November Nightmares: Both Parties Abetting an American Decline

Beyond Foleygate lies a preponderant problem. Unless there is a radical shift, no matter which party wins in November the American public will lose.

Unless there is a radical shift in American politics or some extraordinary event, no matter which party wins the coming November congressional elections, the American public will lose.  And so could the rest of the world.

With President George W. Bush's approval ratings often dropping well under 40%, violence and instability in Iraq and Afghanistan showing no signs of abating, Israel engaged in a two front struggle in Gaza and Lebanon and the volatility in gasoline prices, Republicans in Congress should be in trouble. But the public holds Congress in even lower regard than the president-by an order of at least ten percentage points. And Democrats appear divided and uncertain in proposing solutions to the legions of problems and dangers confronting the nation.

The media's ongoing coverage of the November horse race offers no clear consensus of how the Americans will vote, and it obscures some of the most pressing issues. Just what, then, is missing from the news reports?

The Grim Reality

Government has broken down-just when the sheer number and complexity of issues facing it demand competence. From immigration to health care to social security at home and from Iraq to Iran to Israel to North Korea abroad, the United States government is unable to perform. These realties are an integral part of the November elections and their likely consequences.

Never meant to be efficient, and designed that way by America's Founding Fathers 230 years ago, a government of divided power depended on compromise and good will to govern. Today, the excesses of thirty or forty years have taken a toll. The sad performance of the U.S. government is manifested in scores of examples: from the dereliction in anticipating and responding to Hurricane Katrina to failing to plan for the post-war period in Iraq. We are seeing government failure in serial crises, including key foreign-policy concerns.

Three elements explain this dysfunctionality: culture, crusade and partisanship.  America's culture has led to the distortion and corruption of politics, which are no longer about providing good government. Instead, the intent is to "win" either re-election or on specific issues by discrediting and attacking the other side-irrespective of facts, civility or reason. Many issues-such as same-sex marriages, flag burning, stem cell research and right to life (or woman's right to choose known as abortion)-have become so ideologically driven as to make any resolution difficult to impossible.

Crusades can be positive if the cause is correct.  But the 1960's Vietnam crusade to stop communism and prevent the fall of "dominoes" was based on flawed assumptions.  The toppling of Saddam Hussein was based less on weapons of mass destruction that did not exist and more on changing the "strategic landscape" of the Middle East by democratizing Iraq, and was therefore similarly flawed.

Finally, partisanship-that inflexible devotion to party no matter the issue-is the worst it has been for over forty years. Civil discourse is extinct. Republicans and Democrats are equally guilty. Attack (and often outrageous) ads, the relentless fund raising (necessary to winning elections) and the influence of small but well-financed interest groups further distort politics and intensify the viciousness.

The consequence is not merely in gridlock. It is a broken system. But even if George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers were alive today and the government was brilliantly led, finding good solutions to the daunting array of problems facing the country would still be very difficult. Meanwhile, the White House under President Geroge W. Bush has largely ignored Congress. As a result, the excesses of the executive-whether on domestic and foreign surveillance in the Global War on Terror and the handling of enemy combatants and the disgraces of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay prisons-have irreversibly tarred and damaged America's credibility and image abroad, all further signs of a broken government.

Peering Forward

Here's what Americans can expect after November: Should Republicans retain both houses of Congress, they will opt, in the president's lexicon, to stay the course across the broad range of issues. They will make no meaningful effort to rectify past blunders and mistakes barring some catastrophic event such as another 9/11 or economic crises.

What's more, as a party, Republicans are largely in denial and still hesitant to take the president on in any substantial way. Iraq and Afghanistan, no matter how favorably events are being spun, lurch closer and closer to disaster. Fiscal discipline has gone the way of legislative oversight of the executive branch-in other words, disappeared. The GOP has been shockingly silent about what will be done to bring debts and deficits under control or restore America's evaporating reputation and influence abroad. Nor do they seem interested in becoming a check or a balance again. And if Republicans lean more heavily on the right-wing base to win, what will that bargain mean for the influence of ideology on governance? Many centrist and moderate Republicans in Congress are rightfully fearful of becoming endangered species.

Should Democrats win control of at least one house, they almost certainly will put their determination to undo much of the past six years of the Bush Administration above governing wisely. Despite the GOP's political vulnerability, in terms of substance, the Democrats are no better. Divided on both domestic and foreign policy, the Democrats seem determined to run on an anti-Bush platform highly (and rightfully) critical of Iraq, a tactic unlikely to play well with voters who are unhappy with the performance of both parties. And if one were unhappy with the Republican chairpersons of the many House committees, likely Democratic chairs will not necessarily prove any better.