What’s at stake on November 7? In the first week of this month, another
round of congressional elections will be upon us. The venom is pouring
out from both sides, as the TV ads run and volunteers are manipulated
into battle. But does it all really matter? Does whether the
Republicans or Democrats control the House & Senate really impact
the ideas that any of us—of any philosophy—really care about?
The state of public policy—for better or for worse–seems to undergo
very little substantial change, at least with regard to control of the
Congress. Any changes that happen are extremely minor and
inconsequential—I mean, is someone really supposed to storm the
Bastille for a 35 percent tax rate instead of 39 percent? Does whether
a social program grows at 8 percent or 10 percent really hold the life
and death of thousands of poor children in the balance? Yet these small
differences, nibbling at the edge of issues, are what political campaign
consultants get paid big money on–to persuade voters to really invest not only their vote, but their emotions and their money.
Both the Republicans and Democrats talk of grandiose ideas, and maybe
they even believe them. But they have both failed to deliver. Two
different ideas—one unique to each party—illustrate this very well.
Health care reform and Social Security reform.
Reform of the health care system to provide guaranteed coverage to all
Americans, and reforming the Social Security system to allow workers to
invest a portion of their FICA tax dollars in the private market have
each gotten into the table over the past fourteen years. The similarity
between these two ideas, and what they tell us about American politics,
Each idea is strongly advocated by the rank-and-file of each party. Ask
virtually any registered Democrat, as well as anyone else who even
remotely leans that way, and they will endorse a national health care
program. Ask virtually any Republican, as well as anyone else who even
remotely leans that way, and they will unhesitatingly answer that
anyone can get a better return on their retirement investments
then what they get through the Social Security Trust Fund.
Each idea had its moment in the political sun. In 1992, the Democrats
held both houses of Congress and had the White House. Their president
put all his political prestige behind reforming the health care system.
No bill ever got to his desk even for signature. No bill ever got to a
floor vote in either the House or Senate. And before one blames the
prospect of a filibuster (a Senate minority can block passage of a bill
by mustering forty votes), one has to remember it was Democrats, and
not Republicans who killed health care reform. Something to remember
the next time a Democratic candidate for any office gives pious
rhetoric about wanting to include everyone in the health care system.
In this most recent session of Congress, the Republicans held both
houses and had the White House. Their president put all his political
prestige behind reforming the Social Security system. No bill ever got
to his desk for signature. No bill ever got to a floor vote in either
the House or Senate. And before one blames the prospect of a
filibuster, one has to remember it was Republicans, not Democrats who
killed Social Security reform. Something to remember the next time a
Republican candidate for any office gives pious rhetoric about letting
you control how to invest your payroll tax dollars.
So thus we have situations where each party had working control of the
government, full backing from its rank-and-file voters, along with the
political advantage that comes when a president puts the full weight of
his office behind an initiative. And not only did they fail to deliver,
they failed to even come close.
Lest anyone misunderstand me, this is not a “they’re all a bunch of
crooks” gripe at the system, nor is it a suggestion that the two
parties are exactly the same. They are not. The rank-and-file genuinely
believe in these causes, and I suspect most of their elected officials
are in at least general agreement. I am suggesting though, that
whatever differences the two parties have, are not likely to translate
themselves into substantive policy changes. At the end of the day, it’s
sound and fury signifying nothing. The relatively minor piecemeal
changes in domestic policy may be good or they may be bad—but they
aren’t worth the angry rhetoric that accompanies them.
Politics at its worst degenerates into factionalism, where the only
real purpose is for those who are involved to be able to say “we won”,
the way sports fans do. That’s what’s happened, particularly in the
race for control of the House of Representatives. What’s really at
stake on November 7 is the pride and prestige of the well-heeled
political consulting industry, as the dollars will flow in to whoever
best unleashes their side’s raw invective toward the other. Forgive me
if I can’t share in their excitement.