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Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - Page updated at 03:30 p.m.
Op-ed: Our political system rejects statesmanship and solutions
By James Windle
Special to The Times
I just finished an unsuccessful first run for the 8th Congressional District seat as an independent in Washington state. Having spent the past decade working in the federal government in Washington, D.C., I believed I could be more effective in advocating solutions as a centrist independent than adding to the partisan gridlock as a moderate Democrat or Republican.
After my experience, I have concluded that the era of statesmanship and solutions is over.
Politics is about winning elections. The path of least resistance is to focus voters on partisan messages and fear. The people who are sick of this brand of politics stay home and do not vote. The political-party base gets charged up by the passion of the fight and, in the final weeks of a campaign, an effort is made to pull in independents likely to vote. If this is the formula for victory, why go through the trouble of searching for a statesman or stateswoman with experience, independent ideas and courage to work with others on solutions? It actually creates liabilities for a campaign.
Evidence can be found in the current Congress. At first glance, 10 percent approval ratings of Congress would suggest that the parties and members would want to get work done. The Pelosi 111th Congress (2008-2010) offered solutions with an economic-stimulus package and health-care reform. Democrats lost the majority in the House. The better strategy is to go home with nothing done and play the blame game. That is what the current 112th Congress did.
At the heart of the blame game is the belief that the opposing party wishes to destroy America. This sounds melodramatic, but when you have worked closely with both parties, as I have, it is what the faithful believe. The Republicans want anarchy and hate puppies; the Democrats would turn us into China and jail rich people. This simplification would be funny if the stakes were not so high with too many Americans struggling in the economy.
A little over a decade ago, solutions could be found. The parties and public had sharply differing views complete with scandals and impeachment. Yet, the machinery of government continued to get work done. For example, the Democratic Clinton administration balanced the federal budget, building on a Republican president's tax increase in 1992 while working with a fiery Republican majority in the House of Representatives from 1994 to 2000. My, how politics has changed.
The mass media and campaign finance are two factors explaining the shift in American politics and elections. Voters are inundated with an unprecedented volume of information in traditional and new media. The information anarchy leads voters to seek media outlets that collate and filter information. The media outlets become magnets for campaigns that know the profiles of voters they can reach. The campaigns launch messaging offensives to invoke fear.
The increasing amount of money in elections provides the fuel for media offensives. The total expenditures on campaigns for Congress increased from $781 million in 1998 to $1.9 billion in 2010, according to the Committee for Economic Development. The Super PACs, resulting from the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, could add hundreds of millions of dollars to the total. The current presidential race has already spent more than the record-setting 2008 race.
In the final analysis, parties and candidates do what is necessary to win within an election system that by most accounts is broken. The parties' desire to control Congress and the White House, the status of the media and campaign finance mean solutions are no longer necessary to win elections. This is the sad state of American politics.
James Windle, a Snoqualmie Pass resident, has worked at the White House budget office, in the Committee on Appropriations of the U.S. House and at multiple federal agencies.