Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Game of Politics: War by other means

Much has been written over the past several months about the debt ceiling, congressional debates, government shutdowns, and so on.  That's all well and good but I think most of it misses the bigger picture.  It seems to me that what we are really witnessing is a revolution in the way the game of politics is played.  Carl von Clausewitz said that 'war is the continuation of (politics) by other means.'  True enough.  In the hostile realm of American politics today perhaps we should stand that maxim on its head and say that 'politics is simply war by other means.'  The only thing that prevents our politics from becoming a 'hot' war is that neither side has control of a military!

Back to the point...our great nation entered a period of highly contentious politics sometime after the election of Ronald Reagan and before the election of Bill Clinton.  Yet, even then our politics were civil (mostly) and party leaders knew how to work with one another to bargain and get the best deals they could.  Split party control of the levers of government has been more or less the norm since the end of World War II, but not since the 1890's and early 1900's have we witnessed as much partisan animosity as we see today.  Have the preferred positions of America's two great parties diverged so much that there is no longer a common ground?  By the time America elected a Republican Congress during the first of President Clinton's two midterms it sure began to look that way.  The next six years were filled with partisan rancor, two government shutdowns, the impeachment of the president for purely political reasons, and a presidential election in 2000 that resulted in the candidate who LOST the popular vote winning a narrow victory in the Electoral College after more than five weeks of recounts and court battles!  Less than nine months into his presidency America was attacked and the partisan divide all but disappeared for a few years.

Fast forward ten years.  It is now the middle of the third year of Barack Obama's first (only?) term as president.  Gone is the unity we saw after 9/11, gone is any semblance of goodwill on the part of our legislators in Washington.  It has been replaced by crazy talk, name calling on both sides of the aisle, conspiracy theories about whether the president was born in the United States, is a closet Muslim, has an anti-colonial Kenyan mentality, and whatever else can be flung at him.  Members of Congress don't trust each other, rarely talk to members of the other party, and compromise has become a dirty word.

Case in point...the now resolved debate over raising the debt ceiling, a move that had to happen to avoid the first ever default on obligations by the United States government.  The stock market has been sliding, down some 700 points (nearly 6%) in July alone, costing investors some $680 billion.  Standard & Poors has threatened to downgrade the government's AAA credit rating, which would negate any deficit reduction passed by Congress due to higher borrowing rates.  It may still downgrade us even though a deal was reached.  The sad thing is that THE CRISIS WAS WHOLLY UNNECESSARY and resulted from partisan grandstanding by BOTH sides.  Republicans insisted on achieving deficit reduction solely through spending cuts...and only on programs Democrats support.  Democrats insisted on putting new revenues on the table, primarily in the form of tax rate increases on the top 2% of earners...the very people who have enjoyed the most prosperity over the past decade.  In the end, neither side got what they wanted and both are unhappy today.  Both sides played the obstructionist card extremely well, though I think the GOP played it somewhat more effectively by threatening to allow a default if Democrats did not accede to their wishes.  And it worked.  Magnificently.

So what's the problem?  The problem is that what goes around comes around.  Democrats are slow learners but once they catch on, look out.  The partisan feud isn't over by a long shot and neither is the employment of obstructionist tactics.  Republicans are in the minority now in the Senate and Democrats hold the presidency, at least until January 20, 2013.  The GOP has a better than even shot at winning control of the Senate in the 2012 election and I'd estimate a 45-50% chance of capturing the White House.  However, their majority in the House of Representatives is likely to shrink back to somewhere around 230-235 seats, though Democrats do have about a 30% chance of regaining the majority.  In the Senate, the GOP will likely top out at around 53-54 seats...not enough to prevent Democratic obstructionism.  If Republicans do manage to capture the White House next year they may be doomed to four years of frustration as Democrats throw up every roadblock they possibly can.

Interesting note:  If, by some miracle, Democrats took the House while Republicans captured the Senate and presidency, it would be the first time since 1952 that each of those three government entities would change hands in the same election.

Perhaps we should just give them weapons and let them wage war until one side emerges victorious after all?

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