Comment March 2001

Poking the Walrus

A dubious political sport that neither party can resist
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After the first, brief (lovely) respite in years, politics returned to its usual rhythm early in January, with an address by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle that set forth a new Democratic proposal for stimulating the economy: "a return to fiscal responsibility and a comprehensive new plan for economic growth ... a bill that boosts demand, encourages investment, and creates jobs ... two new ideas to try to get the economic-stimulus debate back on track ... a new jobs-creation tax credit ... a robust depreciation bonus ..."

I find it hard to take this kind of talk seriously, no matter which leader of which party it comes from. The idea of politicians stimulating the economy conjures up for me an unfortunate picture of small, anxious men (wearing white lab coats and looking like Woody Allen) poking and fiddling ("Let's stick a giant tax cut up here and see what happens") their way around some very large and somnolent creature (looking sort of like a giant walrus), with results that range from pathetic failure to disastrous success. I always think, Oh, dear (well, really it is more like Oh, good), that big thing is just going to roll over on them and they are going to get hurt again.

In fact, the last time they tried it, that is exactly what happened. This was only a few months ago, in December. Congressional Democrats and Republicans spent weeks arguing over competing approaches to economic stimulation but in the end could not agree enough to even begin the job, and had to quit and go home, blaming each other and looking silly. This sort of failure is increasingly typical, and the reason, increasingly, is that failure is almost the point of the exercise.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Sage, Ink: "Party Games" (May 25, 2001)
A cartoon by Sage Stossel.

The context of national politics since at least 1980 has been one of an ever closer struggle for primacy between the two major parties, neither of which has been able to manage a lasting superiority over the other. That struggle reached a wretched apex of sorts in the past presidential election, in which George W. Bush was elected by a narrow minority of voters and Al Gore lost by a narrow majority of voters. Congressional elections that year cut the Republican margin in the House of Representatives to seven seats (out of 435) and left the Senate tied 50-50. The decision, last May, by Senator James M. Jeffords, of Vermont, to bolt the Republican Party and effectively (although not technically) join the Democratic caucus gave the Democrats control by a single seat. (Jeffords tells the story of what he calls his decision "to be true to what I thought was right" in the recently published and modestly titled My Declaration of Independence, described in the jacket copy as "a contemporary Profiles in Courage," which—at 136 small pages with the pronoun "I" appearing, I'd say, an average of two times per paragraph—sets a new publishing record for the inverse relationship between actual value and authorial self-satisfaction.)

The first effect of the increasing parity in party strength and in congressional representation has been a Congress that is not only equally divided but also controlled in each of its halves by absolutists. The seats that both parties have lost over the past ten years, through elections, retirements, and party-controlled redistricting schemes, have in the main been the seats held by moderates in swing districts. The Republicans took Congress from the Democrats in 1994 by going after the vulnerable, and the Democrats spent the next three elections responding in kind, each time cutting back the Republican majority in the House.

What remains is a Congress purged of its center, a Congress where, as the congressional analyst Charlie Cook recently put it, "each party reflects its base constituencies, yet few members represent moderate center-left and center-right voters—the majority of American voters today." Writing in National Journal, Cook went on to observe, "While an ideological diagram of the American electorate would probably look like a bell curve, a diagram of Congress—particularly the House, with its smaller, more homogenous districts—would look more like a camel with two humps."

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