Win Some (Like the Gipper)
In his 1990 autobiography, Ronald Reagan wrote: “I’d learned while negotiating union contracts that you seldom got everything you ask for. And I agreed with FDR, who said in 1933: ‘I have no expectations of making a hit every time I come to bat. What I seek is the highest possible batting average.’ If you got seventy-five or eighty percent of what you were asking for, I say, you take it and fight for the rest later.”
Sage words of advice -- especially for the heirs of Reagan’s small-government philosophy.
When explaining Washington gridlock, pundits often blame the Tea Party, claiming its adherents represent a new, more extreme breed of conservatism. But on paper, today’s conservatives aren’t that much further to the right than the last insurgent movement. 1994’s “Contract With America” called for both a constitutional amendment to preclude deficit spending and a moratorium on federal regulation. Moreover, the 1995-1996 government shutdowns were as bitter as the recent conflict.
The real difference is that while the immediate inheritors of Reagan’s legacy struck major blows for their cause, the current adherents have little to show for their fervor. The conservative movement made real progress during the 1990s -- the budget was balanced, welfare was reformed and investment incentives were put in place. So the issue isn’t ideological purity -- it’s a question of tactics and achievement.
Rather than bemoaning the current intransigence, it is more productive to understand what has changed. It’s true that the Tea Party movement is less hierarchical than the 1994 Republican Revolution -- meaning there’s no leader to tell members when they’ve gone too far. At the same time, the recent train wreck over the Senate filibuster rules demonstrates that there’s more to the problem than just one faction.
For decades, congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle maintained the leverage to rein in their radicals just in time to prevent actual casualties. Recently, however, the bonds that once enabled Congress to stare into the abyss without actually tumbling into it have frayed throughout the institution. Part of the reason is personal.
In politics, as in nearly every other important transaction in life, knowing, trusting and respecting the person across the table is crucial to any deal. Today, for a whole variety of reasons -- changes in voting schedules, the compulsion to get out of Washington, the way Congress is organized --members are much less apt to be personally familiar. And when your adversaries are strangers, it’s much easier to ignore their views and marginalize their constituencies.
Yet an even bigger set of destabilizing factors is institutional. Structures that once grounded politicians and restrained ideological extremism have been dismantled in the name of reform. The dominance of outside sources of political money developed in the wake of campaign finance regulation, and the Citizens United Supreme Court case has diminished the capacity of political parties to discourage flawed candidates and destructive behavior. As noxious as earmarks may be to some, the leadership’s ability to reward or withhold funding for a member’s priority projects often tempered extreme politics.
In essence, there are now few if any penalties for governing as an ideologue, even if that undermines your party leaders and caucus colleagues and results in bad policy. The factors that once brought the fringes into the fold have eroded, and President Reagan’s commitment to strategic compromise has lost considerable currency.
Fortunately, the democratic process is ever-evolving and capable of change. The public’s anger over the shutdown and the corporate community’s disgust with Congress’ economic mismanagement has prompted a sudden visible shift in the political winds in Washington.
That blowback drove an ideological odd couple, conservative House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and his progressive Senate counterpart, Patty Murray, to the bargaining table to avoid a second shutdown. Speaker John Boehner’s willingness to work across the aisle has also strengthened his standing with his colleagues -- not weakened it, as many expected -- and that position has been further bolstered by his bold defense of the Murray-Ryan pact against external conservative opposition. Meanwhile, a moderate Republican congressional candidate in Alabama recently scored an unexpected victory against a Tea Party absolutist.
These steps signal the possibility of real, lasting change will occur as leaders gain and assert the confidence to chart a new course. In this case, the best new idea is only 30 years old. We need more leaders to emerge in both the conservative and progressive ranks who are willing to accept Reagan’s wise admonition -- starting with the immediate debate over government funding. As Ryan and Murray demonstrated, neither side will get everything they want -- but at least they’ll get some of it, and an opportunity to fight for the rest later.
These glimmers of leadership are pointing to a hopeful future for politicians on both sides of the aisle and both ends of the political spectrum. But more important, they offer the possibility to return to a more civil and productive way of actually solving problems on Capitol Hill.