The future of American politics will not be written by the Tea Party or the left wing of the Democratic Party. It may be better that way. Reform takes hold when it creates consensus and builds a more durable democracy. Currently we are stuck on a fragile dead center. Shrill voices in the media tear at the treads that bind us, insisting it is not enough to disagree with your opponent. You must question motives and character. Rather than look for facts and study the other side’s position, columnists and bloggers specialize in finding clever ways to demean. President Barack Obama has indifferently watched the country grow more polarized. In this atmosphere, there is little chance that Pres. Obama will achieve any significant legislative victories. He has given up on the current Congress and, given present trends, the next Congress is likely to be less amenable to his proposals.
Obama has shown no interest in finding a governing center. Early in his term he disdained Republican suggestions for health care reform and his stimulus package; he refused to endorse the bi-partisan Simpson-Bowles Commission recommendations for tax and entitlement reform; he has taken no lead on tax reform or immigration reform. Looking to the next election to give him a governing majority in Congress, he is following a political mirage.
Obama approached the presidency, as if he could create the world anew. Hence, he ignored history and eschewed finding the center of gravity in American politics. Our most reform minded presidents, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, realized that change had to come in stages and with the broadest support practicable.
Since the mid-1940s, presidents who sought bi-partisan compromise achieved the most important legislative reforms. Franklin Roosevelt worked with Republicans to gain the GI Bill of Rights; Harry Truman got a Republican Congress to pass the Marshall Plan; Dwight Eisenhower and a Democratic Congress passed the Interstate Highway Bill; Lyndon Johnson worked with Republican Senators to break the Southern Democratic filibuster and pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act; Richard Nixon signed a raft of consumer and environmental laws that came though a Democratic Congress; Ronald Reagan received Democratic support for his tax proposals and defense build-up; George H.W. Bush worked with Democrats to pass the Clean Air Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act; Bill Clinton’s most important reform the Welfare Reform Act came from a Republican Congress; and even George W. Bush was able to get bi-partisan support for his Prescription Drug Bill and for the No-Child-Left Behind education program.
The failures of Obamacare come from its very origins – its passage with no Republican support. For example, both parties could claim ownership of the GI Bill of Rights, the Marshall Plan, the Interstate Highway Act, the Civil Rights Bills, and the early environmental laws. None of these laws faced the kind of resistance in their implementation that Obamacare has.
After the next presidential election the political terrain may still be same; but the occupant of the White House will not be. Reviving the center will be that president’s task. The first step will be to find a broad common ground upon which bi-partisan coalitions can be built. The elements are there. Many in both parties see the same problems: an incomprehensible tax system; entitlement programs that threaten to consume the entire federal budget; an immigration system that keeps talented people out and lets many undesirables in; a newly over-bureaucratized health care system; failing public schools in the inner cities; the loss of good jobs for working class people; duplicative and ineffective federal programs and agencies.
Bi-partisan coalitions on different issues can be constructed. The Simpson-Bowles Commission was a near miss. Its mandate was to find common proposals on taxes and spending, endorse them with a strong majority of the members, and send its recommendations to the Congress for an up or down vote. It was within three votes of that strong majority. This gave Obama the excuse for ducking its recommendations. Using the Simpson-Bowles model, the next president could set the stage and move away from our debilitating stalemate. He or she could create a number of such commissions, urge them to find bi-partisan solutions and present their findings to Congress for an up or down vote. In some cases no agreement will be found or the Congress will vote some recommendations down. But some may go through. If these commissions were to have the same reasonable discussions that took place on the Simpson-Bowles Commission, they could set the tone for a more civilized dialogue where things are actually possible. Thus, the juvenile voices that we hear on places like MSNBC could be pushed further into irrelevancy. One can at least hop.