Sunday on “Meet the Press,” Colin L. Powell blamed divisive, poisonous Washington politics on the media and the Tea Party. The essence of the retired general and former secretary of state’s argument: “Republicans and Democrats are focusing more and more on their extreme left and extreme right. And we have to come back toward the center in order to compromise. … The media have to help us. The media love this game, where everybody is on the extreme. It makes for great television. … So what we have to do is sort of take some of the heat out of our political life in terms of the coverage of it, so [members of Congress] can get to work quietly. … But the Tea Party point of view of no compromise whatsoever is not a point of view that will eventually produce a presidential candidate who will win.”
Of course, this is ahistoric. The media have been a circulation-, listener- and viewer-motivated political snapping turtle since the country’s founding (and a liberal snapping turtle since the 1940s). Of course, the rise of divisive Washington politics predates by decades the emergence of the Tea Party to national attention in 2009.
As a technical matter, many if not most congressional historians think conscious congressional partisanship in recent times did not start with the Tea Party, President Obama or George W. Bush, or Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
It started in 1984 in the disputed congressional election of Indiana’s “bloody 8th” Congressional District. A Republican, Richard McIntyre, won in a recount by 418 votes, according to the Indiana Republican secretary of state. Then the Democratic majority in the House set up a task force of two Democratic and one Republican congressmen to redecide the state tally. The two Democrats on the commission concluded that Democratic incumbent Rep. Frank McCloskey had won by four votes. Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright seated Mr. McCloskey.
The Republican Party, furious but impotent, became convinced that a corrupt Democratic majority would have to be defeated if progress on any front was to be made. Thus was born modern congressional partisan self-consciousness.
Fifteen years later, Leon E. Panetta, who in 1985 was the congressional chairman of that task force that reversed the election results, admitted to the Los Angeles Times that the “House vote to seat McCloskey would have been more broadly accepted if the task force had included an equal number of Democrats and Republicans and if there had been consensus in the finding. “If the committee leans partisan, either Republican or Democratic, then it will always be viewed as a partisan result,” Mr. Panetta said.
But beyond the minor question of which event lit the fuse of partisanship, broader, more significant forces have given rise to the current divisions. It is not only reductionist, but fundamentally undemocratic to believe, as Mr. Powell argues, that if the people would just stop paying attention to what goes on in Washington (helped along by the media refusing to report the political news) politicians could get back to the business of compromising over their differences. It’s not Congress‘ differences - it’s the people’s differences. Members of Congress are really quite good at knowing what their electorates want.
There is partisan division in Washington because the American people have been increasingly, ever more deeply and quite evenly divided about where they want America to go as a country. Since the early 1990s, neither congressional party has been able to sustain a clear majority of total House votes cast in the country beyond one election cycle. This has meant a congressional electorate of 49-49 percent, plus or minus 1 percent or 2 percent (except for the occasional temporarily decisive votes of 1994, 2006 and 2010). By itself, this close divide has turned every House seat into a potential majority maker or breaker, and thus, both parties fight ever harder for each seat. At the presidential level as well, not since Ronald Reagan won with about 60 percent of the popular vote in 1984 has any president won with more than about 53 percent (1988: George H. W. Bush, 53.4 percent; 1992: Bill Clinton, 43 percent; 1996: Mr. Clinton, 49.2 percent; 2000: George.W. Bush, 47.9 percent; 2004, Mr. Bush 50.7 percent; 2008: Barack Obama, 52.9 percent.)
The heart of the matter is that Americans are deeply divided between resisting and embracing a Europeanized, post-constitutional American economy, government and culture. This decision can no more be compromised behind closed doors with no one watching than could the question of civil rights and creation of the welfare state in the 1950s and ‘60s, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor-oriented statism in the 1930s, slavery in the 1850s and ‘60s or Andrew Jackson’s rights of the common man in the 1830s. Each of those historic epochs were brought on by decisive and sustained shifts in national majority opinion.
Today, the nation awaits decisive leadership to make its case to a sustainable working majority of the American people. Of course, there will be compromises - plenty of them - in working out the details that will follow from a new national vision.
But, before the compromises must come a vision of America’s future that grabs and holds for at least a decade or two the enthusiastic support of at least 55 percent of the American people.
Divisive, dysfunctional, partisan politics is not the cause of our problems. It is the symptom of a decades-long lack of visionary leadership capable of galvanizing a majority of Americans to decisive action. Throwing away the thermometer will not break the fever.
Tony Blankley is the author of “American Grit: What It Will Take to Survive and Win in the 21st Century” (Regnery, 2009) and vice president of the Edelman public relations firm in Washington.