If you’re thinking about dysfunctional government, there’s one main point that you have to know: The parties are not equally guilty. Dysfunctional government isn’t about ideological polarization; it’s about a rejectionist Republican Party that, among other things, is, while Democrats are in office, dedicated to opposing anything the Democratic president proposes — regardless of whether they have a history of opposing it or not.
Ezra Klein has been writing a series of great items about this lately, taking as a key example the Republican history on the individual mandate. The history is pretty basic: it was their idea; many leading Republicans supported it until January 2009; and then overnight it became for them not just a bad idea, but clearly unconstitutional — and not just unconstitutional, but a grave threat to basic liberty. It’s not hard to find more: the DREAM Act, the basic idea of fiscal and monetary stimulus during a recession, TARP . . . it’s a long list. Granted, not every Republican supported these things before Barack Obama did, but quite a few did, and now practically none can be found.
The basic tendency to do this sort of thing is nothing new; Klein points to civil liberties as an area in which Democrats have flipped during the Obama years. I wouldn’t call it quite the flop that Republicans have made on several of these issues, but I agree that there’s something there.
But the best test of all of this isn’t changes since 2009; it’s what happened in 2001. And the answer there was that George W. Bush was able to get Democratic votes for No Child Left Behind, for expanding Medicare, for the war in Iraq and for some other issues as well. There were, of course, exactly zero Democrats who flipped from supporting federal aid to education in 1999 to considering it unconstitutional in 2001.There were plenty of Democrats who considered Iraq a threat but did not vote for war, and plenty who may have supported war in the Clinton years but wound up opposing it when it turned bad, but few, if any, prominent ones who really flipped their basic position right around January 2001. The same with Medicare.
Again: some of this is normal; some of it, in fact, is healthy — part of what parties do is provide alternatives, and it’s not at all a bad thing that the out-party reexamines things a bit if they find the president embraces a position they used to hold. But it’s the difference, as the Pythons explained long ago, between an argument and contradiction. What we’re seeing, as Michael Palin explained, is “just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.” And as long as that’s all that Republicans are doing, the political system isn’t going to function very well at all. And the fact that the parties are just not at all the same on this is one of the key things to know if you're trying to understand American politics right now.