MOST AMERICANS FIND today's disputatious politics, egged on by the strident voices of cable television, unsavory and unhelpful. Such an environment places greater responsibility upon political leaders to bring civility to the political debate and seek common ground. However, there is a strong possibility that the coming presidential election will give us polarized choices and produce more deadlock. No matter who is sworn into the Oval Office, the president is unlikely to find a Congress that will bend to his wishes. The continuation of our political deadlock will do nothing to end economic stagnation. Congress cannot do so on its own. Breaking the deadlock requires a president who can articulate a broad consensus and build a bipartisan coalition behind it. A candidate who shows the promise of accomplishing that may well win the next presidential election.
This past summer, there was a brief moment when Pres. Barack Obama could have done precisely that. The Bowles-Simpson Deficit Commission presented a program for reducing the deficit, simplifying the tax system, and reforming Social Security and Medicare. While their recommendations did not receive the necessary 14 Commission votes to trigger a Congressional vote, they did receive a majority of 11 votes, including those of a liberal Democratic senator, Dick Durbin of Illinois, and a conservative Republican senator, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
This opened the door for Obama to endorse these recommendations and begin the work of getting them passed. Such a step could have calmed the markets, avoided the messy debt ceiling fight, and lowered the temperature of our politics. However. in doing so, Obama would have blurred the distinctions between the parties and disappointed his base. This is not his style, and has not been since the beginning of his presidency. In 2009, he shunned compromise, and his two major legislative accomplishments--the $800,000,000,000 stimulus package and the heath care bill--were passed with few Republican votes.
In the past, large scale domestic reforms received considerable bipartisan support. In 1935, a majority of Republicans in Congress backed Pres. Franklin Roosevelt's Social Security legislation; in 1965, close to half the Republicans voted for Pres. Lyndon Johnson's Medicare bill and more for his Voting Rights Bill; Pres. Bill Clinton, who did not have a legislative record to compare with Roosevelt or Johnson, in 1996 passed the Welfare Reform Act with considerable Republican enthusiasm; even Pres. George W. Bush in 2001 had strong bipartisanship for his No Child Left Behind Act. Roosevelt, Johnson, Clinton, and Bush were partisan figures; yet, they understood the need for compromise, cooperation, and consensus. FDR and LBJ enjoyed overwhelming Democratic majorities in Congress. They could have passed their New Deal and Great Society reforms without Republican votes. However, in order to make their reforms a permanent part of the American political fabric, the legislation needed bipartisan support. These leaders were looking toward history, not just the next election. Consequently, Social Security, the GI Bill of Rights, the Civil Rights bills, and Medicare became part of that fabric.
Even in areas where there appears to be a consensus, such as the renewal of the Patriot Act and the continuation of Bush's policies on terror, Obama underplays the contributions of his predecessor and congressional Republicans. …