Viewpoint: America the Ungovernable

In the week since the special Senate election in Massachusetts, the political conversation has been focused on what it all means: Will the Democrats pass health care? Will the Senate torpedo the renomination of Ben Bernanke for Fed chairman? What should be next on the president's legislative agenda?

But another, more disturbing, conclusion can be drawn from the Democrats' sudden reversal of fortune in Massachusetts—a mere year after Obama's historic victory. Is America simply ungovernable? Are the impediments to governance so great—obstructionist Republicans, spineless Democrats, and an increasingly incoherent electorate—that no one can run the country effectively?

Perhaps the greatest hindrance to good governance today is the Republican Party, which has adopted an agenda of pure nihilism for naked political gain. The most bizarre feature of post-Massachusetts political spin is that President Obama has done a poor job of reaching across the aisle. But any regular observer of Washington would conclude that congressional Republicans have no desire to be reached out to—because they aren't actually very interested in governing the country.

Take health care. During the 2000s, when the GOP held sway in Washington, they did nothing to arrest rising health-care costs or the uninsured population, which jumped from 39 million to approximately 46 million. Modest proposals to extend government-subsidized care for children were opposed and the extension of Medicare drug benefits did not help the larger health-care system.

Not much has changed in the past year. Congressional Republicans offered no serious counterproposals to the Democrats' health-care initiative and sought instead to either mislead or simply lie about its key elements (see "death panels"). The GOP's flagrant use of parliamentary tricks such as filibusters and holds is preventing the filling of critical executive-branch jobs and even delaying legislation that has virtually unanimous support—such as extending unemployment benefits. There is no governing ideology behind these obstructionist tactics except to demonstrate that government is simply unable to operate effectively. So far, mission accomplished.

Across the aisle, things aren't much better. The Democrats clearly want to govern, but they lack the spine to do it. Passage of universal health care has been a Democratic lodestar for more than 50 years. With difficult votes in the House and Senate to pass a reform proposal, Democrats were on the cusp of a landmark legislative victory. But at the first sign of adversity, Scott Brown's upset victory in Massachusetts, Democrats didn't redouble their efforts, they prepared to shelve the bill.

Even if Democrats pass health-care reform, it's an extraordinary commentary on their lack of confidence. Instead of making their case to voters, the first thought among Democrats was to run for political cover. Such fecklessness raises the question: if Democrats with a huge majority in both houses of Congress and control of the White House can't pass the centerpiece of their agenda, what can they possibly hope to accomplish? Why should anyone vote for a party that has such little demonstrated faith in their own principles?

But the problem with the two parties is actually a manifestation of the country's governance woes—as much as a cause of them. Significant blame for Washington's inadequacy lies outside the Beltway.

In 2008 Barack Obama and the Democrats were elected to fix the economy; and yet the only real measures at their disposal—increasing government spending and bailing out or nationalizing key industries—is precisely what is sparking voter discontent. Had Democrats not passed an $800 billion stimulus package, if Obama hadn't bailed out the auto industry or continued the TARP program, the country would likely be in far worse shape than it is today. Yet the president is getting no credit for doing the exact things he was asked to do last November.

On health care, polls indicate that Americans want Congress to extend access, cut costs, and tame the insurance industry. But they don't want their own benefits affected, or government's role in the health-care system to increase, or be mandated to buy insurance. In short, they want change, but they reject the most commonsense means of bringing that change about and generally refuse to sacrifice for the greater good of society as a whole.

Making the situation worse is that political news coverage, rather than explaining the gulf between voter expectations and political reality, often panders to the electorate's misguided notions. Partisans are allowed to spew talking points decrying government spending and rising deficits without being forced to explain how they would rein it in. Politicians call for bipartisan compromise without acknowledging their own role in exacerbating partisan tensions. Voters complain that Washington must do more to help the economy but in the same breath decry government's expanding role or misstate basic facts about their government and are given a virtual free pass by reporters who take "customer is always right" attitude toward the electorate.

On Wednesday, President Obama will deliver his State of the Union address in this climate; laying out his policy agenda for the year to come—an agenda that is largely unachievable because of the impediments in the political system.

Instead of feel-good rhetoric about everyday heroes or salesmanship about microtargeted proposals, which are the mainstays of the State of the Union, the president should speak unpleasant truths. That means condemning Republicans for their crude obstructionism and excoriating his fellow Democrats for their fecklessness. But, above all, he must explain to Americans that what they want from Washington cannot be accomplished if they are unwilling to countenance a larger role for the federal government—and remind them that the change they say they want is not possible without actual change and real sacrifice.

The president should take his own advice and be honest with the American people about the challenges the country is facing. Anything less will just continue the cycle of political impotency that has come to define the United States in the 21st century: a country that lacks the seriousness and resolve to govern itself.