During the Bush years, it inspired despair to consider how many things in this country desperately needed to be changed even as we had leadership that seemed blithely unconcerned or unaware of global warming, the exploding cost of health care, income disparity, burgeoning prison populations, a drug war on our own citizens and on and on, with no end in sight.
Oh, but now, we have Obama and his change we can believe in! And truly it is nice to have a leader who at least seems to acknowledge that things could be done better. Yet, his preference for pragmatic, popular solutions rather than really exerting political capital on anything leads to “better than nothing” bills like Waxman-Markley. The problem stems from Obama’s preference for delegating the details of legislation to Congress, because at this point Congress is fundamentally inept institution. At least Bush, almost exclusively for the worst, was incredibly skilled at getting Congress to do whatever he wanted, usually by framing dissent as unpatriotic. Unfortunately, the founding fathers wanted a system isolated from “sudden breezes of passion”, yet it seems that the opposite has happened and Congress is unable to do anything at all without campaign bribes and “sweeteners.”
The truism goes: “all politics is local.” This is borne out by polls that show that while Congress as an institution inspires dismal support nationally, most voters rate their own Congressman fairly highly. It is no surprise then, that most politicians win not on issues of national importance, which they have little control over, but by “bringing home the bacon.” Thus, the most effective strategy for getting a bill through Congress is to ensure that it will benefit many locales, even if it is of dubious national importance. It is difficult to read Nate Silver analyzing votes for Waxman-Markey based on the carbon cost of each state, as though that is of any importance to the bill, which can be understood exclusively on a national level. Voters are like a sick person who is afraid of needles – see California referendums that always increase services but never increase taxes- they need someone to convince them to take their medicine. That is the entire point of representative democracy; politicians are supposed to be able to make hard decisions because they are the best suited and informed to do so. Yet everyone not only tolerates, but expects politicians to be liars and cowards, saying what they think we want to hear and doing only what they think will keep them in office. Does anyone think Obama is really against gay marriage? Yet gay people will explain why he shouldn’t die on that battlefield.
Ultimately there is a severe dearth of politicians with real courage today. The conventional wisdom of lobbyist fundraising, pork barrel reelections and political consultants that view every issue through a lens of electability triumphs when no one is willing to risk anything. There are many issues of vital importance, such as prison or drug reform, that have no constituency behind them, so a politician would have to commit political suicide to voice even common sense – Jim Webb being a notable exception. To voice an real opinion on a subject is to take political ownership, which is a liability; while earmarks, riders, bills killed in committee and grandstanding against straw men have proven to be consequence free. Without leadership, instead of mere politics, our current political stagnation is inevitable. Obama has demonstrated his ability to rise to the occasion and defy political convention, but since he has assumed the presidency he has maintained a slippery “live to fight another day” stance on everything. As it stands now, political incentives are usually not aligned with the national interest. It is too soon to say whether Obama will be able to successfully accomplish necessary and difficult leadership, but until he is willing to take risk anything it seems unlikely.