Winner Take All Governance?

I read the title of the on-line CNN piece, “Democrats dismiss GOP health care repeal push”, and had to groan. Here we go again! A fresh new year, but the same old same old in terms of “us and them” thinking in our national governance. As a Unitarian-Universalist, a hardcore egalitarian and a “governance nerd”, it struck me that though I’m used to this kind of rhetoric from our Congressional reps, from the point of view of effective legislating, it is really quite dysfunctional and corrosive to the process.

Washington (CNN) — Top Democrats are dismissing Republicans’ plans to ram a repeal of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul through the House of Representatives in the opening days of the new Congress, portraying the move as little more than a hollow nod to the GOP’s conservative base.

From my thinking, this kind of framing of the situation is all about power politics rather than egalitarian governance, and also all about a spectator sport with victors and vanquished rather than a meeting of the minds between peers towards compromise and solutions. Everything seems to be done in terms of jockeying for more Congressional seats for your team in the next election and towards the big prize of winning the Presidency for the next four years. Compromise is for wusses, and it might turn off your partisan supporters and give a shred of an advantage to the other side.

Given that I am biased as a lifelong progressive and voting Democrat, I feel like the Congressional Republicans made a political calculation after Obama won the 2008 election that if they opposed everything his administration tried to do (even compromises that reflected their ideas) that they would be better positioned for the 2010 election and to defeat him in 2012. It seems that part of that calculation was trying at every turn to accuse Obama of being a “socialist” (certainly that was the main Fox News talking point), particularly in his attempt to resolve the financial crisis, save General Motors, and pump money into the moribund US economy. That seemed disingenuous since I don’t think Bush or even McCain (if elected) would have done anything that much differently. It seemed like a simple calculation that they could make that label stick with and motivate their conservative base to action, the better to win the next contests in two and four years.

That said, progressives and their MSNBC spokespeople had previously seemed to do their best to paint a fascist face on the Bush/Cheney administration, given the unique challenges of the World Trade Center bombing in 2001 and subsequent terror campaigns. I think I was guilty of that at times myself, and looking back now see it as going against the Golden Rule and sewing negative seeds only to reap them when the pendulum swung the other direction.

It seems to have become the standard national legislative/political script for both sides. As soon as the other side grabs the majority, immediately start trashing them including questioning their intentions. “Preemptive war” of sorts.

Pragmatically, if you are going to have an effective governing body, you don’t start the meeting by accusing the other side of being disingenuous. An effective egalitarian governance process depends on establishing shared values and goals, even if there is strong disagreement on how to get their. I think there is actually a fair amount of agreement between Democrats and Republicans in Washington, at least on values and goals, but that is trumped by the political fear that the first side that “flinches” (compromises) will lose the ardor of their base.

In contrast to the highly inaccurate accusations of being hyper-partisan, President Obama sounded like the lone egalitarian statesman in the mix…

“I think that there’s going to be politics, that’s what happens in Washington,” Obama told reporters aboard Air Force One after wrapping up his Hawaiian vacation late Monday night. The Republicans “are going to play to their base for a certain period of time. But I’m pretty confident that they’re going to recognize that our job is to govern and make sure that we are delivering jobs for the American people.”

Obama here is guilty of putting himself in his adversaries’ shoes and acknowledging their position, a hallmark of facilitating effective egalitarian governance. Contrast Obama’s statement with the clips in the story from Congressional Democrats.

Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, addressing reporters at a news conference with other House Democratic leaders Tuesday, called the GOP move “disingenuous” and “nothing but political theater”… “It is a Kabuki dance,” she said. “The fact of the matter is we’re not going to repeal health care. It is not going to happen.”

DeLauro could not be accused of trying to acknowledge any good intentions in her opposition. And even more so her caucus leader…

Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, cited projections from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office noting that the Democrats’ overhaul will lower the federal deficit over the long term. As a result, she argued, a GOP-led health care reform repeal would “do very serious violence to the national debt” — undermining a central Republican pledge.

Pelosi’s preemptive strike is to say the other side will “do very serious violence”, and not just “lead to a significant increase” in the national debt. More extreme framing!

Why can’t we even acknowledge that the people on the other side of an issue can be genuine and principled in their opposition, even if we think they have it wrong? Do our opponents need to always be vilified in order to increase support for our position?

The GOP caucus number two (at least through his spokesperson) can’t be accused of putting himself in his opponents shoes either…

“Obamacare is a job killer for businesses small and large, and the top priority for House Republicans is going to be to cut spending and grow the economy and jobs,” said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia… “Further, Obamacare failed to lower costs as the president promised that it would, and does not allow people to keep the care they currently have if they like it.”

That last quote could be written off as clueless for someone that did not understand implementation of major new public policy, but coming from GOP leader Cantor’s office it seems patently disingenuous. The provisions of health care reform have barely begun to be implemented. Its like accusing FDR of not winning World War II yet… in say October 1942, when American forces have barely begun to engage the Axis. This seems like a calculated effort to mislead people.

It also looks like all the Republican hyper-partisans are carefully disciplined to call the health care reform legislation “Obamacare”, trying to take full political advantage of a compromise bill that made neither set of partisans very happy, focused on the 2012 election rather than governance in the meantime. (It might more accurately be called “Baucus-Grassleycare”, since that would reflect the two people whose ideas are prominent in the provisions, but that would not help with the pre-2012 artillery barrage.)

Well I could go on and on, but back to the point. The reality here is that almost everyone (except Obama it seems) is framing the legislative crafting of health care reform as a winner-take-all contest between two angry combatants both claiming principle on their side and lack of the same on the other. That’s apparently what attracts eyeballs and sells ads on cable news.

But I think that the ethical base of our egalitarian republic takes a hit with each salvo from either side, and more and more politically unsophisticated US citizens may be drawn to a Tea Party type stance of “a pox on both your houses”, and that the best government is an emasculated one.

3 replies on “Winner Take All Governance?”

  1. Steve… say more about your thought here. Doesn’t the government give us our roads, our schools, health care for the poor and the elderly, and a number of other things? Are you saying that we would be better off with just the Lord and no government, perhaps a theocratic anarchy?

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