Thursday, May 22, 2008

They say familiarity breeds contempt. And that certainly seems true when it comes to Washington politicians. Americans are livid with President Bush and Congress these days — a natural human reaction to falling home values, soaring gas prices, a slowing economy and a war with no end in sight.

The Wall Street Journal’s Kimberly Strassel agrees. “The State of the Union? Furious,” she wrote in her Potomac Watch column last week. Americans’ “fury has bubbled as they’ve watched Washington obsess over itself — dealing out earmarks, paying off constituencies, launching probes into political enemies. Accomplishing zip.” She’s right. People outside the Beltway view Washington as a swamp oozing with special interests, self-dealing and political narcissism.

But the collective animus has deeper roots than the current president or the Democratic congressional leadership. In politics we witness a pattern of eternal hope, followed by crushing disappointment, resulting in inevitable anger. It is baked into the cake of our system. Presidents and lawmakers campaign on platforms that generate excitement and support, but then find themselves institutionally incapable of delivering on their promises. Dashed pledges produce cynical voters. It’s part of our political constitution and over-promising and under-delivering are the first amendments.

This pattern of disappointment exists because political leaders often face conflicting goals — the necessary steps to enact public policy and build political parties usually clash. Sometimes these goals are the same. But more often they are not, resulting in stalemate, gridlock and voter disillusionment. In other words, accomplishing zip.

Americans don’t understand our collective decision-making process. It is abnormal and unnatural. When a family or a business or a school board faces a problem, it acts. Sometimes it is the right verdict — sometimes wrong. But the prospects of various sides endlessly talking, debating and arguing about their ideas without reaching any resolution seems like a political psychosis without medicine or worse yet, political fraud. And the things that do get done every year, funding a bloated government and loading the legislation with earmarks, just make them angrier.

Independent voters exhibit this cycle of rage most clearly. Since 1980, the American National Election Study survey at the University of Michigan has asked citizens to express their emotions toward Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. They measure affects such as pride, hope, fear and anger. The data allow us to look at Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as candidates and then as incumbents after four years. The numbers paint a dramatic picture — familiarity does breed contempt.

Consider this pattern among independents: anger toward Mr. Reagan as a candidate in 1980 (18 percent) and as an incumbent in 1984 (38 percent); anger toward George H.W. Bush as a candidate in 1988 (17 percent) and as an incumbent in 1992 (52 percent); anger toward Mr. Clinton as a candidate in 1992 (18 percent), and as an incumbent in 1996 (49 percent); anger toward George W. Bush in 2000 (21 percent) and as an incumbent in 2004 (51 percent).

This surge in rage among independent voters accompanying every president is a natural reaction following failure to deliver on promises made on the campaign trail and the conflict exposed when Republicans and Democrats try to build their parties (which often necessitates an unwavering commitment to certain positions and principles) and enact public policy (which requires compromise).

This is the paradox of partisanship. Candidates think they need to say “yes” to parties to get elected and “no” to govern. It is a complicated dance, requiring toughness, experience and understanding. Both John McCain and Barack Obama promise to end the cycle of disappointment and bring about policy change. Yet the Arizona senator has a proven track record of addressing the paradox on a host of issues — including immigration, the environment and judges — and the scars from some in his own party to prove it. Mr. McCain understands, in a very practical way, that today’s partisanship does not always rule out persuasion among Democratic voters or lawmakers.

Mr. Obama expresses many of the right words that also assuage public anger about Washington and generate hope. Yet while the debonair Illinois senator wears the clothing of change well, his pockets are empty. Unlike Mr. McCain, he has repeatedly missed opportunities to match his words and deeds in the crucible of the Senate. Some may call it youthful inexperience; I think it’s cynical, dangerous and a prescription for more voter disdain and disappointment.

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