Washington Gridlock: Blame the System, or Blame Obama?

So many scapegoats, so little time

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We have been hearing it all month: Washington is broken. When Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) resigned, he lamented that Congress had "too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving." Pundits have inscribed post-mortems for bipartisanship. Of course, liberals have an interest in pushing the idea that it's the system's fault, not the president's. (As voters are beginning to suggest.) But is the system really broken? How should we apportion blame for recent legislative gridlock?

  • No Dysfunction: 'The System Worked'  The Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer argues that people have blamed the system before: during Jimmy Carter's struggles. Then Ronald Reagan sailed through--it wasn't the system, but the person. Obama's policies, contends Krauthammer, simply weren't favored by voters.
The people said no, expressing themselves first in spontaneous demonstrations, then in public opinion polls, then in elections--Virginia, New Jersey and, most emphatically, Massachusetts. That's not a structural defect. That's a textbook demonstration of popular will expressing itself--despite the special interests--through the existing structures. In other words, the system worked.
  • Definite Dysfunction: But Obama Largely to Blame  The Economist comes out swinging, saying "much of the current fuss forgets the purpose of American government; and it lets current politicians (Mr Obama in particular) off the hook." It is possible to pass legislation in Congress, as the TARP bill shows. But "America's political structure was designed to make legislation at the federal level difficult, not easy." The idea was to impede passage of anything that didn't have "broad support," and "broad support from the voters is something that both the health bill and the cap-and-trade bill clearly lack." Obama could have remedied this by supporting tort reform as part of the health care bill.
  • Definite Dysfunction: Republican Philosophy Once Again the Cause, argues Michael Cohen at Democracy Arsenal. "A party that is unable to fathom the very notion of raising taxes on any American, that treats any efforts to curb military interventionism and spending as a treasonous act, and has consistently demonstrated a fundamental unseriousness about reducing spending--and has actually in positions of political power perpetuated the country's addiction to deficit spending--IS THE PROBLEM." He admits that all these positions can be considered "consistent with a conservative ideology that looks askance at the overweening influence of government." His proposition: "Fine. I'll buy that [argument]. As long as everyone accepts that this is the defining source of gridlock in American politics today. Deal?"
  • Long-term Dysfunction: Both Parties to Blame  National Journal's Charlie Cook puts it simply: the Republican-Republican president-Congress combination leading up to 2006 was dysfunctional, the Republican-Democratic combination that followed was dysfunctional, and the Democratic-Democratic combination now is dysfunctional. With the deficit in particular, "Democrats are supposed to relentlessly push for higher taxes as Republicans zealously advocate for cutting government spending." If both groups give in the deficit skyrockets. That's what's been happening. Neither side is "living up to its end of the natural bargain."
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