Boehner a Victim of Unrealistic Expectations
Speaker John Boehner’s resignation from Congress is a symptom of a chronic condition that pervades not just the right, but also the left and the center: the pernicious belief that everything in Washington is broken because utopian expectations are not immediately fulfilled.
“What on Earth has changed?” Sen. Ted Cruz often complains, regarding the paucity of conservative victories following the Republican takeover of Congress.
Plenty, actually. A number of legislative proposals by President Barack Obama — from public jobs programs to universal preschool to a federal minimum wage increase — have been stifled since Republicans took the House in 2010.
This little thing called the sequester also came to pass, which nobody likes to take credit for, but in fact has helped reduce the annual budget deficit from nearly 10 percent of GDP to below 3 percent.
Yet Cruz and other backbencher congressional conservatives were driven mad by the constitutional reality that controlling one branch of government doesn’t mean you get your way on everything all the time.
The president retained his executive authority, and Senate rules give the Democratic minority some legislative power as well. These are the obstacles that prevent the granting of every conservative wish, like the repeal of Obamacare. House conservatives weren’t able to remove those, so they’ve decided to burn the House down instead.
Delusional dissatisfaction is most pronounced and consequential among congressional conservatives. But we see it in the Republican presidential primary with the troika of the unqualified — Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson — lapping all the candidates who had the temerity to accumulate some governmental experience before running for president.
Trump lowered the bar on qualifications by hysterically declaring that “our system is broken” and “the American Dream is dead.” His greatest evidence of our democracy’s collapse? The rate of illegal immigration. Which is … down.
Border security has been tightened more than ever before under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Now, the number of undocumented workers is about one million fewer than in 2007. Somehow, reaching zero net illegal immigration is an example of “all talk, no action politicians” because we’re not able to literally stop every person trying to cross or deport every undocumented worker who got here.
On the Democratic side, Sen. Bernie Sanders is the one who believes everything is awful. “The American political system is totally corrupted,” he thunders. “This is not democracy. This is oligarchy.”
If things are that bad from a liberal perspective, then how did President Obama enact Obamacare, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms and the EPA greenhouse gas regulations?
Sanders has been supportive of all of these as partial measures, but that doesn’t square with his broadsides against the system. If progress is possible under the current regime, it’s not that corrupted. And if dissatisfied liberals want to build on Obama’s progress, it might make more sense to expend energy showing how well his policies are working than diminishing their import by trashing the status quo.
Even centrist voices cry that all is lost. The National Journal’s Ron Fournier greeted the Republican midterm victory with deep pessimism because “neither party is capable of achieving what most Americans want — a bipartisan, transparent, pragmatic approach to governance that addresses big problems in an era of socioeconomic change.” That’s true, as far as it goes, because the two parties have different philosophical beliefs about how to address big problems in an era of socioeconomic change.
And yet, during a period of divided government with hard-fought budget battles, (preceded by a very partisan, historically huge, economic stimulus program), three of the last five quarters have experienced GDP growth at an annualized rate of about 4 percent or higher. We’ve had 66 consecutive months of positive job growth, creating more than 13 million net private sector jobs. Wages are flat, but so are prices. America has done alright with the politics it has.
None of this is to say that everything is perfect and there are no problems left to solve. It’s only to say that the voices claiming that our present democracy is incapable of solving problems aren’t paying attention.
Politics isn’t broken. It’s just hard. People disagree about things. Forging compromises can take time. When compromise is not possible or progress is slow, it doesn’t mean the system is corrupted or party leaders must be dumped. It just means you either need to work harder to win more people to your side, or you need accept that sometimes you don’t win, and it’s time to focus on another issue.
As dissatisfied as some are, a steadily growing economy typically dampens any fervor for radical upheaval. In turn, the presidential election process likely won’t reward the angriest voices among us. But the House Republican caucus is more tethered to ideologically pure congressional districts than it is to GDP. Until the conservative base can be more accepting of political and constitutional reality, the speaker’s chair is going to remain a hot seat.