Why We Can't (Or Won't) Govern

Why We Can't (Or Won't) Govern

By Robert Samuelson - November 17, 2014

WASHINGTON -- We Americans are increasingly given to political escapism. Regardless of our place on the political spectrum -- Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative -- we prefer self-serving fictions to messy realities. We avoid unpopular choices by hiding behind ideological platitudes. This defines Washington's political paralysis and polarization. The question posed by the midterm election is whether the parties want to break it.

The initial evidence is conflicting. President Obama and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell urge cooperation, suggesting a more pragmatic approach. But the president also pledges to act unilaterally on immigration through executive order, a stance that infuriates many Republicans. Not to be outdone, they promise again to repeal Obamacare -- a futile act (they cannot override a presidential veto) designed to please the party base and alienate Democrats.

Our political culture increasingly values symbolism over substance. That's what I mean by Americans favoring "self-serving fictions." Political behavior is shaped by beliefs that are false, and goals so impractical as to be unobtainable. But the symbolism has consequences because it inspires feel-good agendas that elected leaders are expected to achieve. When they predictably fail, popular disillusion deepens. The dynamic works on both left and right. We cannot govern, it seems, because ideological fervor crowds out pragmatic realism.

Let me illustrate. Start with immigration, the topic of the moment.

Many conservatives oppose any "legalization" of today's illegal immigrants. Ours is a nation of laws, the argument goes. Illegal immigrants broke the law; they must return home or be deported. The reality is murkier. There are about 11 million illegal immigrants, estimates the Pew Research Center. Their median time in the United States is 12 years.

Slightly more than one-third have U.S.-born children, who are American citizens. Many have strong ties to local communities and economies. They won't leave voluntarily and, given their numbers, millions won't be deported.

Facing these moral and social complexities, conservatives should accept some form of legalization. To refuse would perpetuate the very lawlessness they deplore. It would leave many people in a legal twilight zone. This is what I mean by dealing with "messy realities."

But liberals also need to be more candid on immigration's costs and benefits. Sure, benefits are significant, especially from high-skilled immigrants. Still, the social costs are steep. The influx of unskilled Hispanics has sharply boosted U.S. poverty. From 1990 to 2013, Hispanics accounted for 57 percent of the 11.7 million increase in the number of people below the government's poverty line.

If liberals care about reducing U.S. poverty, their support for tougher controls on both legal and illegal immigration should be enthusiastic, not just grudging. There is no reason why most Hispanics can't follow the path of previous waves of immigrants into the middle class. But this will take time and won't ever occur if a constant inflow of unskilled workers routinely expands the ranks of the poor and creates competition for jobs with immigrants already here.

Here's another example of ideologically driven paralysis: the budget.

Republicans desire tax cuts. Candor would require them to admit: There's no room for tax cuts. Since 1974, federal tax revenues have on average run about 15 percent less than federal spending. Although some spending -- including defense -- is being reduced, the Congressional Budget Office still predicts large deficits forever. One reason is that Social Security and Medicare spending is rising relentlessly, reflecting the impact of aging baby boomers. But Democrats reject meaningful cuts in these programs.

What we should do is reduce benefits for the affluent elderly, eliminate ineffective federal programs and pay for the (still) remaining gap with higher taxes. Instead, federal budgets increasingly shortchange the future. Republican intransigence on taxes is forcing risky defense cuts, even as the world becomes more dangerous. Democrats' rigid support of retirement spending is squeezing many valuable domestic programs that, like defense, are now underfunded.

To govern is to choose. But to govern effectively, choices must be presented honestly. This is where our system now falls short. The choices we receive are skewed and selective. They play to the respective parties' ideological tribes and distort the ultimate consequences for the country, as best -- of course -- as these can be determined. Everyone deplores gridlock, but there is nothing wrong with gridlock that blocks bad proposals.

We can't -- or won't -- govern because our politics is less interested in governing. The ideas and plans from the left and the right have, as their initial purpose, the winning of support among their political bases. The practicality and broad appeal of these proposals (that is, their usefulness as governing blueprints) are secondary concerns. So the distance between the two parties increases while the prospect for legitimate compromises diminishes. Whether the midterm election alters this is unsettled. The odds seem long. 

(c) 2014, The Washington Post Writers Group 

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