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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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More of the Same

In response to his self-righteous screed today in the WaPo, I have a question for Dan Balz: just what country does he think he lives in?

Mr. Balz writes:

The collapse of comprehensive immigration revision in the Senate last night represents a political defeat for President Bush, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the bill's most prominent sponsors. More significantly, it represents a scathing indictment of the political culture of Washington.

The defeat of the legislation can be laid at the doorstep of opponents on the right and left, on congressional leaders who couldn't move their troops and on an increasingly weakened president and his White House team. But together it added up to another example of a polarized political system in which the center could not hold.

The partisan blame game was already at fever pitch as the bill was going down yesterday. But to those far removed from the backrooms of Capitol Hill, what happened will fuel cynicism toward a political system that appears incapable of finding ways to resolve the nation's big challenges.

This is exactly the type of ignorance against which I argued this morning. How is it that somebody who has spent so many years in Washington can write with such shock and disappointment about the defeat of the bill?

Ugh. Where to begin?

Let's start with this "center failing to hold" nonsense. That's as good a place as any. Our system has a super-majority requirement built into it. The "center" never "holds" - if by "center" you mean the middle 33% of the legislature, and by "holds" you mean imposes its legislative preferences on the other 67%. That is not how our system works. Legislation passes if and only if a large majority of legislators supports it.

And, more broadly, what kind of nonsense is it to blame the failure on our "political culture?" This is exactly what I meant when I wrote that we occasionally are overtaken with a strange kind of solipsism. Implicit in Balz's argument is the absurd assertion that this problem is unique to us today. For goodness sake! Supporters of Andrew Jackson accused John Quincy Adams of procuring an underage American prostitute for the Czar of Russia!

And it is indeed ironic that Balz should predict more cynicism. Maybe, just maybe, the public is made more cynical because media elites who have the power to communicate with them fail to understand how our system works, and thus unfairly compare it to an impracticable ideal. Maybe, just maybe, if Balz et al. would write, "Once again our system worked. A sizeable minority strongly opposed this bill, and our system does not pass legislation that alienates so many of our fellow citizens. This is reason to celebrate because this is why, after 200 years, we still have a healthy, fully functioning Republic!" the public would not be made to be more cynical.

So, I'll ask again: just where does Dan Balz think he is? This is America. Our system was intentionally designed to prevent divisive legislative from becoming law. If Mr. Balz wishes to live in a government that demonstrates a capacity for coherent, programmatic, "responsible" legislative activity, over and above the objections of the minority, there are flights to Heathrow every day from both Dulles and Ronald Reagan (or are Washingtonians still calling it Washington National?). Otherwise, he needs to deal with the fact that the "user's manual" to our Constitution is called The Federalist Papers.

And, of course, we cannot have a "the system failed us again" story without reference to the following absurd idea.

The collective failure of the two parties already appears to have stimulated interest in a third-party candidate for president in 2008 whose main promise would be to make Washington work. It is far too early to assess the viability of such a candidate, but it is easy to imagine the immigration impasse finding its way into a television commercial if someone such as New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg decides to run.

Ahhh...yes. This is precisely what we need in Washington. Our two parties cannot get along, so let us bring in a third party! This makes perfect sense. The problem is of course that our political representatives are...too political! Somehow, bringing in a new politician, one who would have no natural allies in Congress, would solve all of our problems! I am sure such a man would be able to force his political opponents to do as he wishes!

What we have here, buried deep within the premise of this story, is a fallacy of composition that our media outlets have made. Just because Mr. Balz knows all about the minute-to-minute events of our government does not mean he understands how our government as a whole operates. He obviously does not.

This fallacy of composition is precisely what justifies our media's burgeoning cadre of "wise elders," the journalist-turned-pundit class that has had bestowed upon it "expert" status by editors and producers. Journalists who cover the day-to-day of American politics have been improperly certified as experts on how our system works, have been rechristened as "pundits," and have been empowered not only to report the news, but to explain its broader significance to us. There is an inferential error at the core of this certification, which is why so many of our political talk shows, which rely increasingly upon said "experts," are little more than forty-two minute collections of the mindless platitudes that these people - who are, in reality, out of their depths - offer.

Thank goodness it's Friday!

-Jay Cost