More than smoke and mirrors

Twenty years have passed since political columnist and scholar E. J. Dionne, a sometime visitor to Arkansas, published Why Americans Hate Politics, a thoughtful, highly readable condemnation of the strategies, real and rhetorical, of both Democrats and Republicans. That Dionne’s scolding was bi-partisan made it easy for academics to praise and easier for both parties to ignore.

Dionne’s primary complaint was the either-or approach to policy debates: either do it our way or prepare for armageddon. National security, national solvency, societal cohesion, cultural comity — no aspect of American life (including life itself) was immune to the threat posed by the opposition party’s program.

The relentless demonizing of each presidential administration by the party out of power and each Congressional caucus by the other, aided by affiliated organizations and interest groups, inevitably drove the American dialogue to rival polar extremes. The resulting stalemates — which Arkansas farmers will recognize as a farm bill left in the fields — inevitably follow. As does the record low esteem in which Congress is held: about 12 percent approval in the latest survey (which, actually, represents a three point increase from spring).

Oratory alone is not responsible for the gridlock, of course; the creation of “safe” or “landslide” congressional districts to secure them for one or the other party’s nominees and the ever-increasing role of money in our politics have contributed enormously. So have the times — social and economic upheaval at home and abroad; but that makes the case for common ground only more compelling. Yet one is at a loss to see it, not only in this election year but in the immediate future. At the moment the race for the White House is likely to end in a razor-close balloting in both popular vote and the Electoral College; and with the House all but certain to remain Republican and the Senate quite possibly Democratic (or, short of that, with GOP control less than commanding — Republicans able to control the agenda but not necessarily the outcome), the prospects for significant progress on our most pressing problems, foreign and domestic, are cloudy at best regardless of whether President Obama or Mitt Romney claims the prize.

Serious legislators of both parties look on in dismay as the campaigns devolve into half-truths or outright falsehoods, fearing continued turmoil in the next Congress, not to mention the lame duck session that must decide postponed budget and debt limit questions. “I often think that the rank and file (voters) see the importance of ideas more clearly than the elites, who often find themselves surprised by the rise of the movements that arise from the bottom up and shape our politics,” Dionne wrote. He was prescient, writing years before the Tea Party was anything but a page in American history books.

It should be no wonder, then, that Romney chose to secure his standing with the fiscally illiterate wing of his party by naming as his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a man who walked away from a bi-partisan commission on deficit and debt reduction (thus scuttling otherwise compulsory Congressional consideration) because it dared propose raising revenue. And who, in his speech to the Republican national convention, blamed (not without some justification) Mr. Obama from walking away from it.

Ryan failed to mention a few other things. He supported both big Bush administration tax cuts while also supporting two wars and a prescription drug benefit with no off-setting “enhancement” in revenue. He did not mention that the $700 billion in cuts to Medicare proposed by Mr. Obama (a) would come not from benefits but from providers, and (b) that the budget he proposed would cut even more. About that Ryan budget: an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reveals that in addition to preserving the Bush tax cuts it would further reduce taxes by at least $265,000 annually to those with incomes of more than $1 million. A study by the Congressional Budget Office, though not in identical language, portrays Ryan’s debt strategy as a study in financial fantasy.

Meanwhile, that “failed” Obama administration stimulus: Ryan forgot to mention that a third of the new debt accumulated since the President took office (two-thirds of the total debt was racked up under Bush II) resulted from tax cuts.

Oh, the Obama team has much to answer for, as do Democrats in Congress — and we’ll get to them in this space in the days to come. But in presenting an alternative to the incumbent president and his party, the loyal opposition ought to feel some responsibility to the facts, should present something more than smoke and mirrors to Americans who already hate politics.

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.