Ungovernable America

The smarter elements in Washington DC are starting to pick up on the fact that it’s not tactical errors on the part of the president that make it hard to get things done, it’s the fact that the country has become ungovernable. For example, here’s Steven Pearlstein on minority leader Mitch McConnell:

The bad Mitch, as most Americans know by now, is the charmless and shameless hypocrite who offers up a steady stream of stale ideology and snarky talking points but almost never a constructive idea. McConnell has decided that the only way for Republicans to win is for President Obama to lose, and he will use lies, threats and all manner of parliamentary subterfuge to obstruct the president’s programs.

Pearlstein contrasts McConnell with the good Mitch, Mitch Daniels, “a principled but practical conservative who respects the intelligence of voters and would rather get something done than score political points.”

One can only imagine how Republicans could have reshaped health-reform legislation in the Senate if it had been Mitch Daniels rather than Mitch McConnell running the show, striking deals with the White House and moderate Democrats to win concessions in exchange for a pledge not to filibuster.

I think this is largely right, but I agree with Ezra Klein that it vastly underrates the structural issues at work: “Governors have to make their state work. Minority leaders have to win seats in the next election. Telling this story in terms of good people and bad people doesn’t give enough weight to the structural incentives that make people of all sorts do good and bad things.”


We’re suffering from an incoherent institutional set-up in the senate. You can have a system in which a defeated minority still gets a share of governing authority and participates constructively in the victorious majority’s governing agenda, shaping policy around the margins in ways more to their liking. Or you can have a system in which a defeated minority rejects the majority’s governing agenda out of hand, seeks opening for attack, and hopes that failure on the part of the majority will bring them to power. But right now we have both simultaneously. It’s a system in which the minority benefits if the government fails, and the minority has the power to ensure failure. It’s insane, and it needs to be changed.