The Politics of Nothing

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by Michael Grunwald,

from TIME Magazine,

Both conservatives and Liberals have accomplished much of what they set out to do a generation or more ago. So, now what?

With the midterm elections approaching, U.S. politics is unusually dopey and depressing.

The previous Congress was the least productive in history. The current Congress has done even less. Efforts to reform gun laws, immigration policy and the tax code stalled. The main substantive debate has involved the arcane Export-Import Bank—not a debate on which the fate of the Republic depends, though quite consequential compared with cable-TV slugfests over President Obama’s golf habits. Legislators have stopped pretending that they might break the gridlock; Congress has been in session for only eight days since the end of July, and it isn’t going back to work until mid-November.

With no hope of governing, both parties are focusing on messaging. Democrats have highlighted unpopular Republican views on issues like women’s health, gay rights and the minimum wage, while Republicans have tried to force vulnerable Democrats into tough votes on issues like the Keystone pipeline.

Polls suggest that the public is disgusted with Obama, disgusted with the GOP and completely nauseated by Congress. Talking heads in both parties are talking up the high stakes in November, with Republicans hoping to take control of the Senate just as they seized the House in the 2010 midterms. In reality, the stakes in this election are pretty low. If Republicans flip control of the Senate by ousting Democrats who won in red states in 2008, Democrats will probably flip it back in two years by ousting Republicans who won in blue states in 2010. In any case, the stalemate in Washington is virtually certain to continue after November whether the Republicans flip the Senate or not, because Obama will still be President and Republicans will still control the House.

Inertia does not produce uplifting politics. It produces obsessions over a traffic jam in Governor Chris Christie’s New Jersey, over obscure campaign-finance violations in Governor Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, over Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s ad featuring stock footage of basketball players from Duke instead of Kentucky. I just checked the latest campaign uproars in my Twitter feed: The Democratic candidate for Senate in Iowa is under fire because he once squabbled with a neighbor whose chickens wandered into his yard. The Republican candidate for governor in Illinois apparently paid $100,000 to join a wine club. Someone said Walker has given women “the back of his hand,” which Republicans found so outrageous that his Democratic challenger, who didn’t say it, was being pressured to apologize for it.

But there’s a more pleasant way to think about the politics of nothing, a happier explanation for the dreary stalemate. One reason the two parties fight so bitterly over petty stuff is that they’ve already achieved their major goals. They’re fighting over relative scraps. Our politics is about “first-world problems,” the silly battles a strong nation with an improving economy and a dominant military can afford to have.

These days, Republicans don’t have much of an agenda beyond opposing whatever Obama is for, but that’s partly because they’ve had so much success on issues like taxes, welfare and crime since the Reagan revolution. Democrats don’t have much of an agenda either, but that’s partly because Obama has enacted so much of his.

Obamacare in particular represents the culmination of an ancient battle in U.S. politics, the war over the welfare state that has raged since the New Deal. It has been the most divisive issue in national politics for the past 80 years, animating the fundamental philosophical split between the two parties. The long war may be winding down. The future of our politics will depend on what replaces it.

politically, Obamacare was an immediate disaster. The 2010 midterms were a brutal vote of no confidence.

the politics of fear has given way to the politics of loss aversion. Americans simply don’t like having their benefits taken away.

Still, it’s worth asking: If we had a politics of something, what would it be about?

The conventional beltway wisdom is that Obama has checked out, but his team says he’s just more realistic about Republican obstruction.

The larger question for Democrats is what happens to their agenda after Obama. Much will depend on their presidential nominee–front runner Hillary Clinton has avoided specifics–but two themes emerge: economic inequality and economic competitiveness. The gap between rich and poor has continued to grow under Obama, even though he boosted transfer payments like the earned-income tax credit, raised taxes on high earners and passed Obamacare. Some liberals would like to see a bolder push to require paid family leave and sick leave for workers, as well as stronger government backing for long-term care. French economist Thomas Piketty’s best seller Capital in the 21st Century has also renewed the left’s interest in wealth taxes, especially on estates.

But some Democrats are eager to shift their party’s focus from helping Americans in need to helping Americans compete.

There are more ideas flying around on the Republican side, where potential 2016 candidates seem to recognize that their party can’t just appeal to the haves. Senator Marco Rubio has floated wage subsidies for struggling families; he also bucked his party last year by pursuing immigration reform, although he’s sounded less enthusiastic about it as its legislative prospects have dimmed. Senator Rand Paul has challenged lock-‘em-up GOP orthodoxy on crime issues while questioning the militarization of local police forces and the intelligence gathering of the National Security Agency. Congressman Paul Ryan’s new antipoverty plan actually endorsed Obama’s call to expand tax credits for the working poor. “A year ago, it was just people like me saying stuff like that–and Ryan’s people were attacking me,” says Strain of the American Enterprise Institute, a leader of an intellectual coterie of “reform conservatives” who have pushed the GOP to broaden its message. “Now you’re seeing Tea Party guys recognize that we can’t just be about shrinking government and cutting taxes. It’s not 1979 anymore.”

It’s a fool’s errand to try to predict what politics will be about tomorrow.

For now, our politicians keep reciting their old lines about Big Government and the safety net, about “we’re in this together” vs. “you’re on your own.” But they’re no longer even on the same stage. The question is when the audience is going to realize that–and when they’re going to shift to a new script.

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