Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Worst Political Era Ever. Except For All The Others

After two weeks of not writing, a function of both intellectual blockage and a terrifically busy work schedule, I find myself confronted with the same news and political reality as existed 14 days ago, only more so. Stories about how dysfunctional our political system is litter the websites, newspapers and social media outlets we visit.

Is it true that we live in the worst of all possible worlds? That our system has become so mired in petty squabbles that it qualifies as the most terrible atmosphere in United States history? Depends on your definition.

Ask Thomas Jefferson, who was accused of hating religion so much that the opposition, John Adams of all people, spread rumors that Jefferson was going to outlaw it. How about "King" Andrew Jackson, who was supposed to be all-powerful and who ignored a Supreme Court decision prohibiting him from moving Native American tribes from Georgia, where there was gold on their land, to Oklahoma, where the land tended to dry up and blow away. Or Andrew Johnson, who was impeached and almost convicted in 1868 for violating a law that was probably unconstitutional to begin with, and had numerous vetoes overridden by a Congress that treated him as an afterthought. Or Harry Truman, who was thought to be harboring Communists in his government, Johnson and Nixon, who were hated for the Vietnam War, violations of civil liberties and the Watergate scandal, and Bill Clinton, ignored, impeached and politically impotent in the face of a concerted Republican majority. Each of these presidents were the targets of opposition slings and arrows who squawked that the end of the republic was at hand.

The genius, and the curse, of our political system is that it's based on three competing political branches, each of whom is forever concerned about maintaining its power. Cooperation is rare and mostly occurs when one party has a significant majority in both houses. FDR was able to get major New Deal legislation through Congress with large Democratic majorities, and LBJ did the same with the Great Society programs. Both Nixon and Reagan were able to work with Democratic majorities and that's why their successes were less ideological than they otherwise would be. GW Bush had Republican majorities in the middle of his term, but Social Security reform was anathema to the left, and immigration reform died because of right wing opposition. As I recall, these were all pitched battles with ruin promised by both sides if their legislation wasn't passed.

Thus it is today. President Obama had great success in his first two years with Democratic majorities and an important 60 votes in the Senate. After the 2010 elections? Not so much. Yes, the right has an irrational opposition to him and successfully fought back on guns. We'll get an immigration bill this year because the political stakes for the Republicans are too high for failure. We might even get tax reform. But it would take Democratic majorities in the House and Senate to finish the work that Obama was elected to accomplish, including energy, environmental and bank reform.

So let's all calm down a bit and understand that while our era is contentious, it's not the end of the political world. The events of the past four years will reach an endpoint with one party breaking out and leading a new push in their direction. My hunch, and hope, is that it will be the Democrats, but it will probably take a couple of election cycles to achieve.

Until then, the media machine will crank out apocalyptic pronouncements about how bad things are. Don't you believe it.

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