Thursday, February 25, 2010

Why Washington Is Tied Up in Knots

A good read is this week's Time magazine cover story on why our alleged government is stuck on stupid.

In the 1980s, discrediting government was not the strategy of the congressional GOP, for two reasons. First, the sorting out hadn't fully sorted itself out yet: the Senate alone boasted moderate Republicans from blue states like Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Oregon, where activist government weren't dirty words. These moderates — who met every Wednesday for lunch — chaired powerful committees, served in the party leadership and helped cut big bipartisan deals like the 1986 tax-reform bill, which simplified the tax code, and the 1990 Clean Air Act, which set new limits on pollution. Second, because Republicans occupied the White House, making government look foolish and corrupt risked making the party look foolish and corrupt too.

They've quit trying to hide it. The GOP's foolishness and corruption are blatant and out in the open for all to see. They think all of us are like The Dead End Quarter - too stupid to notice. They're wrong.

All that changed when Bill Clinton took office. With the GOP no longer controlling the White House, a new breed of aggressive Republicans — men like Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay and Trent Lott — hit on a strategy for discrediting Clinton: discredit government. Rhetorically, they derided Washington as ineffective and conflict-ridden, and through their actions they guaranteed it. Their greatest weapon was the filibuster, which forced Democrats to muster 60 votes to get legislation through the Senate. Historically, filibustering had been rare. From the birth of the Republic until the Civil War, the Senate witnessed about one filibuster per decade. As late as the 1960s, Senators filibustered less than 10% of major legislation. But in the '70s, the filibuster rule changed: Senators no longer needed to camp out on the Senate floor all night, reading from Grandma's recipe book. Merely declaring their intention to filibuster derailed any bill that lacked 60 votes.

With these acts of legislative sabotage, Republicans tapped into a deep truth about the American people: they hate political squabbling, and they take out their anger on whoever is in charge. So when the Gingrich Republicans carried out a virtual sit-down strike during Clinton's first two years, the public mood turned nasty. By 1994, trust in government was at an all-time low, which suited the Republicans fine, since their major line of attack against Clinton's health care plan was that it would empower government. Clintoncare collapsed, Democrats lost Congress, and Republicans learned the secrets of vicious-circle politics: When the parties are polarized, it's easy to keep anything from getting done. When nothing gets done, people turn against government. When you're the party out of power and the party that reviles government, you win.

All this, it turns out, was a mere warm-up for the Obama years. [...]

Enjoy. I do not necessarily agree with the author's conclusions on what needs to done to knock off the cheap shit, but it's food for thought.

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