Dysfunctional Washington- What Does the Future Hold?

With the vast majority of Americans disgusted with Washington and polls showing that Congressional approval rates are in the toilet, can we anticipate that the discourse might improve in the future? Can we expect that politicians will take citizens’ displeasure to heart with positive steps to improve the atmosphere in Washington, so that the important business of the nation can be accomplished? Unfortunately, the answers are no and in fact it is more likely that the political climate will deteriorate in the years ahead.

A recent article in Politico by Charles Mahtesian and Jim VandeHei spelled out the reasons why the situation appears so bleak.( http://bit.ly/IkrTZr) Basically, it’s the loss of centrists and moderates on both sides of the aisle with greater polarization in both the Senate and the House. Whereas twenty years ago, 40% of Senate Republicans were considered moderate, barely 10 % can be so-labeled today. In the House, it was 30% twenty years ago and almost none currently. Similarly, moderate Democrats now constitute 12% of the party in the House versus 35% in 1989. Moderate Democrats in the Senate are 15% compared to 27% 20 years ago.

The refusal of Tea Party activists to support any Republican who is not to the extreme right of the political spectrum has resulted in moderate conservatives being shunted aside in Republican primaries or having to retire. And right-wing conservative Super PACs, from outside the contested state or congressional district, with vast sums of money since the Citizens United ruling, have supported the most partisan candidates with attack ads. To make matters worse, the candidates being skewered cannot respond effectively to these ads, as they don’t have the financial resources to mount a defense.

Centrist Democrats have also gone down to defeat or retired, with the liberal wing of the party and organized labor going after incumbents who have not hewed to the party line, particularly in regards to health care. This is particularly true in the House where Jason Altmire and Tim Holden were just defeated in Pennsylvania Democratic primary races. The list of moderate Democrats Senators not running for re-election include Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Jim Webb of Virginia.

Republican moderate Olympia Snowe of Maine is also retiring along with moderate conservative Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas. The reasons for all of these retirements include the partisanship in Washington and the inability to legislate effectively. In addition, there’s the fact that campaigning opens up moderate candidates to blistering attack ads, often personal in nature, augmented by Citizens United Super PAC money. As examples of internecine combat in the Republican Party we just have to look at the battles Oren Hatch of Utah and Charles Grassley of Indiana are going through, because these long time conservatives are not deemed conservative enough by extreme elements in their party. Interestingly, Oren Hatch received a 100% rating from the American Conservative Union and the Chamber of Commerce in 2010, but that isn’t considered adequate by the far, far right. Maybe it’s the fact that in the past, they were willing to talk across party lines and were even cordial at times to Democrats.

The loss of moderates in the House and Senate are going to make compromise on any issue more difficult to accomplish, and the atmosphere in Washington is bound to become even more toxic. Perhaps the saddest aspect of the current political climate is the fact that the moderate middle, including independents, moderate Republicans and centrist Democrats, has no bloc to represent their views, despite the fact that they are the largest percentage of voters.

To change the political environment so that government can function again, campaign financing reform, including limitations and transparency on Super PAC donations is necessary, despite the Citizens United ruling. Perhaps it will take a constitutional amendment, but it must happen if American democracy is to prosper. And the way both the Republicans and Democrats have evolved over the past several decades, it is evident that a third party of the center is needed to represent the moderate middle and bring common sense and compromise back to Washington. Neither of these remedies will be easily accomplished, since both current parties and the deep pockets behind them will fight fiercely to keep these prescriptions from being realized.

Resurrecting Democracy

A VietNam vet and a Columbia history major who became a medical doctor, Bob Levine has watched the evolution of American politics over the past 40 years with increasing alarm. He knows he’s not alone. Partisan grid-lock, massive cash contributions and even more massive expenditures on lobbyists have undermined real democracy, and there is more than just a whiff of corruption emanating from Washington. If the nation is to overcome lockstep partisanship, restore growth to the economy and bring its debt under control, Levine argues that it will require a strong centrist third party to bring about the necessary reforms. Levine’s previous book, Shock Therapy For the American Health Care System took a realist approach to health care from a physician’s informed point of view; Resurrecting Democracy takes a similar pragmatic approach, putting aside ideology and taking a hard look at facts on the ground. In his latest book, Levine shines a light that cuts through the miasma of party propaganda and reactionary thinking, and reveals a new path for American politics. This post is cross posted from his blog.

Image via Shutterstock.com

  

Author: ROBERT A. LEVINE, TMV Guest Voice Columnist

Political junkie, Vietnam vet, neurologist- two books on aging and dementia. Last book on health care reform- Shock Therapy for the American Health Care System. New book on the need for a centrist third party- Resurrecting Democracy- A Citizen's Call for a Centrist Third Party- will be available early October 2011

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11 Comments

  1. In addition there has to be some House districting anti-gerrymandering efforts made. The redistricting techniques that produces safe districts for the majority party that controls the redistricting and packs the voters favoring the minority party into as few districts as possible both favor the election of extremists. If candidates have to face a more diverse range of voters in their districts they would have to be more moderate.

    I can legally register and vote in two different House districts here in Georgia. Don’t worry, I only vote in one. I own a house in the Atlanta suburbs in the 7th district, currently held by a Tea Party Republican, Rob Woodall. I also own a condo in the city of Atlanta, bought to house my children when they went to Georgia Tech, that is in the 5th district held by one of the most liberal congressman, John Lewis. Neither comes close to representing me. Neither comes close to being voted out of office. Neither sees a large amount of outside money coming in to either support or oppose them. Neither feels the need to even debate their opponents.

  2. I would add Scott Brown to the list of GOP moderates in danger of losing his seat, although in a traditionally liberal state.

  3. Sorry, I need to complete my thoughts.

    What has been suggested is a non-partisan redistricting scheme similar to the one used in Iowa and to a lesser degree in California. The districts are drawn up by a non-partisan committee. Not a bipartisan committee but a non-partisan committee, think that League of Women Voters, who are legally prevented from using voting patterns in their redistricting. The plan goes to a straight up and down vote in the State Legislature.

    Is anyone familiar with these systems? I honestly don’t have a feeling for how well they would work. Since most of them use existing districts as the baseline, only modifying them in response to a change in population, they would take many redistricting cycles to overcome the current gerrymandering.

    Gerrymandering just feels wrong but is it a large contributor to polarization? I mean elections that aren’t subject to gerrymandering are producing extremists, the US Senate, for example.

    Obviously I am backsliding.

  4. It is interesting that there is one key individual left out of this article and arguement.

    The President.

    He may not be able to solve all the problems, but some leadership would go along way in helping the problems of split government. Demand that the two top leadersip posts from both parties in both houses of congress meet with him on a regular basis to discuss problems and develop solutions. Then before anyone can change their minds, call in the white house correspondence from all the news media, have everyone stand with the president and state what each member will take back for a vote. No one can then say “they changed their mind”.

    It may not work but 10% of the time, but at least someone would be showing some leadership that does not exist with anyone in any position in government today.

    But then, showing leadership and proposing any positions only leads to atttack ads that jeopardize political careers. (That should be a subject for another article and support for term limits).

  5. There’s no question that gerrymandering and the current primary system of choosing candidates contributes to polarization, with candidates that represent the partisan bases rather than centrists. But restricting the Super PACs and the unlimited funding that provides most of the attack ads would lower the heat in the primaries and would help moderates to compete. A third party of the center is also necessary to change the entire political process.

  6. “Demand that the two top leadersip posts from both parties in both houses of congress meet with him on a regular basis to discuss problems and develop solutions. ”

    Lol right. And when the GOP leadership spits in his face and says no way what then?

  7. Slamfu..Then they would not be able to go back and say “We had a deal and then Obama changed the deal” like they did with the deficit reduction deal.

    All I am saying right now is there is no one in Washington doing a dang thing except playing to their extreme members of their party so they can be reelected and to hell with the country.

    Levine is right, most Americans are centrist, most Americans would pay more in taxes if the money was spent well and tax reform did away with “deals’ for special interest, most Americans would support entitlement reform if it was means tested and many would support a third party that promoted those beliefs. But money is not there for a third party as money would loose out to the third party legislative agenda.

  8. I do like RP’s idea of getting the debate out in the open. Too many times we hear one side blaming the other as being rigid or unreasonable. With the negotiations in the open at least we could gauge the truth as to what’s happening.

  9. There is one point possibly missing or misconstrued in this article. What is the center?

    Is the center simply the median point of views held by those in congress? Alternately, is the center supposed to be the center of actual political viewpoints (globally)? If the latter (as it likely should be) then the Democratic Party is not all that different from what the Centrist Party would be.

    How far left is it to think that all citizens should have adequate health care coverage? Every industrialized nation on Earth (other than us) has it.

    How far left is the idea of abortion being allowed (something I oppose, btw)? Once again, virtually every industrialized nation on the Earth has it (in China it is forced!)

    How far left is the idea of having social safety nets, unemployment insurance, free education, separation of church and state, workers’ safety protections, inspection and regulation of food, mines, drugs, and financial deals?

    I think the problem might very well be that the “Far Right” has won already and is now trying to get even more than a shift towards its positions. Obama has been called a communist, socialist, marxist, etc. These are actually demonstrably false. Just how far left is he REALLY?

    Perhaps definitions need to be defined to the American public so that they can realize that what they think are centrist positions are (as far as most of the world is concerned) solidly in the right wing of the political spectrum. Thus anything that is center or slightly left is being labelled as far left.

    I have news for those who think Obama is far left. Nationalizing all the banks, taking over all hospitals and doctor offices and making them employees of the Federal Government, taxing all money earned above, say, $150,000 at 90%, dictating to companies how many holidays, sick days, time off for maternity/paternity, etc.; nationalizing all limited raw materials in the country (coal, oil, silver, gold, natural gas, etc.) as belonging to the people. These are things that are left-wing (and many of them not even considered to be far left). I don’t see too many Democrats submitting bills to accomplish these things.

  10. All talk talk talk aside.. sure, polarization is real – and it’s a problem allright. Let’s be clear though, republicans have moved right and democrats have moved toward the center. Get it yet?

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