Category Archives: Partisanship

Partisan politics not working

THE ISSUE: Polarization of the electorate and a flawed primary system mean voters should be prepared to vote for the least-objectionable presidential candidate, not the best one.

The dance has begun, and if the stakes weren’t so high, it would be amusing.

The dance steps are most obvious in the Republican Party, which has a larger field of candidates and already has had a debate.

To have a chance at becoming their party’s nominee, each candidate must attract the support of a very conservative base.

This has bizarre results when it comes to the stance they must take on specific issues. Most polls indicate a majority of Americans favor increased gun control, lean toward deferring to women on abortion issues, favor diplomacy with Iran, and support marriage rights for gays.

A Republican candidate who espouses the majority view on these issues, however, has little or no chance of surviving the primaries.

The extent to which this forces the candidates to play to extreme views is evident in their treatment of the proposed deal with Iran. Maybe it’s a bad deal or maybe not, but the issue is too complex to expect every single GOP candidate to have the same opinion of it.

To begin with, the entire goal of the agreement is to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Absent military action — an option most Americans strongly oppose — the U.S. has minimal leverage without the cooperation of Iran’s major trading partners. So while GOP candidates uniformly gripe we did not negotiate the best deal with Iran, our most complex negotiations were with nations — including Russia and China — whose participation was necessary if Iran was to come to the negotiating table.

Iran is suffering from multi-national sanctions; U.S. sanctions alone provide inadequate leverage to compel Iran to make concessions. And however problematic the proposed agreement is, it provides for monitoring of the Iran nuclear program. Without the agreement, there is no monitoring.

The issue is complex, and involves negotiations to which the GOP candidates were not privy. The idea that every candidate would have the exact same view of the agreement defies logic. Rather, they are pandering to a base that is invested in the idea that anything President Barack Obama touches must be bad.

There are plenty of smart folks vying for the Republican nomination, and it’s a fair bet most recognize the Iran deal is not susceptible to simplistic evaluation. They probably also recognize the complexities of abortion, gay marriage and other hot-button issues that are contentious precisely because rational people can come to different conclusions on them.

But intelligent, nuanced views are toxic to candidates of either party. Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton know they need moderate views to win the general election, but they also know those same views will prevent them from surviving the primaries.

In his farewell address, President George Washington famously warned of the “continual mischiefs of the spirit of party,” making it the “interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.” Party politics, he said, would “enfeeble public administration.”

As the nation heads toward the 2016 elections, Washington’s wisdom is increasingly apparent. Our nation no longer attracts the best candidates, but the most malleable ones. The political dance requires them to pander to extreme views in the primaries, and then shift to centrist views in the general election. Where they truly stand — and whether they have any principles at all — remains a mystery to voters until they enter office.

The likely end result: Americans will not be picking the best candidate in 2016. They’ll be picking the least-objectionable one.


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Filed under Partisanship, Presidential election

US House to blame for this mess

As our nation — already struggling through a shutdown — careens toward default, the understandable temptation of Americans is to blame both parties. This is one of those rare cases, however, when only one party is at fault.
The temptation to lay the fiscal crisis at the feet of both parties is understandable because it’s consistent with our history. Gridlock did not begin with the 2010 elections. The dysfunction of Washington D.C. is very much a bipartisan affair.
The GOP-controlled U.S. House, however, owns this mess.
One House-created disaster is in progress. The government shutdown has continued since Oct. 1.
Government shutdowns are not inherently anyone’s fault. The Constitution provides Congress with control over the budget. It also created two chambers of Congress. This is not the first time in U.S. history that those chambers had very different views of what the budget should look like.
Americans might wish that the House and Senate could negotiate with maturity and with a recognition that a shutdown causes massive problems for their constituents, but the Constitution did not provide a tie-breaking mechanism.
This shutdown, however, has nothing to do with the budget. Senate Democrats have formally requested budget talks 19 times in the last six months. They have been rebuffed every time.
House Republicans placed only one restriction on a continuing resolution to fund the government: that the Affordable Care Act be stripped of funding. Congress passed the law almost four years ago. It was the focus of the 2012 presidential election, which President Barack Obama won by 5 million votes, and passed Supreme Court review. It raises some taxes, but it does not increase the deficit.
Tying government funding to the destruction of Obamacare makes no more sense than if the Senate tied passage of a continuing resolution to reauthorization of the Assault Weapons Ban.
As brutal as the shutdown is — especially in north Alabama with its dependence on federal dollars — the consequences of a failure to raise the debt ceiling would be far worse. If the Treasury can figure out a way to honor U.S. debts after Thursday, it will only be by gutting Social Security payments, halting federal retirement pay, mass furloughs, disruptions in Medicare and a host of other problems that make a shutdown seem minor. Failure to raise the debt ceiling would shake the world’s confidence in U.S. stability, would necessarily create a U.S. recession, and possibly would cause a global one.
Minority parties routinely gripe about increases in the debt limit. Majority parties — whether Democrat or Republican — always have understood that with power came responsibility.
The 14th Amendment is blunt: “The validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned.” Many have asked whether the president will invoke the amendment and bypass Congress.
The real question, though, is why the U.S. House does not feel bound either by the Constitution, by America’s hard-earned reputation as a nation that always pays its debts, or by the promises it has made to the people and to the world.

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Filed under Debt ceiling, Obamacare, Partisanship

Shutdown a game of politics

North Alabama depends heavily on Defense Department dollars, and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks has been vocal in his complaints that it was the fault of Democrats that thousands of his constituents were on furlough because of the government shutdown. Brooks, R-Huntsville, is voicing support for hard-working Defense Department civilians and defense contractors. The disruption in their paychecks is damaging the north Alabama economy and the nation.

We hope, however, that those on furlough did not miss the irony of Brooks’ complaints.

Brooks is one of about three dozen far-right members of the U.S. House of Representatives that created this mess.

The government shut down for a single reason. A small group of Republicans — a minority of the House — refused to continue even short-term funding of the government without also disabling the Affordable Care Act.

We believe the ACA — which was passed by Congress almost four years ago and is less than three months away from providing insurance to millions of uninsured Americans — is a first step toward essential reforms in a broken health care system. Some think it will be a disaster. Either way, in the hands of Brooks and his most-extreme colleagues, it is nothing but a political football. They have staked their political reputations on the failure of the law known as Obamacare, but they are unwilling to let the reforms play out.

A few House Republicans balanced the political points they could score by taking one more stab at Obamacare and decided it outweighed the potentially devastating consequences to their constituents of a shutdown.

The latest claim by Brooks and his colleagues in districts heavily dependent on the Defense Department was that the furloughs were all President Barack Obama’s fault. He could, they argued, keep Defense Department civilians and defense contractors on the job despite the shutdown.

Their argument was based on the Pay Our Military Act, passed by Congress and signed by the president Sept. 30, on the eve of the shutdown. The two-page act appropriated “such sums as are necessary to provide pay and allowances to the civilian personnel of the Department of Defense (who) are providing support to members of the Armed Forces.”

The hastily passed legislation did not explain what sort of “support to members of the Armed Forces” qualified. It provided no guidance on how the Pentagon was supposed to apply it to 400,000 furloughed employees, many of whom have some duties that arguably qualify as “support” and other duties that do not.

Thankfully, the Pentagon on Saturday used the law to order most of its furloughed employees back to work. Brooks, who routinely lambastes Obama for dictatorial overreach, may be all for the expansive use of executive power in interpreting this law. But Obama also must placate 534 other members of Congress — not all in defense-heavy districts — and a judiciary.

The president, thankfully, stretched a last-minute act of Congress to benefit thousands in north Alabama who faced indefinite furloughs.

What is clear, though, is that none of this would be necessary if Brooks and his colleagues would quit using Obamacare as a tool to sabotage effective governance.

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Filed under Obamacare, Partisanship

NSA debate could ease DC gridlock

The national debate over revelations about the scope of National Security Agency counterterrorism surveillance has had an unexpected benefit for U.S. political discourse.

For almost the first time since President Barack Obama’s election, the debate is not along party lines.
Democrats are split, some viewing NSA’s collection of telephone data from U.S. residents as gross overreach and others seeing it as a reasonable balance between privacy and security. Republicans have the same split.

Democrats tend to respect both Obama’s sincerity and intelligence. While some see inconsistencies between Obama’s pre-2008 rhetoric on civil liberties and his actions as president as a betrayal, others recognize another explanation. It could be he changed his position not due to hypocrisy, but because the facts to which he became privy in the Oval Office convinced him the threats to Americans were greater than he had previously realized.

Many of these same Democrats, of course, held former President George W. Bush in disdain. They viewed his surveillance efforts as grotesque overreach. He was, they thought, using a terrorist attack as an excuse to increase his power.

The fact that Obama continued Bush’s domestic surveillance efforts forces Democrats to step back. Maybe Bush’s actions were not entirely irrational. The fact that two men with dramatically different philosophies both arrived at the same conclusion when it came to the importance of protecting the homeland tends to undermine the evidence they compiled against Bush.

Republicans are going through some of the same transition. They have clung to the belief that Obama is weak and elevates his global reputation over domestic security, yet it turns out he has been aggressive in fighting terrorism. Indeed, he has been so concerned about protecting Americans that he has been willing to risk derision from his base and to expose himself to claims that his pre-2008 rhetoric on civil liberties were disingenuous.

The utter gridlock in Congress has had less to do with elected officials than with the polarization of the American people. Americans have fallen into the fallacy that their presidents are either all bad or all good. Republicans want to view Obama as an enemy, just as Democrats wanted to view Bush as an enemy.

The disastrous result has been that Republicans in Congress are afraid to work with Obama, because they will pay a political price. The Republican base too often equates a golf game with the president — or agreement with one of his proposals — as fraternization with the enemy. It’s an unhealthy trend that began with Democrats when Bush was president.

The truth — not nearly as interesting for pundits — is that both presidents are imperfect humans who have generally tried to do what is best for their country. If Americans can get past the lazy practice of lauding or condemning their policies based on the source, gridlock in Congress will subside.

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Filed under NSA, obama, Partisanship, Surveillance