The Vision Thing

Ross Douthat explains why he won’t be missing Charlie Crist, Evan Bayh, or Arlen Specter and has wide comments on the general situation facing centrist legislators:

We hear a lot about the perils of political polarization, and for understandable reasons: America faces structural challenges that probably can’t be addressed by one party alone, and the waning of bipartisanship is one of the many forces that make a Greece or California-like endgame seem depressingly plausible. But if a polarized political system produces fewer centrists overall, it also increases the power and potential leverage of the centrists who remain. For a time, the most important figures in the debate over health care reform were Chuck Grassley and Max Baucus; later on, that role passed to Ben Nelson, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, among others. (The same was true in the stimulus debate, the financial reform debate, etc.) A swing vote in the U.S. Senate should be able to wield disproportionate influence over the design of legislation; a swing bloc, if one existed, would essentially have veto power over whatever the majority wanted to do. And so the legislator who wastes this power — by engaging in horse-trading without any larger vision, by griping constantly about their own party’s mistakes while voting the party line on every major piece of legislation, or by simply being a self-interested, unprincipled cynic — is as much to blame for the dysfunctions of the American political system as any uncompromising partisan of the left and right.

I think this was an underrated sub-plot of the 111th Congress. The people who occupied the legislative pivot points showed us basically nothing in the way of vision. When Scott Brown held all the leverage on financial regulation legislation, he used it to get a special carve-out aimed to benefit the bottom line of Massachusetts-based banks. Blue Dogs exempted car dealers from otherwise applicable consumer protection rules. Ben Nelson asked for the “cornhusker kickback.”

This kind of thing is one reason I’m hoping that instead of obsessing over finding compromises with Republicans the President will refocus his attention away from the legislative arena. Left to their own devices, maybe some of the pivoteers will realize that they have an obligation to actually frame some kind of proposal for coping with the country’s problems.


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