Why This Is Not Just 'Washington Breakdown,' in 3 Graphs (and 1 Story)

Tea Party members say they are expressing the public's will. Gee, if only there were some way to judge popular sentiment in a democracy.
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From the Washington Post this morning:

The unfortunate story that leads the WaPo today, with the photo and headline shown here, represents a step backwards from an increasing mainstream-journalistic willingness to discard reflexive "isn't gridlock terrible" hand-wringing and explain what is really going on.

For instance, in the past few days we have seen headlines like this one in the Wall Street Journal, emphasizing that the shutdown and debt-ceiling threats arise not from usual party divisions but from a war within the Republican party:

And this one as the front-page lead in the WaPo itself just two days ago:

Today's WaPo story, by contrast, rolled out every "fair"-seeming sentiment you might have expected from a talk show in some bygone age:

Here's why talk of "primitive, leaderless village" problems blurs rather than clarifies today's realities.

In essence, the hard-line faction of the House GOP is demanding the following, as recent NYT, WSJ, and WaPo articles, apart from today's, have made clear: 

  • EITHER the Administration must undo the main legislative accomplishment of the president's time in office, which he passed despite filibuster resistance four years ago and which the Supreme Court has since held constitutional; 
  • OR ELSE all other business of the government will be halted, and the full faith and credit of the United States will be called into question, with unknown but likely bad world-financial consequences.

This is not what either John Boehner or Mitch McConnell says he stands for. I have no doubt that Obama could ultimately strike some compromise with even McConnell's filibuster-happy Senate Republicans and any kind of normal Republican majority in the House. In the end Democrats would complain that Obama had caved, Republicans would complain about Beltway insiderism, but some deal would result.

Yet enough of today's absolutist House members think in exactly these Either/Or terms that normal compromise is simply impossible. Compromise itself is as much their stated enemy as is Obamacare. If you're urging a search for "common ground," please tell me where you see any in this case. I argued recently that the closest parallels in our history were to the John C. Calhoun era before the Civil War. If you think that's unfair, please tell me another case in which a dissatisfied minority threatened to shut down the entire government, and if necessary renege on the national debt, unless a sitting President agrees to reverse his hardest-won policy accomplishment.

And, yes, a dissatisfied minority. This brings us to the part of the struggle that gets far less ink than it should.


What's the basis for the GOP claim that the time has come to "defund Obamacare" and threaten default and shutdown to get their way? Their passion comes from their contention that the public has turned against this program. Thus, they are doing no more than reflecting popular will.

Hmmm, are there any other ways in which a democracy might assess the people's will? I can think of three -- which we're all aware of but which are worth revisiting:

1) Just last year, a presidential election was fought over this exact issue, along with economic policy more broadly. When the votes came in, Barack Obama scored a runaway Electoral College win -- and became the first person since Dwight Eisenhower to get more than 51% of the popular vote twice. 

The 51% figure is something of a trick comparison -- Ronald Reagan got just over 50% (but not 51%) in 1980 because of third-party candidate John Anderson. Bill Clinton never got even to 50% because of Ross Perot. Still, we very recently had the most formal test a democracy offers of a president's policies, rather than some set of push-polls, and Obama won in a walk.

2) In that year's elections for the Senate, the Democrats increased their majority by two seats and overall received 10 million+ more votes than all Republican candidates.

3) And last year even in the elections for the House, Democrats -- who for better or worse were forced to run on Obamacare and the president's economic policies -- gained 8 seats and received 1.7 million more votes than did all Republican candidates combined. 

Yes, the "total House vote" figure also has its trick-question aspects. Close races bring higher turnout for both sides, as compared with safe-district incumbents. Still, all evidence suggests that without post-2010 gerrymandering, the Democrats might well control the House right now, along with the Senate and White House. For instance: Obama easily beat Romney in Pennsylvania, but post-2010 gerrymandering means that Republicans now hold 13 House seats there, versus only five for Democrats.

In short, we have a faction making historically unprecedented demands -- give us everything, or we stop the government and potentially renege on the national debt. And it is doing so less than a year after its party lost the presidency, lost the Senate (and lost ground there), and held onto the House in part because of rotten-borough distortions. 

You can call this a lot of things, but "gridlock" should not be one of them. And you can fault many aspects of the President's response -- when it comes to debt-default, I think he has to stick to the "no negotiations with terrorists" hard line. But you shouldn't pretend that if he had been more "reasonable" or charming he could placate a group whose goal is the undoing of his time in office.

The real question now is what Boehner, McConnell, et al. can do about their hard-liners. A lot depends, for Americans and many others, on their success or failure.


Update The WaPo's new editorial on the subject is ... a thing of wonder. To be less coy, it is genuinely shocking in its high-schoolish disconnection from the realities (most of) the paper's own articles portray. Judge for yourself, but as a sample this is its rigorous conclusion:

Ultimately, the grown-ups in the room will have to do their jobs, which in a democracy with divided government means compromising for the common good.  

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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