While driving in my car the other day, I came across this chorus from a 1970s hit song by the long-forgotten British band, Stealers Wheel. It reminds me of the sad state of American politics today. Voters seeking a sensible center instead, find themselves caught between the "clowns" and the "jokers:" the talking heads from the right and left alike who take delight in the most extreme politics and rhetoric imaginable.
Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) writes in Sunday's Washington Post that, "It's a tough time to be a moderate in the U.S. Senate. Sitting down with those on the opposite side of a debate, negotiating in good faith, attempting to reach a solution -- such actions are now vilified by the hard-liners on both sides of the aisle. Too few want to achieve real solutions; too many would rather draw sharp distinctions and score political points, even if that means neglecting the problems our country faces."
She's not alone in her concern. 130 former members of Congress, from both political parties, have taken the unprecedented step of urging all current members to work across the aisle:
"The divisive and mean-spirited way debate often occurs inside Congress is encouraged and repeated outside: on cable news shows, in blogs and in rallies. Members who far exceed the bounds of normal and respectful discourse are not viewed with shame but are lionized, treated as celebrities, rewarded with cable television appearances, and enlisted as magnets for campaign fund-raisers. Meanwhile, lawmakers who try to address problems and find workable solutions across party lines find themselves denigrated by an angry fringe of partisans, people unhappy that their representatives would even deign to work with the 'enemy'."
William Galston, a policy adviser in the Clinton administration and elections expert for the Brookings Institution, tells the New York Times that "The center has disappeared."
A new poll by the Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University finds that, "Although Democrats and Republicans have rarely seen eye to eye, the gap between the two has widened significantly over a decade of partisan polarization..." Yet the same poll also shows that the electorate's views on government aren’t easily labored as right or left. While confidence in the federal government is at an extraordinarily low level, "support for government action on such issues as national defense, health care and fighting poverty remains high, in some cases just where it was a decade ago..."
The poll finds the electorate deeply divided over health care reform. "The polarizing debate over health care has left its mark on Republicans and independents far more than on Democrats. Ten years ago, three-quarters of independents said they favored more government involvement to ensure access to health care coverage. Today, half do. Among Republicans, the falloff is more dramatic, sliding from 53 to 21 percent."
Henry J. Aaron, a senior policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, opines that the continued partisan split over health care reform doesn't bode well for the country. He notes that most Republicans have pledged to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but President Obama likely would use his veto pen to block repeal.
"Perhaps the more likely - and in some ways more troubling - possibility is that the effort to repeal the bill will not succeed, but the tactic of crippling implementation will" he observes. "The nation would then be left with zombie legislation, a program that lives on but works badly, consisting of poorly funded and understaffed state health exchanges that cannot bring needed improvements to the individual and small-group insurance markets, clumsily administered subsidies that lead to needless resentment and confusion, and mandates that are capriciously enforced.
Such an outcome would trouble ACA opponents: their goal is repeal. It would trouble ACA supporters: they want the law to work. But it should terrify everyone. The strategy of consciously undermining a law that has been enacted by Congress and signed by the president might conceivably be politically fruitful in the short term, but as a style of government it is a recipe for a dysfunctional and failed republic."
A sensible center would instead try to find a way to bridge the differences over heath care reform and make improvements. But as the former members of Congress sadly observed in their letter a politician who tries to "find workable solutions across party lines [would likely] find themselves denigrated by an angry fringe of partisans, people unhappy that their representatives would even deign to work with the enemy."
And you wonder why the refrain "Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right ... Here I am stuck in the middle with you" keeps replaying itself in my mind?
Today's questions: Do you think the center has disappeared from American politics? And what do you think of Henry J. Aaron's view that the continued partisan polarization over health care reform could lead to "zombie legislation" and "is a recipe for a dysfunctional and failed republic?"