How can this be? The American election that was supposed to have settled everything – the most important election of a generation, or so it was described – settled nothing. In fact, it served more to create questions than to provide answers.
Talk about unintended consequences. The election that resolved so little created new tensions between Republicans and Democrats. But that’s not all. Now the triumphant Democrats, confident that a new era of progressivism has been confirmed, are fighting among themselves about how, or even whether, to address looming crises in old-age supplements and medical programs that were the bedrock of their New Deal and Great Society heritage. Now the despondent Republicans, their candidate defeated and their ideas repudiated, are battling over whether they should move to the centre or even further right.
The legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn used to say that if you wanted to get along, you had to go along. Mr. Rayburn died in 1961; a picture from his funeral shows a single cramped pew occupied by Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Half a century later, nobody gets along in Washington and nobody goes along.
Barack Obama was born three months before that funeral, and the political world he inhabits could not be more different. In Mr. Rayburn’s time, the Old Confederacy was referred to as the Solid South, and it was solidly Democratic. Today’s South is solidly Republican. (Mr. Obama won only Virginia and Florida in the South this year.) In the 1960s, there were liberals in the Republican Party and conservatives in the Democratic Party, and those colourful outliers made it easier to reach compromise. That’s all gone, too.
There have been, to be sure, faint signs of movement in the fraught new atmosphere of post-election Washington. Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, whose debt-reduction plan never got much of a hearing when their bipartisan commission released it two years ago Saturday, have emerged as folk heroes. And a few Republicans among the many who took pledges never to vote for a tax increase have recanted that vow.
But, mostly, the parties are fighting over what the election meant – did it, for example, signal public willingness to raise taxes? This preoccupation with taxes is not merely a pocketbook issue. Much of American politics can be distilled to a fight about taxes, for embedded within that conflict are bedrock questions about the power of free markets and the size of government, difficult conflicts over social fairness and personal achievement, and fundamental debates about individualism and community.
Right now, the principals are shadowboxing, but Mr. Obama may be open to altering the structure, payment levels and eligibility ages for social security, the old-age benefit that’s one of the centrepieces of the FDR years, and Medicare, the health program for the elderly that’s a touchstone of the LBJ years. Yet, some of the most powerful members of Mr. Obama’s own party are balking at the notion of making any changes whatsoever to these so-called entitlements.
Though some leading Republicans now say they’d abandon the anti-tax pledge that has been at the heart of conservative doctrine since the Reagan years, many others have doubled down on their determination to resist tax increases, which they see as barriers to growth and threats to freedom and individualism.
This is a modern fight but, as we have seen, the pugilists are haunted by ghosts – of FDR and LBJ, who expanded government and provided programs to ease the way for the old and the infirm, and of Ronald Reagan, who battled bureaucracy and fought for the freedom that comes with free markets, and of George H.W. Bush, who’s never been forgiven by many of the new-breed Republicans for assenting to a tax increase in a 1990 budget deal.
But there’s one more ghost in this struggle – Sam Rayburn, mentor to LBJ, remembered neither for being a liberal nor a conservative, revered as a sentinel of integrity. It was Mr. Rayburn who left Washington a forgotten aphorism that may be appropriate for our time: A jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one.
David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of U.S. politics.