The Big Idea

Let’s Not Talk About It

Avoidance as a political strategy.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid 

I had planned to write this week about the Senate’s grand debate over President Bush’s proposed troop surge in Iraq, but then the Senate decided not to have one. Harry Reid, the majority leader, called it off rather than allow a vote on a demagogic resolution sponsored by Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire that insisted Congress not “endanger United States military forces in the field including by the elimination or reduction of funds.” Because most senators would rather be photographed clubbing baby seals than go on record against the troops, a roll call on Gregg’s motion would have indicated sham support for Bush’s policy. 

This gambit delighted Republicans because it got them out of a tricky spot and avoided a showdown they were poised to lose. But some Democrats were no less pleased not to have to cast another vote, even a symbolic one, on the war. Taking a straightforward stand on Iraq is the kind of thing that tends to cause problems for them down the road, as John Kerry, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton could all testify. For many opponents of the surge, being able to blame Bush’s supporters for blocking action is an ideal impasse. Happily helpless, Democrats and liberals can blame the president for getting it all wrong without assuming any responsibility for what happens next.

The growing preference for this sort of Kabuki enactment is emerging as the theme of the final phase of the Bush presidency. This is not the type of divided government in which two sides knock heads in a struggle to have their way, which describes the period of grand conflict between Reagan and the Democrats in the early 1980s, or Bill Clinton and the Gingrich Congress from 1995 to ‘98. That kind of head-butting is straightforward. Positions on both sides are relatively clear, the struggle takes place above board, and a winner typically emerges (the president, in both of those cases).

The type of deadlock that has overtaken Washington since the handover of congressional power is of a muddier and more frustrating sort, reminiscent of the diminished, final years of nearly every recent presidency. In this kind of divided government, a lame-duck leader can’t move his agenda, and his opponents in Congress can’t move theirs, should they happen to have one. Rather than seek compromise, both sides accept that nothing much is going to happen and settle in for the duration. The political game becomes a matter of blaming the other side for obstructing progress while positioning oneself for the next election, which might change the dynamic.

Fiscal politics exemplify the current standoff at its most disingenuous. The president’s budget, which was released this week, is a characteristically reality-evading document, which asserts the federal government can achieve balance in five years, based on a series of implausible assumptions, including unrealistic growth in tax revenues, unlikely cuts in domestic spending, underestimating the costs for Iraq and Afghanistan, and—the big one everyone forgets—treating funds that in theory are accumulating in the Social Security trust fund ($184 billion this year, rising to $258 billion in 2012) as found money.

A candid Democratic response to this would be that restoring fiscal balance again will require hard choices—tax increases and budget cuts—that will be even harder if we want a universal health-care system. John Edwards, the most populist of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, has so far come the closest to doing this, calling explicitly for tax increases on the wealthy and asserting that moderate deficits are tolerable. But for the most part, Democrats are no more interested in a full and frank discussion of fiscal realities than the president is. They think excessive honesty will get them whacked as tax-raisers and that they’d risk losing in 2008 everything they worked so hard to win in 2006. The safer ground is to scoff at Bush’s evasions and kick the can down the road until their party can recapture the White House.

A similar kind of Republican calculation explains the current stalemate on a series of other issues. If conservatives speak specifically about the need to cut entitlement spending, they’ll be branded enemies of Social Security by liberals. So instead, they devote their energy to market-testing new euphemisms for privatization, which is a non-starter, and blasting liberals for ignoring the problem. On immigration, there is enough substantive common ground for Democrats and the president to reach a compromise involving an arduous path to citizenship for current illegal residents, tighter border security and employment enforcement, and a guest-worker system. But moderate Republicans are too worried about being sandbagged as amnesty supporters to risk a deal. Even on the issue of climate change, where there is no longer any obvious disagreement, nothing is likely to happen before the next president is sworn in. Republicans see no advantage in leading the charge. And most Democrats would rather bash Bush for failing to act than specify the sacrifices Americans need to make to confront the problem.

It is a rather obvious point that leaving the country’s biggest problems to fester can’t be good policy. What is less obvious is that it may not be good politics either. A two-party system is a zero-sum game, in which Republican gain ought to mean Democratic loss, and vice-versa. But because the politics of blockage, blame, and stagnation tends to breed disgust with both sides, it can pave the way for big anti-incumbent swings and third-party movements. Both John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in 1992 ran on their ability to break through the stalemate in Washington. Because of the strong and varied presidential field, a significant third-party bid seems less likely in 2008; John McCain and Barack Obama both owe their popularity to a reputation for speaking more plainly than other politicians. But if the logjam persists, it’s not impossible that a Michael Bloomberg or someone else could wage an independent candidacy on the argument that neither Republicans nor Democrats are leveling with the country.

Not talking about problems is also a poor way to prepare the ground for fixing them later. Walter Mondale’s acknowledgement that he would raise taxes if elected in 1984 is thought by most to have been a boneheaded political move. Democrats think Mondale should have evaded the tax question on the campaign trail and then done what he needed to do once elected. On the other hand, Bill Clinton’s decision to raise taxes in 1993 without a clear mandate from voters wasn’t genius politics either—it was probably the biggest factor in the loss of Democratic control over Congress a year later. If leaders think it’s suicidal to confront the public with hard choices, the public learns that hard choices aren’t really necessary. Honest debate ceases to be merely unlikely and becomes definitively impossible.