Sunday Take: For fed-up voters, a buffet of gaffes

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2010; A02

Mark down this past week as a case study in why so many people are so angry with politicians and the practice of politics.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), one of the longest-serving and most powerful members of Congress, was forced to give up the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee (a leave of absence, he called it).

Caught in a swirl of allegations involving unpaid taxes and accepting company-underwritten trips, Rangel finally stepped aside to avoid a potentially embarrassing vote against him by his colleagues. His case is far from over.

Meanwhile, New York Gov. David Paterson (D) fought to hang on to his office amid rising indignation and calls for his resignation over reports that he intervened in a domestic abuse allegation lodged against one of his highest-ranking aides.

Another New Yorker, Rep. Eric Massa (D), first announced last week that he would not seek reelection, then by week's end suddenly announced he would resign his seat Monday. The purported reason, he said when announcing he would not run in the fall, was health-related. But the decision came amid allegations that he had sexually harassed a staff member. By resigning, he can end an ethics investigation into the charges.

Meanwhile, Republicans ran from an embarrassment of their own, a controversial Republican National Committee fundraising presentation that was first surfaced by Politico's Ben Smith. The PowerPoint presentation included a slide with the title "The Evil Empire." The slide depicted President Obama as the Joker (with a caption that read, "socialism"), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as Cruella De Vil and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as Scooby-Doo.

The presentation was delivered at a gathering of major contributors and fundraisers, and was prepared by the staff of RNC Finance Director Rob Bickhart. It said Republicans should fight the 2010 midterm elections as a crusade to "save the country from trending toward Socialism!"

When people ask why Washington is broken, these unrelated events provide an explanation. They represent another stain on the political system at a time when leaders face a rising chorus of critics who see them as out of touch, insensitive to the lives of ordinary Americans, unable to work together across party lines and more interested in destroying opponents than in finding common ground.

Rangel's case illustrates that Democratic leaders were as tone-deaf to corruption charges within their ranks as were Republicans only a few years earlier. Having promised to drain the swamp after taking over Congress in 2006, Democratic congressional leaders moved slowly, until Pelosi's recent effort to push Rangel to step aside.

Months ago, White House officials expressed frustration over the failure of congressional leaders to deal more forcefully with Rangel's situation (among others). The officials said it would create additional vulnerability in the midterm elections at a time when Democrats already faced major problems because of the economy and health care.

If Democratic leaders were slow to deal with their in-house embarrassments, Republican leaders tried to move quickly to distance themselves from the controversy over the RNC fundraising presentation. Party Chairman Michael Steele said he would not defend what had happened, calling it inappropriate. Others in the party were more explicit in their criticism. Staff members were blamed, as is often a leader's defense in such matters. But Steele's tenure as RNC chairman has been rife with controversy. He will have more questions to answer about whether he has the RNC under control.

More broadly, for a party whose conservative fringe has been extreme in its portrayals and condemnations of Obama and his policies, the RNC document was an embarrassing piece of evidence that the language of the far right has seeped quickly into the mainstream of GOP thought. The politics of fear is not a message for any party that wants the power to govern, and as much as Republican officials talk about having a positive vision, they have done little to produce it.

Sadly, the RNC case also illustrates practices now deeply embedded in the political culture. The PowerPoint presentation was so obviously over the line that it caused a near-universal reaction among GOP leaders. But despite efforts to suggest this was an isolated example of poor judgment, it represents a way of doing business that has become widespread.

Congress is now described as a broken institution. Leaders from both parties lament the breakdown in comity, the absence of relationships across party lines and the inability to work together. Obama maintains his desire to change the tone in Washington and to find areas of bipartisan compromise.

But surrounding these politicians is an industry geared for only one thing, which is to win campaigns at almost any cost. Tactics include relentless attacks on opposing candidates, opposition research fed to willing media and then leveraged over and over to create negative narratives, and taunting e-mails and video advertising that denigrate the other side.

Their work is magnified by talk radio, cable news and blogs, and by political activists who demand more confrontation but never compromise. As long as control of the House or Senate is in question, which it now seems to be with every election cycle, this will prevail and likely overwhelm the more reasoned calls for cooperation.

The Rangel, Paterson and Massa cases speak to alleged personal misconduct, but they also damage politicians as a class, adding to public cynicism when there is already growing disenchantment with politics.

The RNC controversy is a reminder that the everyday practice of politics today, unless checked by strong leadership, perpetuates a slash-and-burn culture that has enlarged the partisan divide and hardened the polarization that impedes the governing process.

Is it any wonder that voters are fed up?

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