There used to be an axiom in American politics that successful politicians governed from the center. Straying too far from the middle wins battles but loses wars. Despite LBJ’s “treatment” and the “dirty tricks” of the Nixon years, American politicians strove for wall-to-wall support. Johnson received bipartisan support for the voting rights act and Nixon fooled everyone by imposing wage and price supports and opening the door to China.
All of this began to change with Ronald Reagan’s administration in the early 1980s and with the defeat for Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987. Since then, American politics has become insanely, politically polarized. People were actually shocked when Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Me.) explained last week why she was supporting the Senate Finance Committee version of the healthcare bill. As she remarked so succinctly: “When history calls, history calls.” While admitting she had qualms about the Committee’s bill, Snowe — unlike all her Republican colleagues on the Committee — clearly understood that her job was not to obstruct the law-making process, but to negotiate ways to make it happen. She understood that, among other things, as a U.S. senator she had to find a way to help 45 million U.S. citizens get health insurance, as opposed to denying President Obama a political victory.
Governing is about conflict resolution and compromise; finding the common denominator and not always about scoring points. The health care debate ought to be about health policy and how to improve a system that is broken. Drug companies, physicians, and insurance companies all know that there are problems in the American health care system. Yet, except on a strictly social level, neither most of the Democrats nor most of the Republicans have any sense of political collegiality, and problems go unaddressed.
The situation in the White House is not much better. All administrations have had political advisers and “hatchet men,” but rarely, if ever, has Washington seen the likes of President Bush’s Karl Rove or Barack Obama’s Rahm Emanuel. Both are figures whose over-riding political drive is so blatant and transparent that national purpose appears to be secondary to political advantage.
In foreign policy, too, the norm was bi-partisanship. No more. Republicans seem to wish failure for the president on Afghanistan while Democrats fear that the political fall-out (“I told you so”) from a decision expanding the war will have major consequences for the 2010 congressional elections.
In the late 1960s, the Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen worked with President Johnson not only to support some of his domestic initiatives, but also as a major supporter of his Viet Nam War policy. In the ’80s, Democratic House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill played golf with his Irish buddy Ronald Reagan, and then was criticized for supporting many of the early Reagan programs. For O’Neill, working with the White House, even supporting — or not blocking — Reagan economic initiatives was the way to lead the House of Representatives. Today, true working relationships with the opposition are virtually non-existent except on the most innocuous of issues.
As the Senate considered a vote to invoke cloture on a Republican-supported filibuster against the Civil Rights Act, Dirksen is reported to have quoted Victor Hugo: “‘Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.’… It must not be stayed or denied.”
The hostile climate and the nasty tone of debate dominates today’s policy-making environment. Statesmanship has given way to anger and scoring. The losers are the American people. There do not appear too many Olympia Snowes ready to step into the breach.