By Charles D. Ellison
Just blame the Republicans – yeah, of course, that’s the easy part. All the hyper-partisan haranguing and dysfunction in Washington all rests on the shoulders of cranky, Cialis popping White dudes from red states. Think tankers Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein laid it out in a blistering April 2012 diatribe in the Washington Post: “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Not so fast, though. We can’t just put all the blame on eyes-wide-shut and reckless conservatives who appear to rarely blink in the face of no uncertain global financial meltdowns and other forms of apocalypse. That seems just a bit too easy, an easy way out of taking responsibility for the greater mess we’ve put ourselves in which has just about destroyed the common good.
We ended up falling off the edge of the fiscal cliff because of a wild confluence of factors – of which, sure, House Republican idiocy is one. But, it’s not the only one. To a degree, we’re all to blame: us schizophrenic voters who one moment want to cut government spending, but in a flash want to burn down any politician’s house that dares put their hands on Grandmom’s Medicare. We can’t make up our minds – so, how do we expect Congress to do the same? And we bask in our own negative self-fulfilling prophecies; if we have little confidence in Washington, then Washington has little confidence in itself since it is merely a reflection of the public mood. “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” said Hamlet. Taking a moment to take a step back offers the chance at a fuller view and several real-talk reasons why Congress is going from bad to worse.
1. You might want to learn about “Redistricting.” While some might argue it shouldn’t be the top reason, it definitely adds much fuel to the partisan fire on Capitol Hill. This is one of those clever, ancient political techniques in which Masters of Map Mathematics are charged to protect incumbents by, simply, redrawing their districts. You don’t get to vote on it, but your participation in the census every decade gives your state legislature carte blanche to completely change the composition of the Congressional district you live in. One year you were happily voting for that aging, denture-wearing lawmaker who’s been around since your first haircut … and the next year your zip code ends up beside the name of a person you don’t even know.
In short, eight states got more Congressional representation in 2010 as populations grew. Republicans won the Governor’s mansion and state houses in six of those states. They went on a redistricting binge, eager to protect reliably conservative incumbents by making their districts much more conservative than even they could compete with. The result: you now only have 15 Republican Congressional districts that voted for President Obama in 2012 – out of 235 House Republicans. Politically, the majority of House Republicans owe this president nothing – they are in districts where their constituents despise Obama and who yell at them about “not compromising” with that “illegitimate man in the White House who can’t produce a birth certificate.” If you want to keep your cushy Capitol Hill gig that pays $174,000 per year (not to mention the perks), you agree with the crazy lady waving the Tea Party flag in the back of the town hall meeting room.
Oh: Democrats do this, too. So, Congress is now full of people (on both sides of the aisle) from places where constituents are telling them to “fight back,” bird flip and moon their colleagues across the hall.
2. Everyone wants to be on TV. In the warp speed media world that has evolved into a 24/7 cultural fiasco, we all want our own reality show and will settle for just 15 seconds of fame. It goes without saying that nearly every citizen with high speed internet and a blog can become a commentator overnight. Politicians are not exempt from this. If they spent half the time they spent on talk shows actually focused on the business of legislating, we might get somewhere.
The problem is that they don’t. Lawmakers in Washington are seen on any given day shuttling between network studios like a speed dating game, readjusting several sound bites into the talking points of the day. Handlers, typically in the form of overworked press secretaries, are only inches away. It’s a pressing dilemma with no solution: Members should be accessible to the media and we appreciate the transparency. But, is it too much? Should there be a cutoff?
Politics in general are dysfunctional because everyone involved wants a platform, a brand and a talk show. Very, very few people running for elected office are doing it as a “public service” – view anyone gregariously selling you that pitch with a gallon of skepticism. Half the people running for office nowadays are in it as a career booster while the other half wants their fam to see them on cable. Many politicians mistakenly equate evolving influence with how many appearances they make on any given network (the one-terming Rep. Allen West (R-FL) is a textbook example of media crash-and-burn). Nothing gets done in Washington because everyone is busy making statements rather than going brass tacks and drawing up real solutions. We all end up with a government where shit sounds like a Tony the Tiger “grrrreat!”, but nothing is really working or getting done.
3. Civil War Reloaded. No one wants to really say it because most of us want to feel as if we’ve evolved past something that happened 150 years ago. It’s like the fading notion of “post-racial” once Obama was elected; the symbolism feels good, but all we’re doing is sugarcoating the real thing.
Fact of the matter is that we’re seeing replays of our ugly Civil War past – without the guns, bayonets and gutsy head-on charges into cannonballs. Geography is dictating the outcomes of too many debates on Capitol Hill, with Southern lawmakers from places like South Carolina, Texas, Utah and elsewhere becoming fanatically intransigent. It’s a different, more surreal conflict shaped by constant regional splits and geographic gaps heightened by longstanding cultural attitudes. The views of politicians are shaped by where they’re from.
Looking at the fiscal cliff debate, we see that most of the Republicans making noise and ultimately voting against the compromise were from the South, Midwest and West. Of the 14 Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2014, 13 are from states that voted for Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney; 7 are from the South. Or: places where only 20 percent of the population is concentrated. That’s a problem. Rural and exurban minorities are telling the vast urban and suburban majorities what to do and how to spend their money.
We also saw this unfold during the recent super-regional wrestling match over Superstorm Sandy relief funding. Republican lawmakers from former Confederate states balked at the $60.4 billion package for Yankees in the Northeastern states of New York and New Jersey – even though the Northeastern corridor produces 20 percent of national economic output. Some sources point to many Republicans wanting payback over Gov. Chris Christie’s (R-NJ) pre-election betrayal bear-hug of President Obama. Jersey and Empire State Republicans, understandably, bit back hard. The fight exposed an interesting split within a GOP caucus normally priding itself on tight discipline. It showed just how much geography matters.
4. No one wants to be a Leader. No. Nah. Not Really. Mr. and Mrs. Smith who go to Washington always talk about wanting to “lead” when they get there. But once you wave the smell of funkiness from your nose, you realize they are being no more truthful than ticket scalpers outside a playoff game. These days, being loud is easier than leading.
Which is why you won’t hear any House Republicans clamoring to be House Speaker. Boehner might want it, coveting the spot for years since he could remember, but you didn’t find any real opposition to his re-election as Speaker on January 3rd, beyond the distant gripes of a dozen Republicans wearing personal grudges. If you think about it: who really wants to be Speaker? It’s tortuous enough watching the current Speaker being pulled in multiple directions and punched in the face by his own caucus. Leading is the hard part – but, issuing an infinite stream of press releases and showing up for talk show panels is easy pickings. Better to stay in the back of the classroom flinging paper footballs at the substitute teacher.
The lack of leadership bug is nothing new in Washington. But a convergence of the last few reasons outlined above lead to the sense that there is a political vacuum.
5. Lots of insults and talking points, but little policy. It’s a wonder much of anything is getting done when elected officials in Washington are busily preparing the next clever “zing” or “Yo Mama” snap at the opposition. There is quite a bit of “compromise” talk in Washington, but little in the way of practice. For people who sacrifice entire families and peace of mind to reach the pinnacle of political success, they sure are a thin-skinned bunch.
The fiscal cliff debacle displayed a real deterioration in civility in which legislators were more concerned with hurt feelings than with really trying to sort shit out. Hence, one reason why it took us so long to get there – and why, by New Year’s Day, few had the energy to resolve other pressing issues such as the debt ceiling and government spending cuts. Even the President, for all his haughty above-it-all banter about bipartisanship and reaching across the aisle, was getting pricklier by the day. Who wouldn’t, right? But what good does it do you if right at the eleventh hour of negotiating (if that’s what you call it), you’re blasting away on Meet the Press or engineering what amounted to a soft effigy-burning of Boehner in an improvised White House event with supporters? At some point, something has to give and lawmakers should just break out the honey rather than spray vinegar all day.
My edgier side might wallow in cynicism for a moment and tell you that some of it was staged. The President must look cocky and victorious as a way to prove to his liberal base that, see, he really did stand up to Republicans. And Boehner needed some kind of bone for his House dogs to gnarl on, something that said, sure, I told the President (and the Senate Majority Leader) to “go “f***” themselves.”
At the end of the day, however, what’s the civility meltdown and Kabuki theatre really doing for the common good?
CHARLES D. ELLISON is a political strategist, author and Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune. He is also host of “Showdown” on SiriusXM 124, Thursdays 7-9pm ET. Ellison can be reached via Twitter @charlesdellison