In his Washington Post column this week Dan Balz wonders whether Evan Bayh was overstating the degree of partisanship in Congress and whether, notwithstanding that, he should have stuck around to deal with the problem.
I don’t think any of us have been alive long enough to know whether the first is true. Politics always seems at its worst when you are in the middle of it. It may be, though, that the existence of social media has made it more combative, for the old-style behind-the-scenes sausage making is no longer possible. Also, clever users of these media can create a “movement” in just a few hours, pushing positions to the extreme. Though politicians have become experts in using social media to run election campaigns, they have not yet figured out how to use these tools to help build bipartisan coalitions to govern.
And, on the second, we have no right to judge this gentleman on his personal decision. If he no longer wants to try to stay in Washington to work on the problem, there will be plenty of other candidates. No one is indispensable.
But I was struck by this quote, “”If I could create one job in the private sector by helping to grow a business, that would be one more than Congress has created in the last six months.” Senator Bayh’s statement is emblematic of an underlying philosophy of government that might be at the heart of the current partisanship. In this country, many people feel that it is really not the job of the government to be the job creator.
I think lots of people intuitively understand the Keynesian imperative to use federal fiscal policy during a recession in a counter-cyclical manner to boot-strap the economy. But there comes a point where the cost of doing so, and the burden it puts on future generations of taxpayers, becomes a political argument against further expansion along those lines.
In my view, that is the tectonic fault line currently in Congress.
I don’t dispute that nasty tactics are in use, by both parties. But I am suggesting that there is a legitimate public policy debate behind the discord.
Thus far, President Obama has not figured out how to bridge this gap. Bill Clinton did, after he lost the Congress to the Republicans. He moved their way politically and was able to build a bipartisan coalition on several issues. The first George Bush did likewise with the Democrats.
Obama does not model the behavior he asks Congress to employ. He calls for civility, but then he demonizes or rails against industries and people (banks, bankers, insurance companies, even Cambridge police officers.) Parts of his speeches are brilliant; but parts make him sound like a partisan legislator. He has never really run anything, and he is still getting his leadership legs. He has not figured out how to make his voice count for something in the Senate. There is thus no role model to provide coverage for moderate people in both parties who might be able to build the winning coalition.
A basic rule of negotiation is to give the other side something they can take home to their constituency. That is also an inherent characteristic of the republican form of government that comprises our Congress. Someone has to model that behavior. In these times, it has to be the President.