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The President is working from home this month. Congress has left town until after Labor Day. This August, like most Augusts, will be a slow month in Washington. But watch out for a wild ride this fall.
Politics, like nature abhors a vacuum, and right now America is stuck in a political and policy vacuum. Neither party has the political power needed to enact their agenda into law. President Bush cannot get his tax cut made permanent, but Daschle’s Democrats can’t repeal it either. The President does not have enough allies in Congress to pass meaningful Social Security reform, tort reform or education reform based on choice and competition. At the same time, the Democrat party can’t get their agenda through. In fact, the Democrat party appears locked in a struggle over who controls the agenda – Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt – or Bill Clinton.
All of this has been going-on for at least two years since the presidential and congressional elections of 2000 ended in a tie. (Yes, Al Gore “won” the popular vote, and yes, George Bush won Florida, but statistically speaking, the race was a tie.) The Senate ended-up in a fifty-fifty split - before Jim Jeffords switched sides. And Republicans held-on to the House of Representatives with only a six-seat margin. As the Washington Post put it, “that election showed a nation divided male against female; urban against rural; gun owners against non-gun owners; regular church goers against irregular churchgoers.”
Some observers believe the politically divided nation reflects and is a result of the steady decline in voter allegiance to either political party. In many states the fastest growing segment of the electorate is independent or decline to state. Americans do see less and less connection to politics and politicians and distrust what leaders say. But it would be misguided to suggest that this means voters will want the tie to continue.
Something big is getting ready to happen.
First, government divided this closely really doesn’t work very well. Special interest politics flourish in this environment. Take for example, the Farm Bill – generally considered an embarrassment. America went from lecturing Europe to get rid of their subsidies to being the worst subsidizer of agriculture in the industrialized world. Why? Because Congress is so closely divided. Republicans in rural states could legitimately argue that they needed to bring home a generous farm bill or risk losing their seat. That argument required other Republicans who disagree with the policy but care more about maintaining their majority status to give their support to deeply flawed farm legislation. And so we now have over $170 billion in new farm subsidies, courtesy of the American taxpayer.
Medicare prescription drugs provides another example. Poll after poll shows the American people, especially seniors, want a prescription drug benefit. But the closely divided Congress makes progress on the issue virtually impossible. Earlier this year, Tom Daschle said, “I have one focus, and that is exclusively on maintaining a majority of the Senate – hopefully winning a couple of additional seats – and I will do whatever it takes, within the confines of what is prudent and appropriate, to accomplish that goal.” [Note to senior citizens – your priorities are not Tom Daschle’s priorities] Ironically, that meant Tom Daschle decided to kill the Medicare prescription drug legislation. As Robert Novak reported earlier this week, “With their polls giving the party a 24-point advantage over the Republicans on prescription drugs, they see a win-win situation by pressing the most comprehensive, most expensive bill. If it passed, the Democrats would get the credit. If it failed, the Republicans would get the blame. Daschle was uninterested in seeking consensus.”
In the “old days” when control of Congress rarely switched, the legislative incrementalists like Ted Kennedy and John Breaux would never have let an opportunity to get a prescription drug benefit pass by. They would have jumped at the chance to get it into law and work to grow it in later years. But Daschle had other priorities.
Divided government – at least when it is this closely divided - just doesn’t work very well.
There are other storm clouds gathering. Neither party has a compelling economic message, or more to the point, an economic philosophy that relates to the changing economic times. America may well be headed into a “double dip” recession, and if that’s the case, can you think of a single politician that has laid out a coherent economic game plan? I haven’t even heard a coherent argument for why the recession occurred in the first place. Fair or not, Republicans will pay a very heavy price if the economic news continues to deteriorate between now and the November elections. President Bush gets the blame or the credit for the economy.
Government isn’t working very well right now. Congress couldn’t even pass a budget for this year. They have left all the annual spending bills until after they come back from their summer vacation – which guarantees a very public and very ugly spending mess right before the November elections. But it goes way beyond Congress. Amtrak has gone bankrupt. September 11 exposed deep flaws within our intelligence, law enforcement, customs and immigration services. State governments all across the country are in the midst of a severe budget crisis. Nobody is satisfied with the state of our public education system. In Washington, DC, people are even complaining about how the Metro subway system “smells.”
The amazing thing about the American people is they will not tolerate failure. While they appear disinterested and disengaged with politics right now, voters will respond if they believe things are too far off on the wrong track. The party or politician who first picks-up on and responds to the desire for fundamental change could reap windfall profits in the form of lots of congressional seats.
The Democrats think they have their issue in the corporate scandals and Social Security. That probably isn’t compelling enough to cause a landslide – but if Republicans don’t offer any alternative, it might be enough to break the tie and shift momentum to those who want to grow government. Will Republicans develop a coherent limited government agenda, or will they simply flounder in the coming November storm?