"The current status of the economy, of course, is getting no help from Washington," said Tom Brokaw recently on NBC. His inflection, his tone and, indeed, the words themselves told the viewer (once again) what seems beyond dispute in media-land: Washington is peopled by a bunch of jerks.
As is sometimes the case, there's a bit of fire behind that smoke -- a bit, but not more. Washington has its jerks, men and women in Congress and elsewhere who do little work and less thinking. But those exceptions aside, what's wrong with Washington is what's wrong with the rest of the country. It's getting precisely the government it deserves -- certainly the one it voted for.
Of course, I am not supposed to say that. That's called "blaming the victim," and it is simply not permitted. But I am here to say what we all deep down know: some people choose to be victims. If you're sick because you smoke, it's your own fault. At the very least, you're not blameless.
The same holds for the mess in Washington. If you voted for a member of Congress because he or she promised never to cut a single program that affected you, it's partly your fault that Washington is beset by governmental gridlock. Where did you think the money for these programs was coming from?
If you yelled bloody murder any time someone suggested trimming one of the Social Security programs, you're at fault. Did you think these programs were free?
Did you vote for Ronald Reagan? Did you think he could lower taxes, spend more on defense and still trim the deficit? If you did, you're not only at fault, you're a fool.
As the budget deficit grew and grew, did you think that the yawning debt didn't matter? Would you run your own household or business that way? Would you go so deeply into debt that interest payments became your second-greatest monthly expense? That's the case with the government at the moment. If that's what you voted for, congratulations: that's what you got.
Can I go on? Did you perchance vote for both Reagan/Bush and a Democratic congressman? If you did, you sent two different signals. You elected a president who wanted to trim social programs and a Congress that wanted to protect them. If you simultaneously told a dog to both come and stay, it would soon go crazy or, probably, do nothing at all. The government has done both.
Recent public opinion surveys are enough to give politicians fits. The same public that no longer thinks much of the president and condemns Congress nevertheless thinks its individual member of Congress is doing a swell job. For instance, the most recent Washington Post-ABC news poll found that in a little more than a year, President Bush's approval rating went from 75 to 56 percent, sinking fastest during the current budget crisis. As for Congress, only 34 percent of Americans approved of the job it was doing.
But when asked what they thought of their own congressman, most Americans thought he was a jolly good fellow. Sixty-four percent of those polled approved. It seems that dumb congressmen, like greener grass, are always on the other side of the fence.
I have a fantasy that goes like this: in the course of a television interview with a "real American," the reporter asks whether the person voted. When told that he or she has not, my fantasy television correspondent says, "Well, who cares what you think?" My further fantasy is that the interview subject is asked if he or she ever read a newspaper or, at a minimum, watched the news on television. If the subject says no, he or she would be denounced for taking no interest in the process he or she is criticizing. "Back to you, Richard" is the way my fantasy ends.
Not even a cockeyed optimist could say that nothing is wrong with Washington. Plenty is -- plenty about lobbies and the role of money and the tendency of politicians to patronize the voters. Maybe, there's even something inherently wrong with our system of government. Unlike a parliamentary one, it permits the government to be split between two political parties. It's hard, then, for the voters to hold a single party accountable. It's harder still for any party to implement a legislative program.
But for all the fools in this town (yes, Virginia, there are some) and for all that's wrong with the government, I find myself wondering if, when seeking someone to blame, Americans are looking at politicians on the television screen when they should be looking at a mirror instead. Fire the voters, I say. They haven't been doing their job.