The great American political gridlock
The Washington Post, June 5, 2013
With everyone pretty much agreed that little will be done in Washington to tackle the country's biggest challenges in the next few years (save perhaps for immigration reform—still a big "if"), it's a good time to take stock of just how confused and ineffectual our political parties have become.
Start with Democrats. Here's what we now know will be true come 2016. After eight years of the most liberal president in half a century, 20 million Americans who want full time work won't be able to find it; America will be more unequal than at any time since the 1920s; there will be less upward mobility in the United States than in virtually all of Europe; 1 in 5 children will live in poverty; our school rankings will continue to slide internationally; poor children will still be assigned to the worst teachers and most run-down facilities in the country; 12,000 Americans will still die each year from gun violence; college will be less affordable and student debt higher than ever; half of all jobs will pay less than $35,000 a year; the wealthiest 400 Americans will have more assets than the bottom 150 million combined; our top banks will be bigger than before, and powerful enough to fight off rules meant to prevent a repeat of the financial meltdown; we'll spend a third to twice as much per person on health care than other wealthy nations without better results; health insurance premiums will consume a third of the average family's income; carbon emissions will continue to rise toward levels most scientists say threatens the planet; most Americans won't be saving nearly enough to maintain their standard of living in retirement; and politicians will spend literally half their time groveling for cash from the 1/20th of 1 percent of Americans who bankroll their campaigns.
With a record like this, what will progressives do for an encore?
If Democrats are disappointed, Republicans are detached from reality.
Many in the GOP seem to think we're under the rule of a Kenyan socialist. Yet corporate profits are at record highs. The Dow was at 7,949 when Obama was sworn in; today it tops 15,000. The share of national income going to labor as opposed to capital is at all-time lows. Nearly all of the income gains in the economic recovery have gone to the top sliver of highest-earning Americans. Obama agreed to extend 82 percent of the Bush tax cuts. And the president's health-care plan (all hysteria to the contrary aside) followed a sensible Republican design.
With a record like this, what are Republicans complaining about?
Democrats say their disappointment is the GOP's fault—if those lunatics didn't run the House and clog the Senate with the filibuster, they say, we'd have made much more progress.
That's right up to a point. But it's not the whole story. A Republican House doesn't explain why President Obama's last jobs plan only proposed to put 1 to 2 million Americans back to work when at least ten times more need a full time job. Republican madness can't explain why Obama artfully slams the GOP on student loan interest rates while touting a plan that would leave tuitions and debts still higher a decade from now. Republican lunacy can't explain why the White House often brags about having enacted universal health coverage, a goal aides boast has eluded presidents for a century, when Obama has done no such thing—at least 20 to 30 million people will still be uninsured when the dust clears (from a law I support).
In short, Republican nihilism and intransigence—huge problems, so please don't arrest me, false equivalency police!—can't explain the Democratic ambition gap. In fact, it's not clear that anything in my depressing inventory above would be meaningfully different if the GOP had vanished or capitulated. Rare instances aside, this means Democrats aren't offering ideas equal to the magnitude of our problems. Republicans, meanwhile, can't even see what the problems are.
Thus our predicament. We don't have a system where one side will vanquish the other. Yet we can't afford this endless gridlock, because globalization and rapid technological change continue to undermine the middle class.
We have two choices. We can figure out how to rise and renew the country together. Or we can drift. Truth is, even if we had a functioning governing class that was able to act, it would be hard to develop an agenda to meet this moment. But when we can't even try at the federal level to do serious things, we're sunk.
If you think this analysis is in the ballpark, repeat after me:
We need something new. We need something new.