Poking the Walrus

A dubious political sport that neither party can resist

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.

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."

Moreover, a federally protected camel with two humps. Through the slaughter of the weak and years of gerrymandering swing districts out of existence, the parties have made a House composed almost entirely of safe seats. For at least half a century the re-election rate for incumbents has averaged above 90 percent; in the past two congressional elections a record 98 percent of House members were returned to office.

A Congress that is divided 50-50 and is 98 percent composed of members from districts dominated by one party naturally and necessarily falls apart fairly often—as in the case of the last failure to pass an economic-stimulus bill. Cook again: "As a result [of their ideological polarization] the two parties' respective economic stimulus packages have come to resemble payoffs to their core constituencies and biggest financial backers ... and with neither side terribly mindful of swing voters, the incentive to search for a consensus, to compromise on moderate proposals that might actually work, gets less and less."

Actually, the problem is not only that neither side is terribly mindful of swing voters; it is also that both sides are terribly mindful of the only reliable voters they have left—the hard cores in their ever more ideologically coherent states and districts. To move these relatively few voters to care enough to make a difference for the very few gettable seats that remain, it helps to remind the faithful, frequently, of the great and awful differences between Our Side and The Other. And for this purpose hardly anything is more helpfully defining than an argument over taxes and spending. For practical election-year purposes, the reason for poking the walrus is to poke the walrus—and point out what a terrible job the other fellows did when it was their turn to poke.

Thus Daschle in his January announcement: "A year ago we had the resources and the flexibility to make virtually any urgent investments we needed. We don't have that flexibility or those resources today, because Republicans chose ideology over experience."

And thus the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, Tom Davis, of Virginia, in his response to Daschle: "Less than three weeks after single-handedly blocking economic-security legislation, Senator Daschle is taking advantage of his obstructionist tactics to score partisan political points."

This is the conversation on which the Democrats are banking for success in 2002, especially if the economy stays soft in the second and third quarters. Democratic strategists find support for this approach in public-opinion surveys suggesting that in important political ways September 11 was not as much of a hinge moment as is often imagined. Majorities of voters are still worried about their jobs, still want health-care reform, and so on. The idea of the Democrats as the party that wants to help in these regards and the Republicans as the party that wants to obstruct still has resonance.

The Democrats' argument isn't necessarily a bad one, but it is old, and old carries real risk here. September 11 did not change all things, but it did change a lot in politics. George Bush has the support of close to 90 percent of the voters; a solid majority rejects the view of him as an illegitimate or accidental or incompetent President. A strategy rooted in attacking Bush's economic approach necessarily attacks Bush, now not the split-court President but the wartime President. Moreover, Bush's popularity reflects on his party, which is seen by more voters than before as better equipped for the important aspects of governance, including the economy—a reversal from the Clinton-Gingrich years.

But the greater risk is simply that the whole conversation feels beside the point—not as if the politico-economic stimulators of both parties are wrong, but as if they are purposely irrelevant, perversely out of touch: You're still talking about that? Don't you know there's a war on? Leave that poor walrus alone.