Is Washington too 'broken' to handle big problems such as immigration reform?
Many Americans worry that Washington cannot handle big problems such as immigration reform and the debt. But the country has been here before, and overcome a supposedly 'broken' political system. Government is divided because 'we the people' are divided on the issues.
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But millions saw these actions as blunders, not triumphs. In 2010, they rebuked the president by electing a Republican majority in the House. The federal government was now divided and polarized. Despite deepening public frustration, the 2012 election kept the same parties in charge of the same institutions. Whereas FDR and Reagan scored reelection landslides far greater than their first victories, Mr. Obama made history by winning a second term while losing vote share.Skip to next paragraph
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Now the days of hope and change are well over, underscored by a series of controversies and accusations – the IRS, Benghazi, wiretapping – swirling around the president. Legislative agreements on big issues are scarce. Some blame gerrymandered voting districts in the House, while some blame the filibuster in the Senate. Others go further: One prominent law professor wrote a provocative New York Times commentary titled “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution.”
Procedural reforms may well deserve consideration, but Americans are fooling themselves if they think they can contain political gridlock with parchment barriers. Government is divided because “we the people” are divided on key issues.
Any measure that would make headway against the deficit – such as cuts in entitlement programs or broad-based tax increases – will light up grass-roots opposition. Americans remain conflicted on health care because any policy under the sun is going to mean sobering tradeoffs of cost, access, and quality.
Even when there is consensus on a big issue, it may not run deep. The great majority of Americans support background checks for all gun sales. But according to Gallup polls, they rank gun control 11th out of 12 national priorities.
When public opinion is divided or irresolute, it’s no surprise that democratic government may seem indecisive.
The Constitution is neither a suicide pact nor a guarantee of despair. On certain issues, creative lawmakers can still cobble together coalitions of diverse interests. Such a process may be under way with immigration reform. In this case, the search for common ground has gotten a boost from circumstances beyond the control of American politicians. As Hispanic Americans continue to gain political clout and as economic and demographic trends in Mexico have apparently helped to halt mass migration, the strain on US immigration policy has been eased.
On broader concerns, political change will come when voters move decisively in one direction or the other. It happened in 1932 and 1980, and it could happen again – provided candidates provide real choices and winners follow through on what they say.
John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College and coauthor of “After Hope and Change: The 2012 Elections and American Politics.”