Sunday on “Meet the Press” Colin Powell blamed divisive, poisonous Washington politics on the media and the Tea Party. The essence of Powell’s argument was: “Republicans and Democrats are focusing more and more on their extreme left and extreme right. And we have to come back toward the center in order to compromise. … The media has to help us. The media loves this game, where everybody is on the extreme. It makes for great television. … So what we have to do is sort of take some of the heat out of our political life in terms of the coverage of it, so these folks (Congress) can get to work quietly. … But the Tea Party point of view of no compromise whatsoever is not a point of view that will eventually produce a presidential candidate who will win.”
Of course this is ahistoric. The media has been a circulation-, listener- and viewer-motivated political snapping turtle since the country’s founding (and a liberal snapping turtle since the 1940s). And, of course, the rise of divisive Washington politics predates by decades the emergence of the Tea Party to national attention in 2009.
As a technical matter, many, if not most, congressional historians believe that conscious, congressional partisanship in recent times did not start with the Tea Party or Obama or Bush or Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton in the 90s.
It started in 1984, in the disputed congressional election of Indiana’s “bloody 8th” congressional district. A Republican, Richard McIntyre, won in a recount by 418 votes, according to the Indiana Republican secretary of state. Then the Democratic majority in the House set up a task force of two Democratic and one Republican congressmen to re-decide the state tally. The two Democrats on the commission concluded that the Democratic incumbent congressman, Rep. Frank McCloskey, won by four votes. Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright seated McCloskey.
The Republican Party, furious but impotent, became convinced that a corrupt Democratic Party majority would have to be defeated if progress on any front could be made. And thus was born modern congressional partisan self-consciousness.
Fifteen years later, Leon Panetta who in 1985 was the congressional chairman of the task force that reversed the election results admitted, according to the Los Angeles Times, that the “House vote to seat McCloskey would have been more broadly accepted if the task force had included an equal number of Democrats and Republicans and if there had been consensus in the finding. If the committee leans partisan, either Republican or Democratic, then it will always be viewed as a partisan result.”
But beyond the minor question of which event lit the fuse of partisanship, broader more significant forces have given rise to the current divisions.
It is not only reductionist, but fundamentally undemocratic to believe, as Powell argues, that if the people would just stop paying attention to what goes on in Washington (helped along by the media refusing to report the political news) politicians could get back to the business of compromising out their differences. It’s not Congress’s differences — it’s the people’s differences. Congressmen and women are really quite good at knowing what their electorates want.
There is partisan division in Washington because the American people have been increasingly, ever more deeply and quite evenly divided about where they want America to go as a country. Since the early 1990s, neither congressional party has been able to sustain more than a percent or two majority of total House votes cast in the country for more than one election cycle. This has been a plus or minus 49-49 percent congressional electorate, except for the occasional temporarily decisive vote such as in 1994, 2006 and 2010. By itself, this close divide has turned every House seat into a potential majority maker or breaker – and, thus, both parties fight ever harder for each seat. At the presidential level as well, not since Reagan won with about 60 percent of the popular vote in 1984 has any president won with more than about 53 percent (1988: George H.W. Bush, 53.4 percent; 1992, Bill Clinton, 43 percent; 1996 Bill Clinton, 49.2 percent; 2000: George W. Bush, 47.9 percent; 2004, George W. Bush 50.7 percent; 2008: Barack Obama 52.9 percent.)
The heart of the matter, though, is that Americans are deeply divided between resisting or embracing a Europeanized, post-constitutional American economy, government and culture. This decision can no more be compromised on behind closed doors with no one watching than could the question of civil rights and creation of the welfare state in the 1950s- ‘60s, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor-oriented statism in the 1930s, slavery in the 1850s-‘60s or Andrew Jackson’s rights of the common man in the 1830s. Each of those historic epochs was brought on by decisive and sustained shifts in national majority opinion.
Today, the nation awaits decisive leadership to make its case to a sustainable working majority of the American people. Of course, there will be compromises — plenty of them — in working out the details that will follow from a new national vision of itself. But before the compromises, must come a vision of America’s future that grabs and holds for at least a decade or two the enthusiastic support of at least 55 percent of the American people.
Divisive, dysfunctional, partisan politics is not the cause of our problems. It is the symptom of a decades long lack of visionary leadership capable of galvanizing a majority of Americans to decisive action. Throwing away the thermometer will not break the fever.
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