President Barack Obama thinks Republicans are in the grips of a "fever." Only if they can be coaxed back to rationality, through the calming effects of his re-election and perhaps some aromatherapy and a deep-tissue massage, will Washington ever work again.
By work, he means pass his priorities, of course. That is the operative definition, too, for all the liberal analysts rending their garments over the breakdown of our governing institutions. If only everyone could sit around a table and agree that President Obama is the personification of reasonableness, the country's faith in government could be restored.
Instead, Republicans insist on the extreme tactic of ... blocking the president's agenda. Eminent Washington-based think-tankers Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have devoted a book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks, to explicating the horrors of an opposition party opposing things. It's a nightmare brought about by Republicans who are "dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition." The duo writes this, unironically, at the end of a paragraph calling Republicans extreme and immune to facts and evidence. How very civil.
This whole line of argument from Obama on down is partisanship wrapped in a veneer of high-mindedness. The current crisis is that not enough bills are passing; if Mitt Romney is elected with a Republican Congress, the new crisis will be that too many bills are passing.
The scourges of Republican obstructionism must have missed 2009-2010, when the president basically worked his will, and it wasn't exactly a tableau of good government. He signed a stimulus bill that even supporters admit was poorly crafted. He passed a health-care bill by buying off special-interest groups and abusing the legislative process; it remains unpopular, and a central provision may be ruled unconstitutional. He signed an enormous financial reform that is so complex, no one quite knows how or if it will work.
The resulting backlash was the product of the passage of the president's big-ticket items at a time when Republicans lacked the power to obstruct. If President Obama didn't want to be stymied by Republicans in Congress, he should have been more careful about stoking a wave election that brought 63 more of them to the House. None of them campaigned in 2010 on passing higher taxes to pay for the Obama spending binge, or on lending a bipartisan imprimatur to the status quo they were elected to change.
The case for their kamikaze impulsiveness always comes back to last year's debt-limit showdown. Republicans wanted the debt-limit increase coupled with significant spending cuts; the president, initially, wanted it coupled with no spending cuts at all. In a country with a $15 trillion debt, which of those positions is more outlandish? In the end, the Republicans settled for a dog's breakfast of a debt deal that satisfied no one i.e., made a pragmatic choice that acknowledged their limited power in a divided government.
It was one of a number of compromises during the past year. "Tax Cut Extension Passes; Everyone Claims a Win," read The New York Times headline last February when Congress passed an extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits. In the summer of 2011, the president went barnstorming and demanded that Congress pass measures including free-trade deals, patent reform and tax credits for veterans he said were essential to the economy. Congress obliged on almost every count.
The deadlock on the more consequential matters is a function of the conflict of visions. The mindlessly obstructionist, heedlessly irresponsible Republicans in the House have written their vision into a comprehensive budget and passed it twice, knowing full well that Senate Democrats would reflexively say "no." The budget embodies a partywide consensus on an affirmative agenda that will quickly be taken up should Romney win the White House, to the howls of almost everyone now complaining that nothing gets done in Washington.
By that time, partisan obstruction will no longer be an offense against good government, but the highest duty of all patriotic lawmakers.