Former Congressman Barney Frank has noted that people always say, “I hate to say I told you so.” But in truth they love saying I told you so. I know I do. So here goes:
I told you so.
Boy, that felt good.
In 2013, I described the GOP as a failed state, characterized by a rise of factionalized elites, uneven economic development along group lines, deterioration of public services, widespread vengeance-seeking, group grievance and the very delegitimization of the state. “Sure,” I argued at the time, “(Speaker John) Boehner is a weak leader. But that may be because he has terrible followers.”
Today, Boehner confirmed all that, as he announced he is getting the hell out of Chaosistan. Look for him on the banks of the Potomac, jumping into a rubber dinghy.
What the heck is going on in the GOP?
Newt Gingrich, who gave them a historic majority in 1994, was pushed out by 1998. Then his successor, William Livingston, resigned before he was even sworn in as speaker. Former GOP Speaker Dennis Hastert is under indictment, and now Boehner is resigning. That is the complete roster of Republican speakers for the last 60 years, folks. Not a single successful Republican speaker since Eisenhower’s first term.
And yet one day we’ll look back on those failed speakerships as the good ol’ days. In fact, in November we will. Today’s resignation pretty much guarantees a more radicalized House and a more polarized Washington.
Who’s to blame? I’m reminded of what Cassius said in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Republicans, who once sent responsible consensus builders to Washington, are now electing bomb-throwers. Bob Dole is no longer in the Senate. Ted Cruz is. And you wonder why the place is in flames?
And so the House — and to a great extent Washington itself — will continue to spiral into dysfunction. We will look to the presidential election to fix that, but who are we kidding? The three leading GOP candidates are running on a pledge to be more intransigent, more belligerent, more bellicose. Anyone who dares suggest compromise is banished to the kiddie debate. (I’m looking at you, Lindsey Graham. When one of the chief zealots of the Clinton impeachment now looks reasonable, you are dealing with some serious extremists.)
There are concrete things we can do to dilute the venom in the House:
— Draw nonpartisan districts. The Founders wanted the House to reflect the passions of the people. But increased partisanship at the state level, combined with computer technology and a Supreme Court that has diluted the Voting Rights Act, has allowed legislatures to draw districts that are increasingly polarized. We desperately need more sensible, centrist districts, drawn by women and men who put patriotism ahead of partisanship;
— Clean up the dirty money. Special interest money pulls politicians to the ideological extreme. Very few donors say, “I’ll give you a million bucks, but I want you to vote against me half the time.” To their credit, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig have all made lessening the power of money central to their candidacies. (Lessig, in fact, has pledged to resign as soon as comprehensive campaign finance reform is enacted; a novel approach, to be sure.) But we have not heard a word on the issue from the Koch Brothers-supported GOP.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The last important campaign finance reform law was brought to us by former GOP standard-bearer John McCain. I say this as a senior adviser to a Super PAC that takes unlimited donations with the goal of electing Hillary Clinton: put me out of business.
— More junkets. Every major business does “off-sites.” Churches have retreats. Families take vacations. There is something restorative about going to a new place, leaving the familiar stresses behind. We repair frayed relationships and build new ones. Not Congress. Every time a member of Congress goes somewhere nice on the taxpayers’ dime we scream as if they’d shot our dog.
Not me. I want to see 50 congressman from each party go to the Paris Air Show. Have a bottle of wine, stay up late swapping lies. I don’t know: maybe Nancy Pelosi could short-sheet Steve King’s bed. Let’s encourage our representatives to get to know each other as people. It is from a recognition of our common humanity that reconciliation begins.
— Praise compromise. If we ever elect another Bush president it ought to be Barbara. The warm and wise former first lady nailed it in 2012 when she said, “I hate that people think compromise is a dirty word. It’s not a dirty word.” We in the media play a role in this, too. I realize it’s not breaking news when an airplane lands safely, but we need to do more to report on what works — and to shine a light on principled compromise because, the truth is, compromise is now more rare and thus more newsworthy than ever.
A couple of examples: Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow and House Republican Congressman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma hammered out a complicated compromise and passed the farm bill last year. Same with the December 2013 budget deal: Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Washington) worked with House Budget Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) to reach a compromise that funded the government and averted a shutdown. They should have gotten a ticker-tape parade. Instead, crickets.
It is both telling and a little tragic that as soon as His Holiness Pope Francis finished delivering his historic message of peace and reconciliation, the most extreme elements of the tea party claimed their biggest scalp.
Here in Washington the extremists were exulting in their triumph. Sensible Americans are alarmed. As we have seen in the Middle East, even a failed state can get worse.