The 1983 example

The political conditions that existed at this point in 1983 are not unfamiliar. A first term president saw his popular support falter badly; he trailed his rivals in re-election polls; and there were intra-party whispers about a possible primary challenge. Unemployment was starting to drop after having reached double digits, and pundits routinely said the man in the Oval Office simply wasn’t up to the job.

On the Hill, the president’s party took a bit of a beating in the midterms, and the result was a Congress in which different parties controlled the House and Senate. The Republican majority in the Senate majority was not filibuster proof (55 seats), and Democratic majority in the House was enormous (272 members).

With all of this in mind, Eric Boehlert recently flagged an item the New York Times ran around this time 16 years ago, noting what happened in Washington under these very recognizable circumstances.

Congress has gone on vacation after one of its most productive periods in recent history, and to this point, the 98th session of the nation’s legislature could well be called “the bipartisan consensus Congress.”

In a half-dozen major areas, from job legislation to the MX missile to Social Security, the lawmakers were able to succeed by seeking accommodations across party lines. They were also able to establish a decent, if occasionally rocky, relationship with the White House. So far this year, President Reagan has signed more than 60 bills and not used his veto once on a major issue.

The spirit of uneasy detente that has pervaded the Capitol was explained this way by Senator David Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat: “The fact of life is, we’re politicians, and we work within the parameters of what is achievable.” [emphasis added]

It’d be a silly overgeneralization to characterize politics in 1983 as a post-partisan era in which Democrats and Republicans sat around singing Kumbayah. That’s just not the case — there were plenty of sharp, partisan disputes.

But American politics still functioned. Legislation passed. Policymakers wanted to govern and were willing to make compromises.

And then there’s today. Reflecting on the mere possibility that Congress might pass some kind of jobs bill, a senior House Republican aide said two weeks ago, “Obama is on the ropes; why do we appear ready to hand him a win?”

In theory, there’s absolutely no reason the developments we saw in 1983 couldn’t be the norm in 2011. Indeed, President Obama desperately wants to create the same kind of conditions — he’s willing to compromise; he’s ready to incorporate GOP ideas into his agenda; he’s entirely serious about his 2008 rhetoric about trying to be constructive.

But 16 years ago, Republicans were willing to work with Democrats. Today, with a radicalized GOP, that’s been deemed impossible.

I mention this for a few reasons. First, it’s exasperating to think much of the public will hold Obama responsible for Republicans gutting the American political process. Second, every reporter who publishes “both sides are to blame” pieces is doing a terrible disserve to the nation.

And third, anyone tempted to think the current conditions are somehow normal — the parties have never gotten along; divided government is supposed to be dysfunctional — is simply wrong. We’ve reached the point at which Republicans have pushed the basics of governing to the brink, in ways unseen in American history.

As Boehlert explained, “The Beltway game has never been played the way it’s unfolded under Obama…. The radical nature of what we’re witnessing today has no precedent in modern American politics.”

That those responsible for this fiasco appear likely to be rewarded for their efforts next year is truly astounding.