President Obama, in a large sense, deserves the far-right wing faction (e.g. the Senate Conservatives Fund, the shutdown provocateurs) that emerged full-blown during his presidency. In fact, neither could stay afloat without the other. Obama’s latest warnings, echoed by adviser Dan Pfeiffer on the Sunday shows, that he will go around Congress to get his way in his second term, bragging that he has a “pen and a phone,” is the latest confirmation of the “pox on both their houses” political times in which we live.
The president’s notion of “going around” one of the branches of government is an act of arrogance rooted in the inability to woo opponents, figure out grand bargains (or in Obama’s case, not fumble them away) or alternatively come up with constructive compromises on smaller issues. In unilateral, constant alterations of Obamacare and amendment of immigration laws by fiat (for the DREAMers), the president — even when Congress showed willingness to act — preferred to act alone. He in that way controls the outcome and dispenses with the need to give up anything to his opponents. He now threatens to go around even those in his party who support sanctions. (One supposes that merely exercising a veto is insufficient to his regal attitude toward presidential power.)
But that isn’t so different from the Senate shutdown team’s notion that even with control of only one house of Congress, the Democratic Senate majority and the president could be forced to do it their way — nullify Obamacare. Whereas Obama acted by executive decree, the shutdown advocates at least temporarily refused to act, reminiscent of the Wisconsin Democratic state legislators who fled the state to prevent passage of the governor’s reforms.
In this sense, both Obama and the far-right obstructionists have the notion that getting all you want, especially all you want on stuff really important to you, is the goal of politics. Perhaps in states in which one party dominates the governorship and the state legislature this is possible. But absent control of the White House and both houses of Congress (without minority power to filibuster), the all-or-nothing approach to politics inside the Beltway simply doesn’t work. Indeed, the Constitution is designed so it can’t work.
The irony is that the president, a former constitutional law instructor, and the far-right leaders, who consider themselves expert in constitutional matters, share the same, inaccurate take on our political system. Each declares the other unwilling to bend while insisting their own must-have items are off-limits. Obamacare can’t be legislatively modified, says the president; no legalization for any illegal immigrants, say the anti-immigration extremists. There are so many untouchables that significant legislation on anything meaningful becomes impossible. The president is therefore reduced to shrill accusations and pathetically weak, hackneyed proposals (e.g. universal pre-school). The far-right groups’ serial “action alerts” to vote no on everything maintain the atmosphere of perpetual emergency and a constant sense of betrayal.
The behavior of each is rooted in the conviction that the other side is not merely wrong, but acting out of ill will and ulterior motives. With the president’s nonstop series of insults about the GOP (they prefer party over country, want us to breathe dirty air and drink polluted water, want war in the Middle East, etc.) he erects a field of straw men: his way or war; his way or no health-care reform; his way or no environmental protection.
Both the far right and the president sooner or later are confronted with the unpleasant reality that unilateralism doesn’t work. It produces legislative chaos (Obamacare) or necessitates an embarrassing retreat (the shutdown). Whatever “victories” can be obtained (e.g. filibuster gutting) are temporary, merely setting a disagreeable precedent that will be turned against their architects when roles are reversed. There is little doubt a GOP president and GOP Senate majority will embrace and up the ante on filibuster reform. You can bet that the next GOP president will not be shy about unilaterally amending laws. We are thereby launched on a downward spiral, each year begetting more ill feelings and distrust in government.
As governors routinely remind us, this sort of politics doesn’t fly at the state level. The howls of the public are too immediate and the consequences too dire if the sides practice maximalist politics. The example of center-right, functioning government that churns out popular reforms is threatening to the far right (hence Sen. Rand Paul’s childish taunt that New Jersey’s tax-cutting, budget-balancing governor is no conservative). But an alternative model of politics should also be worrisome to the Democrats. There isn’t on their side of the aisle or in the wings for 2016 a doer, a deal-maker, a figure who respects the other side.
In the Obama-tea-party era (the two coexist for a reason), we’ve reached a low point in the post-New Deal era. Politics has never been more dysfunctional as each side exercises its threats and attempts to ignore the other’s interests. The my-way-or-the-highway politics hasn’t served the American people nor has it made either side popular. To the contrary, the American people have never liked Obama and the tea party less. Both might think about why that is.