies is the equivalent of Karl Rove’s permanent Republican majority. I don’t think so.

The losers, meanwhile, wax intransigent, while hoping for a realignment of their own. After all, why cut a deal today if tomorrow you might overthrow your rivals permanently? Better to just say “no” flat out, as the Bush-era Democrats did with Social Security reform and the Republicans did with health care, and hope that the next election will deliver you the once-in-a-generation victory.

Certainly, members of the minority party do not have to roll over and vote to pass bills they don’t like just because the President wants them passed. But there is a huge difference between opposing and obstructing, just as there is a huge difference between making factual arguments against policies you don’t like and whipping up public hysteria by screaming that President Obama wants to kill your grandma.

A criticism I see cropping up a lot lately is that Republicans act as if they are the majority in a parliamentary system, not a presidential system. Tom Moran writes in the Newark Star-Ledger,

The problem is these guys won’t compromise. That might be OK for a minority party in a country like Britain, where a parliamentary system gives all the power to the majority party. But our democracy splits political power into pieces. And it can’t work without compromise.

Parliaments function by building consensus coalitions, sometimes made up of representatives from several parties. And, of course, usually the prime minister serves at the pleasure of the majority in parliament. Parliamentary majorities usually can pass whatever legislation they want and don’t have to compromise with the minority.

But in the U.S. the government has always functioned, when it functions, through compromise. Even a majority can’t enact whatever it wants without limit.

Moran interviewed Norman Ornstein, a political scientist and fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who is generally regarded as a moderate. Ornstein said the last time Congress was this unable to compromise was right before the Civil War. Ornstein continues,

“First of all, it’s not just the Tea Party. The most significant element is this: Back in 1973 they created the Republican Study Committee as the right-wing caucus of the Republican Party. It was a tiny group, like 10 percent of Republicans. This year it’s close to 80 percent. This isn’t just the Tea Party, or just freshman. It’s many others. And with them, it’s a hard-line my way or the highway, even within their own party. Just being ideologically strong doesn’t mean you have to throw pragmatism out the window like this. They are behaving like a parliamentary party. …

… “We live in a country where the Framers had the genius to see that in an extended republic like ours, with very different geographies and viewpoints, that you’d need deliberation and debate so that when you came to a decision it would be accepted as legitimate. When you erode that, you start to erode the legitimacy of the whole system. …”

Making the whole system illegitimate means voters blame all politicians indiscriminately and go on binges of throwing all the bums out. And since the disgusted electorate is attracted to candidates spouting inflammatory rhetoric that reflects its disgust, often the new elected bums are worse than the old bums, which in turn makes the whole system “less stable, less effective, and less predictable.”

“Republicans in Congress aren’t listening to broader public opinion, or even Republican opinion. They’re looking at a sliver of it. What they’re looking at is whether they can get through a primary.”

In fact, a small and well-funded minority has hijacked the legislative process, and neither the voters nor the opposition party seem to know how to stop it.

At The Guardian, Michael A. Cohen writes,

The American political system discourages radicalism and relies on compromise. Yet the violation of even the most customary rules of governance has made such deal-making now nearly impossible. It was once considered a given that, with the rarest of exceptions, a president would be able to appoint his own charges to key policy-making positions; and the debt ceiling was considered an occasionally politicised but generally pro forma exercise. No longer. In a system designed around collegiality, Democrats have few tools in their arsenal to combat the GOP’s political obstinacy.

As a result, America is increasingly moving toward a parliamentary system in which politicians, rather than voting along regional lines or in pursuit of parochial interests, cast their ballot solely based on whether there is a D or R next to their name. Such a system might work well in the UK, but in the US, with its institutional focus on checks and balances and the many tools available for stopping legislation, a parliamentary-style system is a recipe for inaction.

But a confused, estranged, and often angry electorate irrationally rewards the obstructionists in elections, even when polls show they generally favor Democratic policy ideas (keeping Medicare, for example). I think even few progressives fully appreciate how much the system is broken, and they are angry at Democrats for not doing a better job at getting around the Republicans. And, certainly, there is room for criticism. But I still say that much of the anger from the Left toward the Obama Administration began with unrealistically high expectations. And anyone who thinks that merely electing someone “toughter” will take care of the problem is still clueless.

John Harwood:

“It’s a problem for everybody in office,” said Tom Davis, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee who describes himself as happily retired from the House.

“The political system, Republican or Democrat, over the last decade has delivered two failed wars, an economic meltdown, 20 percent of homes underwater, stagnant wages,” he said. “Voters look at the political system as a whole as just not giving them anything.”

19 thoughts on “Parliament on the Potomac

  1. How much more evidence do we need to prove that our system of government, the presidential system, especially in this political climate has got to be deep-sixed. Jefferson gave it 30 years max in 1787 no less. Replacing it with some version of the parliamentary system seems the obvious solution.

    The Constitution has been called “a bundle of compromises.” If true, it might be assumed that to function effectively compromise must continue to rule the day.

    Throughout history, greater nations than ours have collapsed because they have refused to read the obvious handwriting on the wall – change or go down. The French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution. even the Reformation are glaring incidences of what happens when institutions refuse to even acknowledge that their days are numbered. Either the people will throw the bums out or, as seems evident in our case (unfortunately) the system will collapse and the people will be left with the daunting task of picking up the pieces.

  2. Look, with Congess about to become about as popular as genital herpes, STD’s and AIDS, we have to acknowledge again that that, too, is part of the plan that they have.
    Conservatives, and their political party, depend on uninformed, under or mis-informed, and pissed of voters. And there are a ton of all of those.
    If Democrats do something bad, be it have affairs, or whatever, they are immediately held accountable. But not Republicans. That’s when you hear the ‘both sides do it’ mantra.
    And so, the default MSM position on everything is ‘a pox on both their houses.’ This is an example of ‘fair and balanced’ reporting – and it was around long before FOX stole the term for themselves. But now, it’s ALMOST ALL that the MSM does.

    In their never ending quest to not appear Liberal, they blame both sides for everything. Even when one side clearly is at fault, like in the debt ceiling fiasco. Democrats have to also be painted as stubborn and intrasigent. Why? Well, after all, they were trying to hold the line on some social safety-net programs, and at trying to hold onto 2%, while Boehner got his 98% (and still wasn’t satisfied).

    I don’t see the MSM as a symptom of the problem anymore. I think they are the carriers of the disease. Republicans are clearly the ‘typhoid’ – but without MSM ‘Mary’s,’ they would be a more local problem. Or at least, a more obvious one.

    And people get weary of the fighting in DC. They’re told that both sides are at fault. And now, more and more every year, get so disenchanted that they don’t vote – because “It only encourage them!”
    And so, what happens is, self-imposed voter suppression. This is the easiest and cheapest way for Republicans to win.
    They have that 25-35% of the lemming crazies in this country in their pockets. And they ALMOST ALWAYS show up to vote. There are about 21% of the people who identify themselves as Liberal. (And now, a lot of them are threatening to not show up to vote in 2012, or vote for the Green Party candidate, or some as yet unidentifed 3rd Party candidate. This is what is known as cutting off the rest of your body to spite your face).
    That leaves the Democrats to fight for the remaining 54-44% of self-identified moderates and independents. And the less of them show up, the more likely it is that the Republican base can carry the day.

    And last week when the market dropped over $1,000, and today, with the DOW being down as much as $340, (Wheeeeeeeeeee!) will see 401K’s take another hit. Leading to more voters who are pissed off. And who’s at fault? The under and un-informed will tell you it’s both parties. The misinformed will lean towards blaming the Democrats. After all, what is the misinformation for, if not for that?

    All we can hope for is that they are over-reaching too far to the right. And that primarying what’s left of the not totally crazy wing of the Republican Party with absolute lunatics like more Bachmann’s, West’s, and Gohmert, or worse, may wake the public up.
    Something had better happen to get people to wake up or this will not end well for this country. And the end may be closer than we may want to think.
    January of 2013 may begin the great unraveling of the fabric of this nation. Or, should I say, the final unraveling.

  3. This was perhaps the most stupid thing that I have ever read. It utterly lacks objectivity, reason, and thought. You make the world a dumber place with your blog. I’m sorry that I ever bothered to check it out.

    • This was perhaps the most stupid thing that I have ever read.

      That surprises me. Nobody holds a candle to Jim Hoft for stupid. Well, maybe Donald Douglas. Or Erick Erickson. But those guys are all way out of my league.

      I’m sorry that I ever bothered to check it out.

      Yet you bothered to comment. BTW, I deleted the link to your website as a courtesy, since I figured you would be embarrassed to be associated with this site in any way. And don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out.

  4. The parasites are getting angrier and angrier, because their host organism shows signs of faltering health. How dare it go and die on us!

    Recent events drive me more and more to the position of a “Tenther” – let us re-examine our programs, legislations, and judicial decisions in light of the Tenth Amendment. Let these battles be fought at the state levels, and the states where cooler heads prevail and rational compromises occur will demonstrate better ways to govern. Then, other states may follow voluntarily, rather than having the policy du jour rammed down their throats from the federal level.

    • Let these battles be fought at the state levels, and the states where cooler heads prevail and rational compromises occur will demonstrate better ways to govern.

      You mean, the states where ALEC dictates what legislation will be passed, on behalf of its corporate sponsors?

  5. Well, the A Conservative (HEAVEN FOREFEND you’re a real) Teacher, we’re even!

    You’re sorry you checked the blog out (again!)?
    And we’re sorry you tainted this blog with your (usual) dumb comment.

    “This was perhaps the most stupid thing that I have ever read.”
    May I take it then that you never ever read any Conservative bloggers or writers?
    Did you just get past the ‘Dick and Jane’ series? WTF do you teach?

    And I also think that objectivity, reason, and thought, ‘do not mean what you think they mean…”

    You have repeatedly proven yourself to be almost singular in your abject ignorance AND stupidity. No objective fact or chart is acceptable to you.

    I pity any children or young people you come in contact with. When it comes to spreading ignorance and stupidity, you’re what’s known as a carrier and an enabler.
    And if an unempathetic imbecile like you can become a teacher, maybe we really do need to take a more serious look at education in this country. My bet is, though, that you don’t work in a Public School environment. They still seem to have some standards. So you probably work in some private ‘s’cool.’ And if idiot parents want to pay a private organization to have their idiot children taught by a genuine idiot, who are we to stop them?

  6. Yes, MKS, that’s brilliant!

    Let’s let Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Indiana, etc., lead us! (Pssst… Just don’t tell the black people your idea – I don’t think they’ll like it very much, seeing as how we’ve all kind of seen this movie before. Also, too, women and gays.).

    I think you came to the wrong blog, MKS.
    As a matter of fact, I’d bet on it.

    But if you didn’t…
    Well, I think you can figure out where I’m going with this, right?

  7. I have a better idea to throw at MKS. Give this land back to the original tenants–the Indians. We were doing fine until the white man came along. If we had to do it over again, the immigration rules would allow Maha and the regulars back into the country; but, not any conservative Republicans–and, definitely no Bushes.

  8. Let these battles be fought at the state levels, and the states where cooler heads prevail and rational compromises occur will demonstrate better ways to govern

    Yeah!…That’s why Florida has the most progressive beastiality laws and the second highest unemployment rate in the nation… If you think that the Federal level of governance is irrational….Come on down to the Sunshine State…Ever watch the movie Deliverance?

  9. A swarm of conservative trolls? I guess “conservative teacher” never read Atlas Shrugged.

  10. Conservative Teacher: Liberal Teacher here. For comments, you get an F. What may pass as informed comments on conservative blogs gets a failing grade on liberal blogs. We generally expect evidence and reason. Both lacking in your comment. I know you’re blocked but if you ever sneak on past Maha you may want to give a reason why you thought what you did. This, BTW, is how I generally argue with conservatives. You hate regulations, and government involvement in business is killing jobs. Ok, which regulations are you most concerned about. Crickets….. We’re being taxed to hell, we need to cut taxes to create jobs. Ok, how do you explain the poor economy and eventual crash under Bush, and the slow, sorry, non-existent recovery under Obama. We are at a 60 year low in terms of taxes. Jobs should be sprouting up from my feet like lotuses. Crickets…..

    BTW II: great post Maha. I believe we have a systemic problem that we may not be able to get out of. It would take a huge overhaul which a large portion of our population really couldn’t fathom, much less allow to happen. I’m already checking on teaching in Canada, British Columbia actually, if things go bad.

  11. I echo BuckyBlue – Conservative Teacher left no clue as to why s/he feels the way they do. Next time, if there is one, try to present an argument to support your opinions. Enlighten us – you claim to be a teacher, after all.

    Without a doubt there are some grave systemic problems that have been festering for decades, but I still hold Obama’s glaring failures in leadership as hugely responsible. And those of us who fell for his campaign aura without seeing the warning signs.

  12. Moonbat, I hear ya. I just think Obama’s natural inclination is not of leadership, but of being a moderator. He tries to find the common ground right off, which then looks like he’s caving to his base. And this is before the negotiations even start so he’s already conceded half of his hand. It then gets worse from there. I do think in our times of true national crisis, Civil War, Great Depression, we’ve had strong leaders to keep us together (Lincoln and FDR, obviously). I think this could be both of those wrapped into one, economic and political/social. And we’ve got someone who wants to find common ground. My biggest fear, hence learning the words to Oh, Canada, is that after 30 years of tax cutting the far right see this as their moment to create America into the Grover Norquist wet dream. Cutting Social Security, cutting Medicare, killing most government jobs through massive privatization. And I really fear a 2012 election that could give the Senate, House and Presidency to those that would be more than willing to deliver that.

  13. Drew Westin’s article from a few days ago really crystallized it for me – he captured a lot of what I’ve been thinking since 2009.

    There’s also a review of A First-Rate Madness over at DKos and Digby, that argues that great leaders are bit mentally unstable (to sum the book in a few words). Whether you agree with that or not, the corollary is that bland leaders are not what you need in a time of crisis:

    Without delving too deeply into pop pscyhology or Barack Obama’s mental state, there is nonetheless an important lesson to draw from this. Barack Obama is, by all accounts personal and political, the epitome of calm. He almost never loses his temper. He doesn’t have ups or downs. He takes the often contradictory advice he is given, and attempts to fashion compromise from its workings, taking what he feels to be the most practical approaches from the right and center-left alike, and then navigates toward the path of what he feels to be the realm of the politically possible. Much to the delight of his still copious supporters, his nickname is No Drama Obama.

    Kevin Drum is correct when he argues against Drew Westen that Barack Obama does in fact have a narrative, but not the one progressives might have wished for. Obama’s narrative is of the great uniter, the calm in the face of the storm, the almost Bodhisattva-like figure of the utterly unflappable man who will transcend the politics of left and right to steer the nation gently over tortured seas.

    The problem with that narrative is this sort of figure is precisely Mr. Ghaemi’s archetypical homoclite: the inoffensive, utter bland, imperturbable man of talk rather than action. The sort of person who measures ten times before cutting once. Ironically, this is precisely the sort of leader who is least effective during times of crisis. Lincoln, Churchill, FDR and Kennedy were manic personalities, constantly on the edge of depression, philanderers and romantics. None of them could come close to being labeled “no drama.”

    His neoliberal politics notwithstanding, I have said in the past that Barack Obama might make a good, even great president during times of stasis and normalcy. His approach to problems is precisely the sort that is needed to steer calmly through times of peace, prosperity, and bipartisan sentiments.

    But the great complaint with Barack Obama isn’t so much about what he has done, as about the opportunity he has largely squandered. America stands at a precipice, at a time of great crisis. A time when bold, aggressive and determined leadership is called for. It is a time when America needs drama….

  14. It wasn’t linked but in the Sunday NYTimes they featured a spot on oped article about Obama, “What happened to Obama?” It was very insightful and it expressed my own feelings well. Lots is being made of Obama and his weakness.

    To apologize for him though: can we fairly compare Mr. Obama with Lincoln or Roosevelt? The situations of desperation and unemployment may be similar – but the world today is so different. We criticize him for not being more passionate and sounding bland (I agree, what happened to those epic speeches of the campaign? it is baffling), but think about him asking radio or tv stations for 60 minutes once a week on Sunday evenings to behave as a Professor. He would be harassed for being arrogant. Do you think he could have a Rush Limbaugh radio show three hours a day to spout out informed opinions? I don’t think so. He can’t compete with the ubiquitous media idiots that hassle him every day! What if this is it? What if we can’t even have a great FDR person anymore? I am feeling more and more that we are all doomed and nothing can change…

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