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State of American Politics: A Pessimist’s Lament

Longtime readers of my CQ Roll Call column, Pennsylvania Avenue, probably won’t be surprised by what follows — a lament about the state of politics in America from my moderate/centrist perspective. It’s adapted from a speech I gave in January at the Hillsboro Club in Florida. Welcome to the blog!

As any of you who ever watched “The McLaughlin Group” or Fox News will understand, I’m not only glad to be here, but to be anywhere where I can finish a sentence without getting interrupted.  Or shouted at, in the case of McLaughlin. Little did I know when I started on that show at its launch in 1982 that I was present at the beginning of the end of civil discourse in America … if not the beginning of the end of Western civilization.

By comparison, Fox News was mentally healthy — and, of course, fair and balanced.

What I’m going to do is try to give you a fair and balanced assessment of American politics as we enter Barack Obama’s second term as president and another period of divided government in Washington.

There’s a polling question that I use as a fever chart for the overall state of mind of the country. It is: Do you think the next generation of Americans will live as good a life as the present generation?

Traditionally, the answer has been overwhelmingly yes. It’s what America is all about. No matter what their own situation, Americans more or less since colonial times have expected their kids to have a better life than they did. It wasn’t always true, for sure, but by and large, it was.

But lately, the numbers have been turning south. And there is a big debate under way about whether America is in decline. At one point in 2010, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, only 27 percent of Americans thought the next generation would lead a better life. Fifty percent thought it would be worse — the rest, about the same.

The latest poll I’ve seen on the subject was a Jan. 8 Gallup poll which showed that 50 percent thought a better life unlikely and 49 percent likely. The “likely” number is down from 66 percent in early 2008, before the financial crisis broke.

The reasons for people to be optimistic were summed up in a Washington Post column in January by one of my favorite columnists, Robert Samuelson. (He’s probably my second favorite, actually. I’ll get to my favorite below.)

Samuelson got hold of a Goldman Sachs report to its clients which said that the United States was and would remain the world’s strongest economy. The column didn’t even mention the stock market, which is reaching new highs. Or the apparent housing recovery and auto sales, sparked by low interest rates.

It said, we are still the world’s largest economy, with a gross domestic product of $16 trillion, double China’s and 2.5 times Japan’s. (The European Union’s is bigger than ours collectively, but it’s not really a country.) Our per capita income of $50,000 is not the world’s highest, but most of those ahead of the U.S. are small places such as Luxemburg and Switzerland.

In a world hungry for food and resources, we also are blessed. We have five times as much arable land as China and twice Brazil’s. Fracking for natural gas and horizontal drilling for oil could make us the world’s largest energy producer by 2020 — creating more than a million jobs.

China and Japan have aging populations. Ours is aging, too, but by 2050, their average age will be 50 and ours will be 40. And if we’re smart, we’ll let in more highly skilled immigrants to swell and reinvigorate our population (and also support our baby boomers in retirement). A Gallup survey of 151 countries found that the U.S. was the top choice for those wanting to move, at 23 percent. Second was the United Kingdom, at 7 percent.

Finally, Goldman expects the U.S. to remain the leader in innovation. We do 31 percent of the world’s research and development and have 29 percent of the 50 top research universities in the world. And we are fortunate to be managed, for the most part, by markets and the rule of law — not by politics and corruption.

The Pessimistic View

So, that’s the good news. But after living almost 50 years in Washington, D.C., I’m afraid I’ve moved to the side of the pessimists.

We have significant problems as a society, which, if not solved, will jeopardize our children’s future and their standard of living. These are problems that could be solved if Republicans and Democrats could get together and make deals. Grand bargains would be great, but incremental deals would be OK, too.

But our political system is so polarized that we’re gridlocked and the problems are not being solved. If there’s an immediate crisis looming — such as the fiscal cliff or the debt ceiling — the politicians manage to escape it temporarily by kicking the can down the road.

But most of the time, they are at war — both because they are ideologically far apart and because politics has become a zero-sum game, where each side’s principal aim is to crush the other side in the next election, not get stuff done.

The public hates the way things are. Gallup every July asks whether people are confident that various institutions will do the right thing. The military is on top, with 76 percent confidence. Small business is next, at 66 percent. The police at 59 percent. It’s pretty much downhill from there.

The presidency is at 36 percent confidence. The public schools, 34 percent. Banks, 23 percent. TV news, 22 percent. Big business, 19 percent. And at the bottom, Congress, with 11 percent.

People wonder, who are these 11 percent? Sen. John McCain once said they have to be blood relatives and paid staff.

Among the big problems that aren’t getting solved are:

  • The enormous national debt burden. Democrats don’t want to overhaul entitlement programs and Republicans don’t want to raise taxes.
  • Global warming. Democrats think we have to close down the carbon economy as fast as possible. Lots of Republicans deny there’s a problem.
  • Health care. We spend more than double per capita what other industrialized countries do, yet we have less good outcomes. Obamacare will cover 30 million of the 50 million uninsured, but no expert I know (outside Obama’s party) thinks it will contain costs. Republicans want to get rid of it but have no plan to replace it.
  • We are becoming a two-tier society. The rich are getting richer, the poor are poorer and the middle class is stagnating. Median incomes haven’t risen for more than a decade and globalization and technology have reduced opportunities for semi-skilled labor. 
    Rich people send their kids to private (or high-quality public) schools where they can learn Chinese and advanced computer science. Poor and middle-class kids go to increasingly crowded public schools. 
    Obama believes in using government to create equal opportunity by investing in education, research and infrastructure — and he’s right. Republicans call most all public investment “spending.”
  • Immigration. Until the last election scared Republicans to their bones — Obama carried Latinos by 30 points — the GOP was dead set against any “amnesty” for the 11 million illegal immigrants presently in the U.S. And Democrats wouldn’t contemplate letting in more skilled labor without legalizing the undocumented. Maybe, just maybe, there’s now a chance to break this deadlock, but it’s far from a done deal.

Both Obama and George W. Bush before him promised they were going to work to heal the polarization. Both failed. Bush ended his term as the most polarizing president ever. Obama has matched him.

They didn’t do it by themselves. Well-funded pressure groups are part of what’s ailing us. So are media organizations and political consultants whose whole business model is to keep people on their side of the divide in a permanent state of outraged frenzy at the other — and threaten waverers on their side with defeat in the next election.

Partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts is part of it. So are closed primaries in which independent voters are excluded. The advantage goes to right-wing conservatives and left-wing liberals.

Obama — most of the time — gives every sign of having given up on making deals with Republicans. Republicans think he just wants to crush them and fully take over Congress in 2014.

And they could walk right into his trap if they continue, as they are doing, to systematically offend young people, urban voters, minorities, moderates and independents and people in the Northeast and far West. And write off, as Mitt Romney did in 2008, half of the electorate just because they receive some kind of government benefit.

Which brings me to my favorite columnist, David Brooks of The New York Times, who pointed out that the Republican Party needs to figure out how to make conservatism positive — tell a story that will convince people that they have better answers than Democrats about growth, health care, education and job training instead of just spreading hatred of Washington and taxes.

As he says, some Republicans are trying to talk a better game — Bobby Jindal, Paul D. Ryan, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie — but they need an agenda that’s convincing. An immigration overhaul may be a start.

If the war continues, it’s not clear who’s going to win. Right now, you’d have to say Obama is well ahead. In the NBC/Wall Street Journal’s February poll, Obama had a 50 percent approval rating, Republicans 29 percent. And Democrats enjoyed double-digit advantages over Republicans on protecting the middle class, Medicare and health policy, Social Security and energy. Majorities support Obama policy on immigration and guns. Republicans lead only on controlling spending and the federal deficit.

Moreover, by 48 percent to 43 percent, voters believe that Obama is trying to unify the nation rather than exert partisanship. The numbers for Republicans were 22 percent unite and 64 percent partisan.

On the other hand, 32 percent of voters consider Obama “very liberal” and 21 percent, “somewhat liberal,” while 31 percent consider him moderate and 11 percent, conservative. In the 2012 elections, 41 percent of voters self-identified as moderates, 35 percent as conservatives and only 25 percent as liberals.

Obama overplayed his hand with liberal legislation during the first two years of his first term, losing Democratic control of the House. He could do the same again.

What all the polls show — overwhelmingly — is that voters want their politicians to compromise and solve the nation’s problems. Sadly, they aren’t doing it — and that’s dangerous to our children’s future.

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