Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Year of Questions and Answers

When I started up this blog one year ago, I was moved to start writing again by two impulses:

  1. The country has problems. With a new president and substantial Democratic majorities we had a chance to address those problems. But we seemed to be blowing that chance.

  2. Despite the depth of our woes, there were a whole lot of people who wanted to the president and the congress to fail. I wanted to figure out why. 

Today, one year later, I’m not so worried about #1. Obama and the congressional Democrats have produced a number of substantial achievements. The passed health care reform. Affordable health insurance will soon be available to all Americans. Health care costs continue to rise. But there is a structure in place with which to contain them. Unemployment remains high and the economy weak. A series of stimulus bills and stabilizing measures have, at considerable cost, extended the safety net. We’ve turned an economy going off a cliff into one experiencing modest growth. We’re still stinging from the last financial crisis. But thanks to financial regulatory reform, we’ve put necessary structures in place to ward off the next one.

These are substantial accomplishments. Add in the victories of the past few weeks, and that’s a whole lot of leading and legislating. Throughout it all President Obama has been methodical, persistent, and deeply practical. Congressional Democrats have shown remarkable dedication, perseverance, good sense, and remained focused on tending to the people’s business.

These are politicians. Inevitably, their vanities and hypocrisies are going to be exposed. But when it really counts, Democrats have been kicking ass. In a big, messy, diverse, democracy -- this is as good as it gets.

The Republican party may have some competent governors and state legislatures out there. But at the national level, in congress, on the internet and air waves, they have been the model of dysfunction. After the disaster of the Bush administration, the GOP has not embraced governance as central to who they are or who they seek to be. They are dead weight on all policy discussions, on issues foreign and domestic. It’s all cable news nonsense and culture wars.

It is with weary dismay that I greet the conventional wisdom for the upcoming elections. The Democrats are disillusioned. Republicans are fired up hoping to make some big gains. Why? Why don’t the Democrats get credit for their accomplishments? What does anyone hope to accomplish by voting Republican in this cycle?

The party in power tends to take a beating in mid-term elections. And when unemployment is high, incumbents take the hit there too. So, maybe that’s the whole story. When times are bad we vote for the “other guy” -- regardless if we think the current guy is doing anything wrong. Even if we don’t think the new guy can do any better. Even if a Republican administration got us into this mess.

I can understand it at a macro level, but the expected Republican resurgence perplexes me when it comes to individuals. I can see why people who aren’t paying attention would go with their anti-incumbent-gut. But I don’t get the anti-incumbent activists. If you’re active and plugged in enough to be commenting on message boards, arguing on the forums, crashing town hall meetings, or attending a Tea Party rally -- what do you want? What do you think Republicans in power will do? Should do?

That’s the question that drove motivation #2 above. After a year of searching, I’m frustrated by a lack of answers. My efforts haven’t been exhaustive. But they have been sincere. I’ve been to a health care town hall, done battle and probed on Politico, whipped out the gauntlet and slapped a few faces, and attended a local Tea Party rally. I’ve approached each engagement with the same questions. What do you want? What are you mad about?

I’ve got nothing. I still don’t understand it. I’ve learned that “Well, what do you think the president should be doing differently?” is a pretty reliable conversation killer. I suppose the non-answer is it’s own answer.

Is it all just tribalism? Just rooting for your team? Maybe it is only wonk-wannabees like me who expect a system of cause and effect. Maybe the ones that are the most engaged in our political discourse are just the members of the tribe prone to the most chest-thumping.

Here’s the bottom line:

We are the public. We get to vote. There’s an election this November. That’s the only poll that counts. Show up. Vote for the Democrats. They’ve earned it.

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