Can Washington please grow up?

America faces serious challenges. So why can't Republicans and Democrats get along?

America is one of the most stirring examples of democracy in action anywhere on the globe. But the way our legislators behave, it is no wonder some non-Americans find it totally perplexing. 

Take the current political situation in Washington: Barack Obama ran his winning presidential election campaign on a platform of “change.” His Democratic supporters roared back: “Yes, we can.”

His Republican opponents ran their campaign on a sort of “We-too-can-change” platform. Their supporters murmured back: “Yes, we hope you can, but not too fast.”

Centrist independents, who now hold the balance of power between the two traditional parties, and who after a year into the new presidential term had hoped for bipartisanship and unity in the face of crisis, must be mighty disappointed.

The Democrats, after trying to rush an improbably comprehensive liberal agenda into being in Year 1 of President Obama’s term, have found out that “No, they can’t.” 

The Republicans, after losing the White House and both Houses of Congress, have determined that their attitude toward anything the spendthrift Democratic majority in Congress proposes will be “No, you won’t.” The strategy apparently is to block Democratic-initiated programs with the hope that disillusioned
 voters will return a Republican majority to Congress later this year, and even hobble Obama’s bid for reelection. The danger for Republicans is that disaffected voters might blame the Republicans more for disruption than the Democrats for lack of accomplishment. 

Much of the electorate is left fuming over (a) millions of jobs lost, (b) a mind-boggling national debt their children and grandchildren will be left paying off, (c) big bank presidents awarded annual salaries in the multimillions for questionable performance, and (d) a political logjam in Washington. 

The national mood is not helped by cable TV commentators of the more lurid character suggesting that the administration is leading the country to Armageddon, or senior White House officials terming those who disagree with them “retarded.” 

As has been traditional over the years, US political parties, both in and out of power, have tended to be more supportive of incumbent presidents on foreign policy than domestic policy. It is generally considered bad form to display disunity on foreign policy to foreign audiences, but acceptable to be in disarray on domestic challenges at home. 

In sending more troops to Afghanistan, Obama is largely following President Bush’s war policy. His tough talk on Al Qaeda and terrorism meets with support from most Americans. He has escaped serious criticism on questionable handling of the closure of Guantánamo defense facility, on interrogation of the Christmas Day bomber, and the now-abandoned plan to try key Al Qaeda terrorists in courts a stone’s throw from the scene of the 9/11 disaster. Perhaps it is because his attorney-general, Eric Holder, is seen to have been the initiator of such moves. 

While Obama’s Cairo and Istanbul “outreach” speeches to the Muslim world were well crafted and well received, his outstretched hand has yet to be gripped by the Arab world, or by difficult non-Arab clients like North Korea and Iran, to which he has also similarly offered engagement. North Korea already has developed nuclear-capable weaponry and Iran has proven rocket capability, with the ability to produce a nuclear warhead not far behind. 

North Korea has proved adept at fending off US, European, and Chinese attempts to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Iran, a traditional wily negotiator, must surely have been impressed by North Korea’s example and probably hopes to emulate it.

Though China is America’s banker, its relationship with the Obama administration is prickly as it seeks recognition as a world power.

In these and other international challenges, Obama counts on bilateral support at home. It would be helpful if Republicans and Democrats could achieve similar bilateral concord on the serious domestic challenges facing the nation. 

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column. 


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