"Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it," the humorist P.J. O'Rourke once observed. These days, O'Rourke might revise and extend his remarks: Both parties promise to get government working by breaking the partisan gridlock in Washington, then proceed to make the problem worse.
For the first time in 18 months, fewer than 30 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the right direction. President Obama's approval rating is hitting a summer skid. And Congress's approval rating has reached yet another all-time low. That's great news for challengers preparing to run for office in next year's midterms—and it's terrible for the prospects of breaking the partisan gridlock that made Washington so unpopular in the first place.
Running against Washington is a winning formula honed over the years. The partisan swamp is an easy and attractive target, and promising to change it has worked for everyone from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan. It works for incumbents as well as challengers, Democrats as well as Republicans. It's no accident that four of the last six men elected to the presidency were governors, and that another, the sitting president, has based his entire career on the notion of changing the current climate.
This year, Washington is again becoming the bogeyman. A Democratic super PAC and a Republican primary challenger have already blasted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for spending 30 years in the capital; former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, before he decided against a Senate bid earlier this month, delighted in telling reporters how much he loathed the Beltway; and top Republican congressional candidates such as Carl DeMaio, running in a northern San Diego district, have made Washington dysfunction a cornerstone of their nascent campaigns.
In the era of the permanent campaign, and of hyper-gerrymandering that virtually guarantees most House races are decided in partisan primaries, that attitude has gone beyond the campaign trail, following members to Congress itself. Both parties' bases are loathe to accept compromise to almost any degree; in recent election cycles, they have punished members of Congress such as Connecticut Democrat-cum-independent Joe Lieberman, Utah Republican Robert Bennett, and Indiana Republican Richard Lugar for deviating from only a small handful of core party principles.
That makes governing more difficult. Members of Congress who have watched their colleagues lose primaries have started renouncing their compromising ways early in election cycles to make nice with ever more partisan bases.
The Senate Republican Conference has been particularly infected by paranoia. Sen. Orrin Hatch, one of the most accomplished legislators of the upper chamber, ran hard against parts of his own record in order to win another term last year. McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in leadership, have both tacked right this year. McConnell's voting record has hewed closely to Sen. Rand Paul, the tea-party darling whose election over McConnell's preferred candidate in 2010 signaled a more conservative primary electorate in Kentucky, while Cornyn's voting record has looked almost identical to that of Sen. Ted Cruz, the tea-party favorite first elected over an establishment choice in 2012.
Sen. Michael Enzi is the latest to emphasize partisan purity while feeling the heat of an intraparty challenge. Enzi, a former member of a bipartisan gang looking for common ground on health care reform, who also worked in close coordination with liberal Democrats Edward Kennedy and Tom Harkin on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, faces Liz Cheney, the former vice president's daughter and a Fox News contributor, in next year's primary elections. At a forum for young British conservative student leaders at the Capitol on Wednesday, he sounded a different tune.
"I hate compromise," Enzi told the students. Compromise, he said, leads to bills that neither party can truly support. The senator who worked with Harkin on rewriting No Child Left Behind, the sweeping federal education measure, also said he likes to keep things simple. "In my experience, if it's comprehensive, it's incomprehensible," Enzi said.
Both parties are guilty of hypocrisy. Earlier this month, Democrats blasted Republicans for allowing student-loan rates to rise; the Republican House had passed a bill that would have kept rates low in the short term, while the Democratic Senate is only now taking up its own proposal. House Republicans have taunted the Senate for failing to pass a budget; but when the Senate voted on a budget, the House refused to appoint members of a conference committee to hammer out a compromise.
The seemingly antiquated notion of a conference committee, a group of members from both chambers tasked with marrying two different versions of a given bill, illustrates the problem. The 104th Congress, the first since the 1950s in which Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate, met 66 times in conference. The 110th Congress, when Democrats took control, produced 16 conference committees. So far in the 113th Congress, not a single conference committee report has been produced.
The pressure to avoid compromise in the pursuit of ideological perfection, lest a primary challenge ensue, has been evident in the debate over comprehensive immigration reform. The White House and Democratic reform backers believed Republicans would act in their self-interest as a party to pass a sweeping reform bill; most leading Republican strategists agreed with the White House's theory that passing a reform bill including a path to citizenship would help the GOP begin a new effort to reach out to Hispanic voters, the largest minority group in the country.
But what they didn't consider was that to many individual members of Congress, their own politics demanded the opposite conclusion. What's good for a party trying to compete in national elections in swing states like Colorado and Nevada isn't necessarily good for Republican members of Congress trying to survive in overwhelmingly white districts in other parts of the country.
Seven of the 14 Republicans who voted for the bill come from states where Hispanics make up more than 10 percent of the population; only seven of the 32 Republican "no" votes came from states where Hispanics have so much influence.
It's not a coincidence that so many recent presidents either came from outside Washington or represented a dramatic change from business as usual. But politicians play politics, which means it's not a surprise that each president who promises to drain the swamp—including the current president—has failed so miserably.
And there's the paradox of Washington dysfunction: As long as it's popular to win election by being against Washington, Washington won't work.
This article appears in the July 26, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.