Meanwhile, Republican groups are running ads hammering President Obama on Solyndra, calling it a “government fiasco infused with politics at every level.” Congressional Republicans have charged Obama with “playing politics” on the budget and the Keystone XL pipeline. And the White House has said the same of the Republicans’ handling of the payroll tax cut.
It’s not surprising that “political” is an insult. Congress is gridlocked, with a 10 percent approval rating, and the 2012 campaign ads are doing their best to turn voters off.
But there is something troubling about the extent to which our leaders have made politics their bogeyman. Most important issues, from reproductive health to clean-energy investment, are riddled with politics — as they should be. They involve serious questions about what the country values and where it wants to invest its resources. To suggest that one’s own side is free of politics is not only sanctimonious, it’s also destructive. Demonizing politics leads Americans to disengage further from the sphere where big decisions are made, ceding the political realm to the very people who denigrate it at every opportunity.
Politics in its highest form has noble roots, going back to the Greeks — it is the art of government, of ordering life among a people. But Americans have long professed disdain for its grubbier aspects: chasing votes, tearing down opponents, cutting deals. This squeamishness has even swung presidential elections. In 1884, a group of Republicans dubbed the Mugwumps broke with their party over the political patronage and financial corruption surrounding the GOP nominee, James Blaine, and tipped the election to the Democrat, Grover Cleveland.
The do-gooder tradition has brought about needed change. Around the turn of the 20th century, disgust with Tammany Hall-style party machines gave rise to the Progressives, high-minded reformers who brought us primary elections and the direct election of U.S. senators. Half a century later, Watergate gave rise to a new wave of government reform and a squeaky-clean president in Jimmy Carter, who offered himself as an antidote to the sordid politics of the Nixon era.
More recently, it was not hard to discern a similar lofty strain in the rise of Barack Obama, whose defining goal, more than any policy aim, was to cleanse Washington of partisan gamesmanship. “Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?” he declared in his breakthrough speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. In the 2008 primaries, he framed his “new politics” as a contrast to the “calculation” and “triangulation” that, he strongly implied, characterized Hillary and Bill Clinton’s approach. The pitch was persuasive, and it helped sweep Obama into the White House.