Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Toward a Nihilist Majority
Coming home to the news that Sen. Dorgan won't run for re-election, making it even more likely that the Democrats will lose their super-majority this November, I'm thinking with even more apprehension about an Ezra Klein column published a couple days back that asks a very disturbing question:

What happens when one of the two major parties does not see a political upside in solving problems and has the power to keep those problems from being solved?

If all this is sounding familiar, that's because it is. Congress doesn't need a two-thirds majority to get anything done. It needs a three-fifths majority, but that's not usually available, either. Ever since Newt Gingrich partnered with Bob Dole to retake the Congress atop a successful strategy of relentless and effective obstructionism, Congress has been virtually incapable of doing anything difficult because the minority party will either block it or run against it, or both. And make no mistake: Congress will need to do hard things, and soon. In the short term, unemployment is likely to remain high and the economy is likely to remain weak unless Congress can muster another round of serious stimulus spending. [...]

Further out, the long-term deficit problem, which is driven largely by health-care costs, is startling. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that debt will reach 300 percent of gross domestic product come 2050 -- and that estimate might be optimistic. But solutions seem unlikely. No one who watched the health-care bill wind its way through the legislative process believes Congress is ready for the much harder and more controversial cost-cutting that will be necessary in the future.

Similarly, Sens. Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg recently suggested a bipartisan deficit commission that would reach a consensus on the budget and report back to a grateful Congress. On Tuesday, a Wall Street Journal editorial showed the conservative interest in such compromises: Republicans should "agree to a deficit commission only if it takes tax increases off the table," it said, reminding wavering Republicans that "President George H.W. Bush renounced his no-new-taxes pledge and made himself a one-termer."

These two problems get to the essential difficulties confronting the nation: There is no doubt that minority parties generally profit in elections when the unemployment rate is high. But given that reality, what incentive do they have to help the majority party lower the unemployment rate? Further out, there is no doubt that the majority party has an incentive to prevent a fiscal crisis on its watch. But what incentive does the minority party have to sign on to the screamingly painful decisions that will avert crisis?

I suspect that part of what's going on here is that the same technological advances that provide politically engaged citizens greater access to their elected representatives and partisan champions, are pushing those representatives and champions toward actions designed to deliver more short-term gratification. This means acting in ways that thwart the opposition wherever and whenever possible; that's how you capture media attention, raise money and generate and sustain enthusiasm. You can't be too rabid or partisan; indeed any deviation from the party line now will be noticed, broadcast and condemned. Lindsay Graham, of all people, has been censured by two Republican groups in his home state of South Carolina for, far as I can tell, not being a global warming denier.

It's been said, and I agree, that the current group of professional Republicans are all tactics, no strategy. But the more important point might be that they now seem to care about power and ideology, not about what they do with the power or what ensues when abstract theories smack into reality. Consider the line Klein quotes about Bush 41, who "renounced his no-new-taxes pledge and made himself a one-termer." Never mind the myriad logical flaws and historical misreads here; that 1990 budget deal, along with the party-line 1993 deficit reduction (which probably had more to do with the Democrats losing Congressional majorities in '94 than Bush's "breaking his pledge" did with his defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton), were decisive in teeing up the longest economic expansion in American history.

Shouldn't that count for something? Somewhere along the line, isn't the idea to make policy choices that serve the public good? The contemporary right seems to reject the whole premise that real-world results, not fidelity to some notion of purity that majorities don't even share, are what do and should drive election outcomes.

I've written many times here that I worry the norms and structures of our politics and governance institutions are inadequate for the challenges of our times. The blend of ideological absolutism, proud anti-intellectualism and pure spite in one of the two major parties as well as a proto-fascist populist movement doesn't do much for my confidence.

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