Commentary

Here’s how broken Washington is: Democrats agreeing with each other is big news | John L. Micek

Our pugilistic politics are exhausting the voters — who rightfully expect better. But how to get there?

July 29, 2022 1:07 pm

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., is seen at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on April 28, 2021 (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite).

In an ideal world, the landmark compromise on climate change, Medicare, and energy spending hat U.S. Senate Democrats announced earlier this week would barely require a second glance.

That’s not to diminish the magnitude of the agreement that U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., struck with the chamber’s Dr. No, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia. The Democrats-only deal that averts a Republican filibuster will have a transformative effect on efforts to fight climate change.

But such is the state of the Senate these days, and our politics in general, that it’s breaking news that two guys who belong to the same party, and who largely believe in the same things, managed to strike a deal on stuff they largely agree on already.

The deal is a badly needed win for both congressional Democrats, who are looking to hold  – and possibly expand – their majorities on Capitol Hill, and for President Joe Biden, whose administration has been taking on water for much of the last year after scoring some pretty significant early wins.

The spending package will be “the most important investment – not hyperbole – the most important investment we’ve ever made in our energy security and developing cost-saving and job-creating, clean-energy solutions for the future,” said Biden, who endorsed the deal and called for its approval. “Big deal.”

A big deal, indeed. But as a new poll makes clear, American voters would rather see more of this kind of cooperation from their leaders, and not less.

With the midterm elections just about 100 days away, U.S. voters are expressing a higher level of concern than ever over the level of polarization in the country, according to the Institute of Politics and Public Civility at Georgetown University.

Two-thirds of the poll’s 1,000 registered voter respondents said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who was willing to compromise with others, as opposed to a candidate who consistently fought for his or her values. 

But how do you get to yes at a time when both partisan divides and intra-party disagreements are the two biggest impediments to progress? 

There’s a case to be made that, post-Jan. 6, the gaps separating broad swathes of the Big Two parties are as deep and as unbridgeable as they’ve been since the run-up to the Civil War.

During a speech in Harrisburg earlier this week, U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-4th District, said she’s found it harder to work with her Republican counterparts in the state’s Congressional delegation because they objected to the certification of her home state’s election results, creating the conditions that made the Capitol insurrection possible.

“I want to work with a Republican counterpart [on legislation], but I made a decision, along with my team, that I won’t co-lead legislation with someone who voted [against certifying] the election,” Dean said. “I just won’t do it, there’s got to be a line in the sand.”

It’s an understandable sentiment. Dean, who fled for her life as pro-Trump extremists ransacked the U.S. Capitol, said she’s still triggered by loud noises because they remind her of the horde that stormed the House chamber more than 18 months ago. 

And with too many Republicans still trying to downplay the violence, or rationalize it away, that significantly narrows the possibility of the kind of across-the-aisle cooperation that voters say they want to see from their elected leaders.

Fire-breathing tactics by some progressives also are a problem, and they have managed to convince voters in the country’s vast middle that the party that once vigorously defended the working class no longer cares about them.

That goes some distance toward explaining the increased tribalism in our politics, and our culture more broadly. Broad majorities of the poll’s respondents said they and their friends share the same political beliefs, vote for the same candidates, and are members of the same political party. The same holds true for memberships in the same religious groups; ethnic identities, and economic classes, the poll found.

That kind of homogeneity, in short, makes compromise nearly impossible.

Speaking to MSNBC about the results, Mo Elleithee, the veteran Democratic operative who founded, and now serves as the executive director, of the Georgetown institute, said the intra-party squabbles that have hobbled Biden’s agenda, and tanked his approval ratings, also are a turnoff for voters.

“People don’t want to see the ideological fighting, they want to see the results,” Elleithee told MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe,’ program. “If they can get back to that more often, I think, maybe, if the past is prologue, you will start to see a change in the numbers.”

A big part of closing that gap requires reframing both the narrative of our politics, and the way that it’s covered in the press, both of which are too often conflict-focused. Both are to the detriment of the underreported and far less glamorous grunt work that gets bills over the goal line. 

More coverage, for instance, of the congressional Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan body that actively works for broad-based agreement on vexing policy issues, instead of the dumpster fire du jour, could ease those concerns about polarization.

That’s not to say that government officials should get a hall pass, or that undemocratic and illegal efforts to topple elections should not be confronted, but for our system to work, there has to be that middle ground.

Sure, it’s not great TV. But it would yield something better: A strong and vigorous democracy that’s sharp-elbowed when needed, but still solves problems, and leaves no American behind. 

That’s American democracy at its best.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.

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