Who’s To Blame for Washington Dysfunction?

At a recent family gathering, one of my ultra conservative relatives lamented how Washington is broken and does not do the people’s will. She added that she could not stand Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, citing his friendship with the late Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy. She was flabbergasted that a Utah conservative like Senator Hatch could befriend the Liberal Lion of the Senate. 

Who's To Blame for Washington Dysfunction?I was shocked to hear her complain about a bipartisan friendship on the one hand, and Washington gridlock on the other, without acknowledging any irony. The remarks left an impression on me because they underscore why contemporary American politics are so dysfunctional.

A day after President Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, several top Republican lawmakers held a secret meeting in which they decided their strategy to cope with the new president would be to oppose every one of his proposals. They surmised that a strategy of total opposition would be their best bet for taking back the White House in 2012.

At the same time, right-wing pundits immediately began employing vitriol and the politics of fear to mobilize their listeners and viewers. As former Bush speechwriter David Frum observed, “conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or – more exactly – with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?” Scores of Tea Party lawmakers were swept into Congress during the 2010 midterm elections promising never to compromise. They told their voters that Obama wanted to destroy America, and you cannot compromise with someone who is trying to devastate our country.

Who's To Blame for Washington Dysfunction?In the 2016 Republican primary contest, Senator Ted Cruz has repeatedly attacked Senator Marco Rubio for reaching across the aisle to work with liberals such as Senator Charles Schumer. Cruz’s popularity is largely explained by his fiery no-compromise rhetoric.

A no-compromise attitude does not exclusively infect the right. While compromise is generally viewed much more favorably among Democrats, some firebrand liberal politicians and progressive groups scorn cooperation with the other side of the aisle.

There are other significant problems that plague our political system, including gerrymandering and unlimited money in politics; however, one of the most pernicious challenges is the burgeoning sentiment among voters that compromise with those whose politics differ from our own is fundamentally wrong. If Americans are looking for someone to blame for Washington gridlock, they should first look in the mirror.

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