WASHINGTON – Since Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, a recurring theme of our political discourse has been how crazy Republicans appear to have become. Birthers, death panels, shariah law, legitimate rape: The heretofore successfully repressed tendencies of the Reagan coalition blossomed like a noxious flower and have become a leitmotif of politics during the past four years. It is why I left government and am now a political independent.
There is good reason why I did not become a Democrat. To be sure, Democrats at least attempt to govern and solve problems, whereas the GOP’s reflexive obstruction and ideological rigidity lead the country nowhere. But more than four years of all-out ideological warfare have taken their toll on the Democrats as well, leaving our governmental system floundering for practical solutions. The Obama administration inadvertently hammered home this sad truth when it announced Feb. 26 that it would begin releasing illegal immigrants from detention, allegedly as a result of the budget “sequester” that was due to start three days later.
Raising that issue doesn’t mean that I believe, as some of the GOP faithful seem to imagine, that Obama has released a marauding criminal army on America. But the fact that the administration would take the melodramatic step of releasing people in federal detention even before the sequestration deadline because of a 2.3 percent cut in the federal budget shows that it is not really interested in avoiding the sequester or softening its effects. Apparently it would rather engage in the same kind of cheap political theater and serial exaggeration that the GOP has thus far specialized in. The White House knew that this would simply bait the Republicans’ nativist wing at the same time as it soothed an important Democratic constituency. Obama tried to polarize the electorate over a culture-war issue when the ostensible topic was the federal budget. Where have we seen this tactic before?
Obama’s sequester gambit derives from the playbook of Karl Rove, who based the 2004 election campaign not on President George W. Bush’s purported administrative competence, the tangible (rather than imaginary) benefits he might have accrued from invading Iraq, or his supposed budgetary frugality (the extravagant cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was off-budget).
Rather, the election was about gay marriage; a ridiculously hyped paranoia about terrorist attacks (remember the color-coded alerts?); and opponent John Kerry, the elitist wind-surfer. It was pure culture war. Now the Democrats, who once sniffed at that kind of lowbrow pandering, have copied it to get their way in the sequestration fight.
With both parties now dedicated to polarizing guerrilla theater rather than rational problem-solving, Washington’s governing establishment has jumped the shark. It has collectively become the very caricature that each party thinks the other is. With battle lines thus drawn, it is no wonder that we endure crisis after crisis: The Senate has not passed a budget in three years, previously routine debt-limit votes have become occasions for stock market meltdowns, and government now receives funding only through omnibus measures and stopgap continuing resolutions, rather than traditional appropriations bills.
Budgetary crisis has become the normal fabric of political life. Regardless of how sequestration is resolved, government funding for 2013 will expire March 27, when we will face yet another manufactured fiscal emergency and the possibility of government shutdown. And government accountants expect we will reach the debt limit on May 19. Any resolution of these issues will simply plant more land mines in our path over the next four years, as each side jockeys to place the other in a politically untenable position ahead of yet another contrived fiscal deadline.
Politics in Washington has become far worse than the traditional partisan to-and-fro inherent in any democracy. It now presents a danger to orderly day-to-day governance of the country. Politics is no longer the art of the possible; it is bad theater. We are lurching perilously close to becoming Italy, where citizens appear to have given up on being self-governing citizens and instead have cynically chosen reality TV. Criminally implicated tycoons and comedians vie for the presidency; these candidates appeal to many Italians because they provide a diversion from a government in perpetual crisis.
We laugh at the Italians, but give us another four years of fiscal cliffs, government shutdowns and debt limits, and the famously optimistic and forward-looking American people may surprise us with their cynical response to Washington’s refusal to govern rationally.
Mike Lofgren retired in 2011 after 28 years as a congressional staff member, 16 of them with the House and Senate budget committees. His book, “The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted,” was released in August.