by Linda Chavez
Hyperpartisanship is destroying American politics. The announcement this week that Democrats will filibuster Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch — who is eminently qualified — puts them on a dangerous collision course that jeopardizes the confirmation process itself. Similarly, Republicans’ willingness to pass a major overhaul of the health care system without a single Democrat vote follows in the disgraceful path set when President Obama shoved the Affordable Care Act down the country’s throat without a single Republican vote. As of this writing, it is unclear whether there are even enough Republican votes in the House to pass health reform, despite their 44-seat majority, but the point remains: In an already polarized country, partisans on both sides of the aisle are doing more harm than good.
The same applies to Congress’s oversight responsibility. The week began with testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence by FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers. The testimony was the first open hearing on the government’s investigation into meddling by the Russians in last year’s election. But instead of focusing on something Republicans and Democrats — indeed, all Americans — should be deeply concerned with, the hearings turned into a referendum on whether President Trump was truthful when he tweeted almost three weeks ago that former President Obama was secretly spying on him just before the election.
Republicans spent much of their precious time in the hearings making the case that Russia’s involvement in the election was not nearly as important as who leaked information regarding that involvement. The chief objects of Republican wrath were suspected Obama appointees. Republicans seemed especially exercised about individuals whose leaks revealed disgraced former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. I, for one, will shed no crocodile tears over Flynn’s firing. The man lied to the vice president and, it turns out, was also a paid foreign agent of the Islamist government of Turkey’s President Recyip Erdogan at the same time he was serving as candidate Trump’s top security adviser.
Democrats’ behavior was little better during the hearings. Their main focus was on whether President Trump lied in his ridiculous early-morning tweets accusing President Obama of spying on him. The tweets were fact-free; no one, including the president, has produced evidence otherwise. But Democrats — and the country — would be better off focusing on Russian meddling, not refuting baseless claims. Exactly how do you prove something didn’t happen anyway? The outcome of the hearing was simply a hardening of views among partisans. We are no closer to understanding how extensive the Russians’ involvement was, what exactly it consisted of and how they managed to carry it out, including who might have assisted them wittingly or unwittingly.
There are large differences in philosophy and policy between Democrats and Republicans. Those differences are important, and national elections reflect voters’ preferences. But barring a major landslide, which the last election certainly was not, enacting laws requires negotiations and, yes, compromise. The pendulum rarely shifts dramatically in a single election. And prudence suggests that’s a good thing. From 1960 to 1980, the country shifted mostly left, with the exception of the Nixon years, which were a mixed bag. President Nixon gave the country racial quotas, the Environmental Protection Agency, and wage and price controls — hardly a far-right agenda. From 1980 to 2012, the country moved to the center-right, including during the Clinton years. Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, both welfare reform and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act during his tenure.
But things shifted dramatically during the Obama years. It wasn’t just that policy veered sharply left but that Democrats and Republicans in Congress quit seeking compromise on highly divisive issues. Even when a few Democrat and Republican senators tried to forge bipartisan legislation on contentious issues like immigration, the hyperpartisans in their respective parties sunk the bills.
What began under Obama has now metastasized under Trump. If this keeps up, we can look to four years of stalemate or, perhaps worse, legislation so out of step with a mostly centrist country that it will be rebuked by whoever succeeds Trump in office. Neither party benefits long term in that scenario. Worse, Americans lose — big league, as the president likes to say.