Who can forget the low-key, understated report from Jim Lovell that something was amiss as Apollo 13 circled the moon -- "Houston, we have a problem"? Lovell's problem was serious, the likelihood of a solution remote, and the lives of the astronauts saved only through messy, jury-rigged solutions and the personal bravery of key players.
Recent election cycles remind me of Jim Lovell's report from Apollo 13. Washington is mired in bitter personal partisan battles. Republicans are, by most estimates, likely to improve their position in both houses of Congress with a "repeal and replace" argument that Washington is "out of control" and must be stopped a mere two years after the electorate voted for "change."
The likelihood of a solution to this hyper-partisanship seems remote in the short term. Fueled by a national round-the-clock media/blogosphere and fluid "independent" campaign financing moving from race to race, Republican and Democratic candidates are forced to focus on fundraising from their respective base voters and getting them out to vote -- even as more Americans self-identify as independents. The two-party system seems itself to be lurching out of control and unable to respond thoughtfully to the pragmatic, problem-solving center of the political spectrum.
Progressives argue that the current partisan bitterness was the product of an "Obama as president" who did not deliver on the inspirational promise of "Obama as candidate." Conservatives will argue that this bitterness is the product of Democratic leadership ramming an Obama agenda down their throat without adequate consultation.
Both views are, in my opinion, incorrect. There is something more deeply wrong with our current political system. Obama has delivered exactly what he promised during the 2008 election campaign -- a stimulus program and health care, education, and financial reform. What he did not deliver, and could not be expected to deliver, was a speedy economic recovery to the economy timed to the election cycle. The Republicans argue that the Democratic stimulus failed to keep the unemployment rate at a promised 8 percent and thus that the nearly $1 trillion stimulus was Democratic overspending that is adding to an already alarming budget deficit.
Are the Republicans countering with a more sensible economic plan? No. They have made a calculated political judgment that frustrated, out-of-work voters want to "stop" further ineffective, debt-creating meddling in the economy and that just saying no will advance their political position. And the Republican political strategy appears to be working.
This strategy mirrors the strategy employed by the Democrats after the election in 2004 when then-President George W. Bush proposed to stabilize the looming insolvency of the Social Security system by allowing beneficiaries to allocate a small percentage of their Social Security savings in personal accounts that could be invested in the stock market. Democrats argued that President Bush was "privatizing" Social Security and putting pensioners at risk of losing their life savings. So, while Bush's proposal was a positive and relatively modest reform, the Democratic strategy to refuse to negotiate any Social Security reform was a calculated political judgment that voters wanted to "stop" any meddling with Social Security. The Democrats' strategy worked: they took back the Congress in 2006 and extended their majority in 2008.
Net, each party has calculated that its political interests are best served by stopping the initiatives of the other party and then accusing that party of incompetence or ineffectiveness.
Is there no room in Washington for the pragmatic, problem-solving, bipartisan centrists?
Most sustained, progressive transformations in American policy have been bipartisan -- the 1960s Civil Rights Acts were drafted in Republican Senator Everett Dirksen's office and received support from both parties. The World Wars and the Cold War of the twentieth century were waged in the environment of a bipartisan foreign policy. Health care reforms -- Medicare, Medicaid, and the Medicare Prescription Drug benefit -- were adopted by significant congressional majorities.
If the moderate middle of the political spectrum is dying or dead, and if each party gains by stopping or reversing the policies of the other party, this country is in for a revolving "repeal and replace" mentality every four to six years. The Congress will simply become a game of who can best throw sand in the gears of the governing party's work.
Maybe America will be better served by divided government that puts both parties in charge. Then, America can hopefully look to the personal political bravery of centrists from both parties to work out the messy bipartisan compromise that will produce a sustainable policy on the critical issues facing the country.