Hope, Caught Up in a Sea of Obstruction
Here's the situation: President Obama maneuvered a stimulus package through Congress that, after being reduced to attract additional senators, has proven insufficient to stimulate the economy. Now, given the political calculus, it would be nearly impossible for him to introduce an additional boost. He also proposed a regulatory scheme for Wall Street that was so riddled with compromises and concessions that it was unlikely to prevent another economic meltdown. And he has pushed a national healthcare plan that is almost certain to be eviscerated, and that even in its disemboweled form may not pass Congress.
Obviously, we face daunting problems, but we nevertheless continue to operate with a kind of hopefulness that we will meet the challenges and triumph. Historically, we have reason to feel this way. In the last 70 years , this country faced down the Great Depression, Nazism, and Jim Crow. The system, however balky and tardy it may have been, has always worked.
But today, beneath the optimistic rhetoric, lurks another possibility that no politician and few pundits want to admit: that the system is no longer up to the task and that the factors that once brought relief are no longer operable. There is the real possibility that this time we will not win but rather founder the way Japan has done since its economic catastrophe. There is the possibility that this time it is hopeless.
How has it come to pass that the most powerful (and most self-confident) nation in the world now seems helpless? The short answer is that political action is a function of political will - the public's more than the politicians' - and that ours has been steadily sapped. Rahm Emanuel, the president's chief of staff, has said that crisis creates opportunity, but he is only partly right. Crisis creates pain. It is the pain that creates the opportunity.
The New Deal, that great spasm of political initiative, arose out of a national agony: 25 percent of Americans were unemployed, and with absolutely no safety net to catch them. There is plenty of agony now, but it is not as deep nor as wide, in part because of the programs of the New Deal, including unemployment insurance. President Roosevelt had the advantage of an angry citizenry who wanted him to do anything to rescue them. Obama has the disadvantage of a passive citizenry that, frankly, may never hurt enough to demand what might finally cure what ails them.
Obama is also the victim of a much different and more complex political system than the one FDR faced - a system with far more interests to broker among. The number of lobbyists in Washington, a good indicator of how many interests must be served and how vested those interests are in maintaining the status quo, has more than doubled since 2000. There are now roughly 40,000, 2,000 more since last November alone. In the last year nearly 2,500 began lobbying on the single issue of climate change. By a political Newton's Law, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, which means that there are thousands of thrusts and parries on any major piece of legislation - a sure prescription for inaction or for tepid action.
Then there is the new media ecology. Yes, Roosevelt had his enemies in the press - almost all of which was arrayed against him. But he did not have a 24/7 cable antagonist dedicated to his presidential demise or hundreds of Internet bomb-throwers as Obama does, and he did not have a press whose baseline was skepticism about any possible government initiative. It is not the right-wing media that inhibit change; it is the mainstream media with their own attachment to the status quo, their own loaded questions about dramatic new policies and their predilection to identify potential missteps rather than to extol potential boldness. On healthcare, for example, the press has yet to ask one simple and critical question: Why can France have vastly superior care at half the cost per person of ours?
But finally, and most importantly, our own political institutions have been steadily and deliberately hogtied or even dismantled so that they cannot effectively do very much. In truth, the system was never very good at meeting crises; it was designed for incrementalism, not daring leaps. Our Founding Fathers, worrying about demagogues and runaway democratic effusions, created a number of institutions and rules, from the aristocratic Senate, which was devised to put the brakes on what they feared might be the careening of the more democratic House, to the entire system of checks and balances. The object was to prevent change, not facilitate it.
What those Fathers could not have anticipated was a political party dedicated to total obstructionism - dedicated to making certain that the government would fiddle while the nation burned. For this we have the Republicans to blame for their actions and the Democrats to blame for their inaction. As comedian Bill Maher recently put it, "The Democrats have moved to the right, and the right has moved into a mental hospital.''
Americans forget that after four years of Herbert Hoover's dithering during the Great Depression members of his party almost unanimously opposed FDR's economic stimulus, and that in the procedural run-up to Social Security, they held ranks against it, too. Twelve of the 19 Republican senators voted to have Social Security scrapped. Old age security, they argued, would spoil Americans.
Flash-forward 30 years, and the party was back to its shenanigans, opposing Medicare. Exactly half the Republicans in the House voted against it while Senate Republicans voted 17-13 to stop it. Only overwhelming Democratic majorities in 1935 and 1965 led to Social Security and Medicare - and this at a time when the GOP had a moderate wing. The conclusion: in times of dire need the system only works when there is a huge one-party majority and a popular, muscular president of the same party to keep the legislators in line.
Things have only gotten worse - much worse - since then. It is not only the 30-year Republican drumbeat that government is the problem, a cliche that has helped drain political will; or the tax cuts that, as Reagan's budget director David Stockman candidly admitted, were largely enacted to starve government and render it ineffective; or the incompetency of George W. Bush's appointees that was intended to discredit government. It is the Republican lurch rightward that has purged those few moderates and gamed the filibuster so that any piece of legislation is now held hostage to 40 votes. This generates cries for bipartisanship, neglecting the fact that there is one party adamantly opposed to any change whatsoever.
How obstructionist is the GOP? From 1927 to 1962, cloture - the vote to end a filibuster - was invoked only 11 times! In 2007 alone, with Republicans trying to derail initiatives in the Democratic Congress as disparate as an increased minimum wage, a climate change bill, campaign finance reform, and an energy bill, there were 62 cloture votes. When you consider that conservative Democrats are being hammered by Republicans as well as by lobbying interests who provide them with campaign contributions, you can readily see that not even the Democrats' 60 votes in the Senate are sufficient to move legislation even if there is a public outcry for action. According to polls, roughly 70 percent of Americans want a public option in healthcare. With that kind of support, the fact that it is even being debated is testament to how decrepit our system has become.
And so we are now a nation with great professions of faith that we will succeed but little real confidence that we will, a nation that focuses more on what can go wrong than on what can go right, a nation that can't seem to get action. We are a timid nation with small dreams and even smaller plans - a nation that seems to have lost its capacity to do big things. We all know the nation is broken, but we may no longer have the will or the institutions to fix it.
© 2009 The Boston Globe