Washington has become a bottomless source of so-called narratives that pundits parrot, pad, peddle and promote in order to persuade us to see the world the way they see it. You can categorize journalists by which narratives they choose to pick up. Most importantly, it helps you analyze the question, does this writer think for himself, or not? If the writer has no detachment from the latest narrative, at least be sure you have some detachment. You will never think clearly if you let yourself be drawn into endless sniping.
Remember, sniping is not harmless. It aims to kill your enemy. When we talk about partisan sniping in Washington, we’re talking serious politics. Snipers shoot to kill.
What narrative do I have in mind? The short version is: blame the Republicans. They’re the obstructionists. They’re the reason Washington can’t get anything done.
The story line is more complicated than that, and if I had the space I could summarize it a bit more. But you’ve seen it already. People are writing books about it now. One of the latest, by Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann no less, is titled It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. When the book came out a few weeks ago, a lot of people noted that these respected scholars – always balanced! – blame the Republicans for Washington dysfunction more than they blame the Democrats. Take note.
Now, Mann and Ornstein correctly say that Republicans in Congress have obstructed Democrats’ plans and proposals. What this narrative doesn’t include is a reminder that voters sent Republicans to Congress is 2010 to do exactly that. A lot of voters perceived in 2009 and 2010 what Obama, Reid and Pelosi wanted to do, and in November 2010 they responded with a loud NO! WE DON’T WANT THAT!
That’s democracy. You can’t charge Republicans in Congress with obstructionism when they accomplish exactly what their constituents sent them to Washington to accomplish. Certainly the citizens who voted Republican in 2010 wanted their representatives to enact radical reductions in taxes and regulatory constraints – changes that have not occurred – but at a minimum those voters wanted the new Republican majority to stop the Democrats. At least they have done that.
No one doubts that the voters themselves are divided. They disagree about a lot of issues. The so-called gridlock in Washington reflects those divisions. To say though that the congressional Republicans are obstructionist because they prevent Democrats in the Senate and executive branch from getting what they want, is to privilege the party that holds the White House and the Senate. Why would we privilege the Democrats in this case, or for that matter the institutions they hold? We all say the House is the most democratic institution in our republic. Why should the party that holds the most representative institution be charged with obstructionism?
If the Republicans take the White House in 2012, we’ll have to see if the Democrats in the House and Senate become the latest obstructionists. The Republicans may turn the charge around, or they may continue to ignore the charge when Democrats in Congress charge the Romney White House with obstructionism. When both government and citizenry are divided, a charge of obstructionism becomes insubstantial and baseless. It’s a whiny talking point and nothing more. Or, in the case of Ornstein and Mann, it’s an appeal to balanced politics based on compromise that doesn’t exist now, and never did.
Democrats and other political analysts have repeated the charge against Republicans so often, however, that it starts to look like dogma. In fact, an appeal to compromise and balance isn’t a bad ideal for a democratic republic. In this case, though, the argument doesn’t end with an appeal to reason. It ends with blame. The purpose of blame is to punish the wrongdoer. The purpose of blame is to put your enemy away.
Like other false or misdirected arguments, this one about who is obstructionist – and who suffers from obstruction – may recede in time. If it does go away, the Republicans will have done well to ignore the charge. The Republicans in Congress and the voters who sent them there define liberty – our controlling ideal – in a way that differs from the Democrats’ vision. Arguments about partisan divisions in Congress, or about which party deserves more blame, should recognize this foundational disagreement about what liberty signifies in America.
The Republicans in Congress, like Thomas Jefferson, believe that defense of liberty justifies extremism. Their goals, however, are extremist only in light of our current institutions, not in light of our founding law in the Declaration and the Constitution. Republican representatives believe their vision is superior: if their Democratic colleagues blame them for obstructionism, so be it. They do not want the charge to be a distraction, one more talking point, or an accusation that causes demoralization and defeat.