Washington has become a bottomless source of so-called narratives that pundits parrot, pad, peddle and promote in order to persuade us to see the world the way they see it. You can categorize journalists by which narratives they choose to pick up. Most importantly, it helps you analyze the question, does this writer think for himself, or not? If the writer has no detachment from the latest narrative, at least be sure you have some detachment. You will never think clearly if you let yourself be drawn into endless sniping.
Remember, sniping is not harmless. It aims to kill your enemy. When we talk about partisan sniping in Washington, we’re talking serious politics. Snipers shoot to kill.
So what narrative do I have in mind? The short version is: blame the Republicans. They’re the obstructionists. They’re the reason Washington can’t get anything done.
The story line is more complicated than that, and if I had the space I could summarize it a bit more. But you’ve seen it already. People are writing books about it now. One of the latest, by Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann no less, is titled It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. When the book came out a few weeks ago, a lot of people noted that these respected scholars – always balanced! – blamed the Republicans for Washington dysfunction more than they blamed the Democrats. Take note.
Now we can say that the Republicans in Congress have indeed obstructed the Democrats’ plans and proposals. What the narrative doesn’t include is the reminder that voters sent those Republicans to Congress is 2010 to do exactly that. A lot of voters perceived in 2009 and 2010 what Obama, Reid and Pelosi wanted to do, and in November 2010 they responded with a loud NO! WE DON’T WANT THAT!
That’s democracy. You can’t charge Republicans in Congress with obstructionism when they accomplish exactly what their consituents sent them to Washington to accomplish. Certainly the citizens who voted Republican in 2010 wanted their representatives to enact radical reductions in taxes and regulatory constraints, changes that have not occurred, but at the very least those voters wanted the new Republican majority to stop the Democrats. At least they have done that.
No one doubts that the voters themselves are divided. They disagree about a lot of issues. The so-called gridlock in Washington reflects those divisions. To say though that the congressional Republicans are obstructionist because they prevent Democrats in the Senate and executive branch from getting what they want, is to privilege the privilege the party that holds the White House and the Senate. Why would we privilege the Democrats in this case, or for that matter the institutions they hold? We all say that the House is the most democratic institution in our republican constitution. Why should the party that holds the most representative institution be charged with obstructionism?
If the Republicans take the White House in 2012, we’ll have to see if the Democrats in the House and Senate become the latest obstructionists. The Republicans may turn the charge around, or they may continue to ignore the charge when Democrats in Congress charge the Romney White House with obstructionism. You can see where this analysis is headed. When both government and citizenry are divided, a charge of obstructionism becomes insubstantial and baseless. It’s a talking point and nothing more.
The Democrats and sympathetic analysts have repeated this particular talking point so often, however, that it starts to look like dogma. Like other false or misdirected arguments, this one about who is obstructionist – and who suffers from obstructionism – may go away in time. If it does go away, the Republicans will have chosen correctly in ignoring the charge and the developing narrative. The Republicans in Congress, and the voters who sent them there, do in fact have a vision for the country that differs from the Democrats’ vision. They don’t want charges of obstructionism to distract them from that vision.