When policy paralysis is bad politics

By Jacob Weisberg

Financial Times

Published: February 8 2007

I had planned to write this week about the US Senate’s grand debate on President George W. Bush’s proposed troop surge in Iraq, but then the Senate decided not to have one. Harry Reid, the majority leader, called it off rather than allow a vote on a demagogic resolution that insisted Congress should not “endanger United States military forces in the field including by the elimination or reduction of funds”. Because most senators would rather be photographed clubbing baby seals than go on record against the troops, a roll call on the motion would have indicated sham support for Mr Bush’s policy.

This gambit delighted Republicans because it avoided a showdown they were poised to lose. But some Democrats were no less pleased not to have to cast a vote on the war. Taking a straightforward position on Iraq is the kind of thing that tends to cause problems for them down the road, as John Kerry, the losing 2004 presidential candidate, and Hillary Clinton could testify. For many opponents of the surge, being able to blame Mr Bush’s supporters for blocking action is an ideal impasse. Happily helpless, Democrats can denounce Mr Bush for getting it wrong without assuming any responsibility themselves.

This sort of kabuki drama is emerging as the political style of Mr Bush’s closing years in office. This is not the type of divided government in which two sides knock heads in a struggle to have their way, which describes the battle that took place between Ronald Reagan and the Democrats in the early 1980s or between Bill Clinton and the Newt Gingrich Congress in the mid-1990s. That kind of conflict is relatively straightforward. Positions on both sides are clear, the fighting is above board and a winner typically emerges (the president in both those cases).

The type of deadlock that has overtaken Washington since the handover of congressional power is of a muddier and more frustrating sort, reminiscent of the diminished, final years of nearly every recent American presidency. In this kind of divided government, a lame duck leader cannot move his agenda forward and his opponents in Congress cannot move theirs. Rather than seek compromise, both sides accept nothing much is going to happen for the duration. The political game becomes a matter of blaming the other side for obstructing progress while positioning oneself for the next election.

Fiscal politics exemplify the current stand-off at its most disingenuous. The president’s budget, which was released this week, is a characteristically reality-evading document that asserts that the federal government can achieve balance in five years, based on a series of implausible assumptions, including unrealistic growth in tax revenues, unlikely cuts in domestic spending, underestimating the costs for Iraq and Afghanistan and treating funds that in theory are accumulating in the Social Security trust fund ($184bn [£93.4bn] this year) as free money.

A candid Democratic response would be that restoring fiscal balance again will require hard choices – tax increases and budget cuts – that will become even harder if we want a universal healthcare system. John Edwards, the most populist of those running for the Democratic nomination in 2008, has so far come the closest to saying this, by calling explicitly for tax increases on the wealthy and asserting that moderate deficits are tolerable. But as a rule, Democrats are no more interested in a frank discussion of fiscal realities than the president is. Excessive honesty will get them whacked as tax-raisers. The safer ground is to scoff at Mr Bush’s evasions, elide their own and kick the can down the road. A similar sort of calculation explains the current stalemate on a range of other issues, including immigration, entitlement spending, energy policy and climate change.

It is an obvious point that leaving the country’s biggest problems to fester cannot be good policy. Less obvious is that it may not be good politics either. A two-party system is a zero-sum game, in which Republican gain ought to mean Democratic loss and vice versa. But because the politics of blockage, blame and stagnation tends to breed disgust with both sides, it can pave the way for big anti-incumbent swings and third-party movements. John McCain and Barack Obama both owe their popularity to a reputation for speaking more plainly than other politicians. But if the current logjam persists, Michael Bloomberg or someone else may wage an independent presidential candidacy on the case that neither Republicans nor Democrats are facing up to America’s challenges.

Not talking about problems is also a poor way to prepare the ground for fixing them later. Former vice-president Walter Mondale’s acknowledgement that he would raise taxes if elected in 1984 is thought by most to have been a boneheaded political move. Democrats think Mr Mondale should have evaded the question on the campaign trail, then done what he needed to do if elected. But Bill Clinton’s decision to raise taxes in 1993 without a mandate from voters was not brilliant politics either. It was probably the biggest factor in the loss of Democratic control over Congress that lasted 12 years.

If leaders think it suicidal to confront the public with hard choices, the public learns that hard choices are not necessary. Honest debate ceases to be unlikely and becomes impossible.

The writer is editor of Slate.com