Thoughts On Broken Government–Beyond Boobs And Ballots

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This theme—the government is broken, frozen, incapacitated, petty, pathetic—is everywhere. TIME and CNN have even made it a week-long theme. Newsweek’s Jon Meacham, in typical mahogany-paneled erudition, devotes his weekly column to assuring his readers that history has seen even worse. A new poll shows that 86 percent of Americans think the thesis “government is broken” is true. Perhaps more remarkably, that number is only 8 points higher than it was two years ago. In other words, the breakdown is not new in the public eye. It is a lasting condition. During the 2008 election cycle, such stasis could easily be understood as a Republican failure, an idea that rocketed Barack Obama to the White House. But Obama has proven in his first year in office—with historic Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress—that the condition transcended George W. Bush’s penchant for preemptive war and peanut butter sandwiches.

The proper pose for reporters like me at a moment like this is to adjust like a politician, positioning myself outside the political maw to rail, with a bit of populist fervor, against the rottenness of the system. This is not hard. The system is rotten with hypocrisy and self-dealing. It has been for a while, and in some ways it has gotten worse. But railing against the machine, even if done with more fealty to facts than your typical political stump speech, is not in itself a solution.

The second pose for reporters is to keep track of the bouncing ball, trying to referee the spectacle of elected officials in their panic, as they behave in more and more craven ways with midterms approaching. Obama stages a summit under the banner of bipartisan negotiation as a ploy to expose Republican obstinacy. Mitt Romney appears before conservatives to denounce the president’s health care reform effort—at once attacking “government run healthcare,” defending Medicare, and leaving out the fact that he passed a very similar bill in Massachusetts. John McCain, with a straight face, launches a reelection campaign having abandoned a leadership role on just about every issue—immigration reform, gays in the military, climate change, TARP, a deep disdain for Romney–that once branded him as a different kind of politician. This stuff, also, is worth doing, but still inadequate in itself.

So I wonder. Are there other ways of thinking about this problem, and attempting to frame the discussion? I don’t know. But I do have some thoughts, and at the risk of thinking aloud in a rambling blog post, let me lay them out here:

First we could do a better job of distinguishing the external causes of public outrage from the ones rooted in Beltway behavior. It is certainly true that Washington is filled with boobs, but boobs—that eternal fixture of democracy–are not enough to get 86 percent of America declaring that “government is broken.” The fire driving the outrage is an economic insecurity that is felt in just about every living room in America.

According to the Census, median household income in 2008 was $50,303, a decrease from $51,295 in 1998, when the numbers are adjusted for inflation. In other words, over the last decade, America has been in decline. The one economic bright spot—cheap credit that fueled a ridiculous housing boom that fueled more cheap credit—was a mirage that vanished in 2008. Americans are angry—and they are staring at Glenn Beck’s 12-step chalkboard—because they know things are going wrong. (Look at the graph of U.S. GDP growth on this page to get a sense of the trends. The recession may have hit in 2007, but the decline in growth rate began in 2004.) Health care inflation is out of control, meaning benefits are getting cut back. Jobs are scarce. Whole sections of the country are suffering.

This pain is blamed on Washington, but the anger is not directly connected to any policy, proposed or in place. Americans know that the president’s health care reform effort only tackles a small part of the problem (health costs) imperfectly, and that its biggest change impacts a small percentage of the population (the uninsured). The jobs bill currently being debated in the Senate—the latest in what has become a biannual event—is not going to solve the underlying issues. It is a band-aid. Both parties are simply unsure what to do, so they are retreating to their poll-tested standbys. Republicans want to cut your taxes and voucher-ize your entitlements. Democrats want to increase subsidies and your entitlements. Both want to build more museums in their districts, or fund more weapons systems in their states. Some from both parties, though mostly Democrats, hope to spark a new boom by refocusing spending on green energy programs.

But the issue of American decline is rarely talked about directly. Neither party wants to completely embrace the concept. And we in the media prefer to focus on the Washington boobs. In this regard, James Fallows recent cover story in the Atlantic Monthly—“How America Can Rise Again”–does us all a great service. If you have not read it yet, you should.

Second, on a related note, I wonder if the current cycle of public outrage might be better channeled away from the typical temptations of electoral politics. I wrote a story that posted on Friday about a rather revealing pattern: Members of Congress often only decide to get along and work together once they retire from office. Last week, Evan Bayh did his best to make a caricature of this truism—explaining his retirement from the Senate by asserting that it was just not a place where he could get anything done. He would abandon the whole effort to seek “better ways to serve my fellow citizens.” I spoke with Dan Glickman, a former Democratic member of Congress who later became a lobbyist. He succinctly described partisan problem in Congress this way: “Solving problems is seen as being a kind of weakness, because it means that you have compromised.”

I wonder if there is a lesson here. For two decades political activists in both parties have taken as their rallying cry a simple premise: We have to be tougher, fight harder, be more committed to our bedrock principles. This has been fed by a disintegration of the national political discussion into ideological niches—Fox News versus MSNBC, Michelle Malkin versus Markos Moulitsas. It is all great fun, but the two edges seem to be fighting themselves to a neverending draw. Democrats obstruct Republican plans. Republicans obstruct Democratic plans. The American public keeps replacing their members of Congress, but very little gets done, save the easy stuff—cut taxes, increase spending, continue unaffordable entitlements—which everyone agrees will eventually lead us all to fiscal ruin.

I wonder if the enormous outrage in the public might be channeled at some point to make the idea of compromise a good thing, not a bad thing. Could the impotence and low-approval of Washington possibly not be the fault of the mendacity of one side or the other, but rather the belief that one side or the other must prevail? It is notable that the one area where there is basic  bipartisan agreement—education reform policy—is also the one policy area where there are clear signs of improvement.

I know this sort of appeal to the ideological middle is the sort of thing that will invite my flaying on various blogs. It would be better for my hit count if I just ranted against Romney or Obama. And honestly I don’t even know if more compromise would improve or worsen our problems. It is also true that I am employed by a great corporate media monster that still refuses to take sides in the rush towards ideological audience Balkanization, so perhaps that colors my view. But I figured I would put my musings out there. With so much so clearly broken in the public mind, it seems like as good a time as any for us all to reexamine our assumptions. In the meantime, I have to go back to work—more stories to do on the rottenness of Washington’s ways, and the cravenness of our elected officials.