One of my favorite writers – Leonard Pitts – has weighed in on the topic du jour these days for pundits: what led to the rise of Donald Trump in the Republican presidential primary. He starts off with a quote from former Republican Senator George Voinovich: “If he was for it, we had to be against it.” That was the beginning of the Republican strategy against the newly elected President back in 2009.
The popular storyline goes that voters are seeking political outsiders this year in their frustration over a government where the legislative gears are frozen and nothing gets done. What that storyline forgets is that this gridlock was by design, that GOP leaders held a meeting on the very evening of the president’s first inauguration and explicitly decided upon a policy of non-cooperation to deny him anything approaching a bipartisan triumph…
Republicans and their media accomplices buttressed that strategy with a campaign of insult and disrespect designed to delegitimize Obama. With their endless birther stupidity, their death panels idiocy, their constant budget brinksmanship and their cries of, “I want my country back!” they stoked in the public nothing less than hatred for the interloper in the White House who’d had the nerve to be elected president.
And the strategy worked, hobbling and frustrating Obama. But as a bullet doesn’t care who it hits and a fire doesn’t care who it burns, the forces of ignorance and unreason, grievance and fear the Republicans calculatedly unleashed have not only wounded the president. No, it becomes more apparent every day that those forces have gravely wounded politics itself, meaning the idea that we can — or even should — reason together, compromise, form consensus.
Of course I agree with Pitts because I wrote basically the same thing recently. Just as it is critical for a doctor to accurately diagnose a disease in order to effectively treat it, we need to be clear about why our politics is broken right now in order to craft effective solutions.
One way to test the diagnosis Pitts has articulated is to think about what happened prior to the 2010 midterm elections – when Democrats had control of both houses of Congress – and afterwards. In the first 2 years of the Obama presidency, he and the Democrats managed to pass:
1. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
2. The Affordable Care Act
3. The Dodd-Frank Act
4. Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
5. The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act
6. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act
7. The Fair Sentencing Act
8. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act
9. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act
10. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act
That’s a pretty impressive list for just two years, isn’t it? When you compare it to how little has been accomplished in the last 5 1/2 years, the contrast is astounding. The comparison is even more stark when you look at what the two Parties have been doing over those years. While the Republicans have spent most of their time trying to repeal Obamacare and threatening to blow up the economy if they don’t get their way, President Obama and the Democrats have put forward a list of policy proposals that have been either ignored or actively obstructed by the Republicans.
1. Comprehensive immigration reform
2. The American Jobs Act
3. Universal pre-K
4. Raise the minimum wage
5. Paid family/sick leave
6. Free community college
7. Gun background checks
8. Criminal justice reform
9. Restoration of the Voting Rights Act
As a thought experiment, it’s interesting to contemplate what might have happened over these last few years if either the Democrats had maintained their majorities in Congress and/or if the Republicans had taken the advice of people like David Frum and actually attempted to negotiate solutions.
There are voices out there who diagnose our political situation differently than the analysis above from Leonard Pitts. Some in the media are particularly fond of the “both sides do it” mythology. As we’ve seen, Bernie Sanders comes close to embracing that idea with his analysis that the entire political process is rigged by big money – both Republicans and Democrats. While money in politics plays a role, it is clear that Democrats have an agenda to address the challenges we face and Republicans have cast their lot with fanning the flames of fear/anger in order to obstruct progress. The consequences of that decision by the GOP are that: progress has been halted, the stage was set for a Donald Trump candidacy and our political system has been gravely wounded.