Posted by: dstieglitz | October 31, 2010

Making the Hard Choices

    Polls show a Congressional approval rating under 20%, yet the rating for home-state senators and representatives is usually above 70%. How can that be? How can 100 senators and 435 representatives with 70%-approval ratings combine their abilities to produce a group rating under 20%? The answer is partisanship – an unwillingness to blend divergent views into a cohesive strategy. The business equivalent would be a super-star management team driving a company into bankruptcy. Historically, Democrats raise spending and taxes, and Republicans cut spending and taxes. The budget stays in balance when the two sides cooperate to collect enough revenue to fund essential programs. But what if Republicans refuse to cut spending and Democrats avoid raising taxes? You are seeing it today: spending is spiraling, tax revenue is plummeting, and the deficit is skyrocketing. Nobody is making hard choices.

 Good Ideas. Obviously, neither party has a monopoly on good ideas. Consider health care for example: Democrats were right to push universal coverage as a human right. But the bill would have been more effective if some Republican ideas were included like reforming medical malpractice policies and encouraging consumers to control costs. The same goes for jobs, deficits, financial reform, energy/climate, and immigration. Voters want pragmatic solutions regardless of which party originates the ideas. Bills like Health Care and Financial Reform that pass under party-line votes have little credibility and are a big reason why many incumbents will lose their jobs.

 Bailing Out. Some senators and representatives are bailing out of Congress because of partisanship. For example, in abruptly announcing his retirement Democratic Senator Evan Bayh, a moderate, cited defeat of the bill to create a deficit-reduction commission as evidence that “brain-dead partisanship” leaves Congress incapable of solving the country=s problems. Bayh’s recommendation to reject incumbents in this year’s election has been widely embraced by voters.

Obama’s Contribution.The problem is broader than Congress – President Obama shares in the blame. Despite a clear electoral victory and a wave of voter good will, he has fumbled relations with both sides in Congress and resorted to the very tactics he denounced as a candidate. With great fanfare, he signed the Health Care Bill at a ceremony that resembled a high school pep rally, and ignored the fact that no Republicans voted for the bill. A few days later, the Financial Reform Bill also was passed without Republican support. If Obama can’t work with Republicans at least he should control his own party, but he hasn’t done that either. Congressional Democrats have pushed pro-union legislation and beat up executives from the banking, auto and energy industries which compromise his effort to fix the economy and create jobs. Worst of all, he tolerates those behaviors!

A Dysfunctional System.The American political system seems more dysfunctional than ever. As the election approaches, Democrats and Republicans loudly blame each other for the gridlock. But voters aren’t fooled. A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 22% of voters blame Republicans, 15% blame Democrats, and a conclusive 61% say both parties are equally unwilling to compromise. Voters know that landmark legislation always has bipartisan support: Social Security in 1935, national highway system in 1956, Civil Rights Act in 1964, and tax reform in 1986 are examples. Earlier this year, the country buried Senator Ted Kennedy, a leader in bipartisanship, whose liberal views didn’t stop him from cutting deals with Republicans to pass laws. Such bargains are more difficult today with both parties deeply entrenched in their ideologies.

A Simple Change.It’s been suggested that one simple way to defuse partisanship would be to change Congressional seating arrangements: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” From the most important joint session to the most boring subcommittee hearing, senators and representatives are physically and emotionally separated by party. Democrats sit on one side and Republicans on the other, which hinders both parties from understanding the other’s perspective. Arranging them by state or alphabetically by name could help defuse partisanship. Imagine a State-of-the-Union address where the president could address the chamber as an integrated body instead of constantly turning his head from one side to the other to face polarized responses.

The Tea Party Movement.Democrats and Republicans have a new reason to seek bipartisanship: the Tea Party Movement. Barely a year old, it already has become a potent political force. Little more than a novelty last February when the Tea Party Nation held a convention in Nashville, the movement burst into prominence when its patron saint, Sarah Palin, closed with a scorching attack on the president and Congress. Republicans were included in the attacks since the Tea Party sees recent Republican presidents and congressmen as fiscally irresponsible as their Democratic counterparts. As their name implies, Tea Party adherents see themselves as revolutionaries who are protesting rising debt, bloated government, and violations of the constitution. The Tea Party Movement has become a lightening rod for anti-incumbent anger among voters.

Tomorrow’s Election.Republicans expect happy days after the election. President Obama’s approval rating is below 50%. Many voters see him as a spendthrift, and their confidence in his ability to repair the economy is low. Although the recession has officially ended, joblessness and under-employment continue to be rampant and home repossessions remain near record levels. Unfortunately, few Republicans understand that even as the majority party they must cooperate with Democrats to fix the country’s problems.

The Core Issues.Voters will make several choices tomorrow when they go to the polls. Would long-term prosperity be better served by more stimulus spending or by reducing deficits? Should we expand social programs in areas like health care and move closer to European-style socialism and taxes, or repair the free-market economy that built the world=s largest economy? Partisanship itself is evidence of the struggle to address these core issues. This election looks like a major turning point. 70 percent of Americans favor a free-market economy, but they are losing to the 30 percent who want big government, more regulation, and income redistribution. When you vote tomorrow, remember that happiness, the pursuit of which is guaranteed by our Constitution, is related more to opportunities to succeed than with unemployment checks.

No Prediction.I don’t have a prediction for the outcome of tomorrow’s election except that a lot of Democrats will become unemployed. As a result, President Obama will be forced to create new ways to get things done, or face two years of gridlock worse than the last two years. He would do well to follow the approach President Clinton used after the Republican victory in 1994 midterm elections. By moving to the political middle and seeking common ground with Republicans, Clinton was able to balance the budget and pass welfare reform. Alternatively, Obama could follow Clinton’s survival approach after his second-term impeachment by using the regulatory power of the executive branch to further his agenda. President Obama’s choice will be clear during his State-of-the-Union address next January. Will he offer concessions to balance the budget and advance a national energy strategy, or threaten to use his veto pen? Hopefully, it will be the former.

It’s Up to Us.It’s a tough time for everyone in Washington. Gridlock is everywhere: jobs, deficits, health care, financial reform, energy/climate, and immigration. But while we’re passing out blame for this morass, let’s give ourselves a healthy share for the mixed messages we are sending. We want Congressional action  to create jobs, but not if it increases deficits. We want a balanced budget, but not if it means raising taxes or cutting Social Security and Medicare. We believe everyone deserves health care, but not if it expands the role and cost of government. We want controls on the financial industry, but not more regulations. We are worried about global warming, but don’t want energy prices to increase. We want to embrace immigration, but not if it burdens our welfare and educational systems or lets illegals off-the-hook. Most of us really don’t care how Congress solves these national issues. We just expect the people we elect to consider alternatives, use good judgment, and make the hard choices.

    It could be easy for President Obama and the new Congress to lead us toward renewed prosperity. Such leadership would not involve campaign-like speeches on television or in the halls of Congress. And it wouldn’t involve attacking alternative points-of-view and the people who offer them. Rather, the real challenge for the President and Congress is to restore trust with the American people by making the hard choices we elected them to make. It’s ironic that by making choices that may be politically unpopular in the short-term, the President and Congress will increase their approval ratings! Our contribution to the solution is to make the hard choices tomorrow in voting for candidates who also are willing to make hard choices – even ones that might be painful in the short term.


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