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The spoiled-brat American electorate

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, September 3, 2010

According to polls, Americans are in a mood to hold their breath until they turn blue. Voters appear to be so fed up with the Democrats that they're ready to toss them out in favor of the Republicans -- for whom, according to those same polls, the nation has even greater contempt. This isn't an "electoral wave," it's a temper tantrum.

It's bad enough that the Democratic Party's "favorable" rating has fallen to an abysmal 33 percent, according to a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll. It's worse that the Republican Party's favorability has plunged to just 24 percent. But incredibly, according to Gallup, registered voters say they intend to vote for Republicans over Democrats by an astounding 10-point margin. Respected analysts reckon that the GOP has a chance of gaining 45 to 60 seats in the House, which would bring Minority Leader John Boehner into the speaker's office.

My guess is that with a decided advantage in campaign funds, along with the other advantages of incumbency, Democrats will be able to mitigate these prospective losses -- perhaps even relieving Nancy Pelosi of the hassles of moving. But there's no mistaking the public mood, and the truth is that it makes no sense.

In the punditry business, it's considered bad form to question the essential wisdom of the American people. But at this point, it's impossible to ignore the obvious: The American people are acting like a bunch of spoiled brats.

This is not, I repeat not, a partisan argument. My own political leanings are well-known, but the refusal of Americans to look seriously at the nation's situation -- and its prospects -- is an equal-opportunity scourge. Republicans got the back of the electorate's hand in 2006 and 2008; Democrats will feel the sting this November. By 2012, it will probably be the GOP's turn to get slapped around again.

The nation demands the impossible: quick, painless solutions to long-term, structural problems. While they're running for office, politicians of both parties encourage this kind of magical thinking. When they get into office, they're forced to try to explain that things aren't quite so simple -- that restructuring our economy, renewing the nation's increasingly rickety infrastructure, reforming an unsustainable system of entitlements, redefining America's position in the world and all the other massive challenges that face the country are going to require years of effort. But the American people don't want to hear any of this. They want somebody to make it all better. Now.

President Obama can point to any number of occasions on which he has told Americans that getting our nation back on track is a long-range project. But his campaign stump speech ended with the exhortation, "Let's go change the world" -- not, "Let's go change the world slowly and incrementally, waiting years before we see the fruits of our labor."

And one thing he really hasn't done is frame the hard work that lies ahead as a national crusade that will require a degree of sacrifice from every one of us. It's obvious, for example, that the solution to our economic woes is not just to reinflate the housing bubble. New foundations have to be laid for a 21st-century economy, starting with weaning the nation off of its dependence on fossil fuels, which means there will have to be an increase in the price of oil. I don't want to pay more to fill my gas tank, but I know that it would be good for the nation if I did.

The richest Americans need to pay higher taxes -- not because they're bad people who deserve to be punished but because they earn a much bigger share of the nation's income and hold a bigger share of its overall wealth. If they don't pay more, there won't be enough revenue to maintain, much less improve, the kind of infrastructure that fosters economic growth. Think of what the interstate highway system has meant to this country. Now imagine trying to build it today.

Fixing Social Security for future generations, working steadily to improve the schools, charting a reasonable path on immigration -- none of this is what the American people want to hear. They're in the market for quick and easy solutions that won't hurt a bit. It's easy to blame politicians for selling a bunch of snake oil. But the truth is that all they're doing is offering what the public wants to buy.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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