Dysfunctional partisan politics

by Thomas Reese

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

Thanks to Tuesday's election, the Republicans now control both the House and Senate, giving them a strong hand in Washington. Simply controlling the House allowed them to block any Democratic initiative without having to take responsibility for governing. Now with both houses in their control, they will be judged not by what they stop, but by what they do.

Will they fulfill promises to the pro-life community and put restrictions on abortion? Will they cut federal programs and balance the budget? Will they cut back on government regulations? Will they repeal Obamacare? Will the business community respond to their victory by creating more jobs?

Republicans did well by blaming President Barack Obama for all the country's problems and linking Democratic candidates to him. Like almost all presidents after six years in office, Obama has lost his appeal, and we see his poll numbers as low as President George W. Bush's at the same time in his presidency. Obama no longer inspires hope and enthusiasm among Hispanics and the young. Democrats also faced an uphill battle with so many of the Senate seats in red states that voted for Mitt Romney.

It was not surprising that Democrats lost the Senate, but the loss of purple-state Senate seats and blue-state governorships should teach Democrats that they need a new game plan. If their only strategy is to scare women by painting Republicans as opposed to abortion, they will continue to lose. That might have worked in 2010, but not today, especially when Republican candidates avoid saying stupid things. Young people and women are worried about jobs, not abortion. It is worth noting that while Democrats lost badly, ballot initiatives favoring a rise in the minimum wage did well, even in four red states.

The political atmosphere in Washington has been very toxic of late, probably more toxic than at any time since World War II. Whereas in the past, legislators would argue and debate on the floor of Congress then go out for a beer, today, many politicians hate their partisan opponents. It is rumored that about 30 House Republicans have promised never to speak to a House Democrat.

Politics has become much more ideological. When everything becomes a matter of principle, it is impossible to compromise. In the past, politics attracted pragmatists who wanted to get things done and bring home the bacon for their districts. Rules against earmarks have eliminated the grease that helped the legislative process work. Rules against foreign junkets have kept members from getting to know each other and their families while traveling abroad.

Now, members of Congress spend much of their time raising money and campaigning for re-election. More and more, the election that matters is the primary because state legislatures create safe districts to protect incumbents from both parties. These primaries force Republicans to move to the right to protect their flank from opponents in their own party while Democrats do the same on their left. Both parties have given up on attracting and converting independents; rather, they focus on getting their supporters to the polls by scaring them with partisan rhetoric.

No wonder voters are disgusted with both parties, the president, and Congress. The saddest thing about this election is that despite spending millions to get out their voters, voter turnout was around 37 percent, lower than any time since 1942. Voters turned out in high numbers only in closely fought races in Colorado, New Hampshire, Kansas, Wisconsin and North Carolina.

Will congressional Republicans be able to work with a president whom they have vilified for six years? There is some evidence that split government can accomplish things if politicians are willing to compromise. But granted the atmosphere in Washington, that is a big "if." Can Republicans put together comprehensive immigration reform? Can they do real tax reform, which requires closing loopholes, not just cutting taxes? Or will they simply spend their time attacking the administration in preparation for the 2016 election?

Winning this week could be a pyrrhic victory for the Republicans. If they continue to play simply a negative role, in two years, Democrats will be able to run against the "do-nothing Congress," as President Harry S. Truman did in 1948. 

But politics should not be just about winning elections -- it should be about working together for the common good. Our country faces many problems that have been ignored for too long: climate change; high unemployment among the young, minorities, and high school graduates; the increasing gap between rich and poor; the decline of the middle class; rising costs for health care and education; a foreign policy that continues to make more enemies than friends; etc. Congress needs to act within the next nine months before everyone turns their attention to the next election.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets in Baltimore beginning Monday. This should be a time for the bishops to provide leadership with a full-throated articulation of Catholic social teaching about political responsibility and the common good. Cardinal Raymond Burke claims that the Francis papacy has left the church rudderless, while in truth, the USCCB has been giving too little attention to the problems facing our country. Now that there is a captain with vision and a plan, they are confused and reluctant to put out of port. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Thomas Reese's column, Faith and Justice, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters