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Unity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Ezra Klein is a staff writer at the American Prospect. His blog can be found at EzraKlein.com.

It’s been a tough-fought campaign, with lots of strong candidates and piles of good ideas. But I think I’ve made my decision. I’m supporting the candidate of division. Frankly, I’ve got unity fatigue.

That seems to be one of the chief buzzwords of this election. Unity. Barack Obama invokes it more frequently than John Edwards mentions “mills.” My in-box, meanwhile, has only recently recovered from the torrent of messages sent by “Unity ’08,” a collection of political has-beens and never-weres who kept promising that if I would only click right here, I could use the power of the Internet to create a bipartisan presidential ticket that would solve problems ranging from the healthcare crisis to global warming.

How exactly would they solve them? Single-payer healthcare? A carbon tax? They never said. But they promised that whatever they chose, it would be bipartisan, and I’m not a partisan, am I?

Unity ’08 has, thankfully, dissolved. But the dream lives on. Two of its founders have wandered off to create a “Draft Michael Bloomberg” movement because, if you don’t count Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, this presidential cycle suffers from a dearth of rich technocrats from New York. To be fair though, it’s not just the ZIP Code that qualifies him for the job. “He’s not an ideologue,” enthuses Gerald Rafshoon, a former Jimmy Carter aide who’s running the We Like Mike movement. “He’s a problem solver. He has also run things.”

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Ah, yes, “a problem solver,” the close cousin of the unifier. Mitt Romney’s a problem solver too, or so he tells me. Clinton says she’s in “the solutions business.” Who could be against that? An end to problems. It’s a vision we could, dare I say it, unite around.

What accounts for all this talk of unity and bipartisanship and non-ideological problem solving? Speechwriters have no end of hoary terms of uplift to choose from. There’s “individualism” and “family,” “values” and “faith.” So why are unity and competence so crucial to this year’s message?

The short answer is that the candidates have no other choice. Washington these days is rived by partisanship, but that’s not necessarily anything new or even particularly worrisome. In Washington, partisanship is like the San Francisco fog; it rolls in, hangs out for a while, and everyone goes about their business. The problem is, in this case, it’s created total, impenetrable gridlock.

So, though elections are usually about what is to be done, this campaign has been unusually focused on whether it is in fact possible to get anything done. That’s why you have Clinton touting her governmental experience and legislative skill, Obama emphasizing his unifying presence and talent for achieving consensus, Romney reminding voters that he once rendered the Olympics profitable, Unity ’08 swearing that all we need is a bipartisan ticket, Bloomberg promising to be as good at governing as he was at getting rich, and so on and so on.

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The problem is that hearing all these presidential hopefuls pledge to end gridlock is a bit like having a friend promise to fix my toilet by checking under the hood of my car. Analytically, it’s misguided. Now, fish have to swim, and candidates have to over-promise, so let’s grant that they may not believe all their own hype. But at the same time, we shouldn’t ignore the essential incoherence at the heart of these arguments:

Gridlock is not something the president of the United States can solve. Political gridlock begins in the U.S. Senate, but we keep trying to end it in the White House. There is no potential executive in either party who would not like to manifest his or her agenda by sheer force of will. But in reality, President Mike Bloomberg would be as stymied as President Hillary Clinton or President Mitt Romney, because you don’t get a doctor’s note exempting you from the legislative process just because you ran, or even govern, as an independent. If you don’t believe me, ask Arnold Schwarzenegger, the classic post-partisan unifier who couldn’t attract a single Republican vote for his centrist health plan when it went before the Assembly.

Gridlock isn’t a mystery. It’s not some sort of untraceable crime. It happens live on C-SPAN every day of the week. It’s a function of the rules of the Senate, where 40 senators can refuse to end debate on legislation and thus doom its chances of passage. Because of the undemocratic nature of the Senate, which gives Montana as many senators as California, those 40 senators can represent as little as 11.2% of the population.

This is the power of the filibuster, and it used to be a rarely invoked power, as the culture of the Senate prized compromise and consensus. In the 1977-78 congressional term, for instance, there were only 13 filibusters. Ten years later, there were 43. Ten years after that, there were 53. The Democrats used the tactic plenty when they were in the opposition a couple of years ago, but now that they’re in power, it is the Republicans who are having a filibuster party. If they maintain their current pace, they’ll have filibustered a full 134 times this term, more than doubling any other year on record. It’s obstructionism on a truly historic scale.

Add to that obstructionist minority a divided government (the White House controlled by one party, Congress by another), the tensions of an ongoing war and a lame-duck president with no chosen successor and thus little concern for his plummeting popularity, and you have a moment that laughs at legislative progress. That’s why the presidential campaign has become so focused on “getting things done.”

But it’s not up to the president. There are a variety of fixes for a filibuster-happy minority. The media, for example, could start accurately reporting the cause of the gridlock, shaming the relevant senators and increasing political pressure to compromise. The voters could eject politicians who refuse to compromise, laying down an electorally enforced preference for a functioning government. The Senate majority could change the rules, essentially eliminating the filibuster. Groups such as Unity ’08 could arise and, rather than wasting everyone’s time with idle fantasies of ever more dreamy executives, could campaign against Senate rules that are undemocratic and hostile to progress.

But the president can’t do this, not on his or her own. Unity means nothing in the face of obstructionism, and problems can’t be solved if legislators refuse to solve them.


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