Posts Tagged ‘Ira Shapiro’
Monday • April 2, 2012 • by Artur Davis
Ira Shapiro’s recent work on the late seventies, “The Last Great Senate”, has the gift of good timing. It hits bookstands during a time when its thesis–that Washington was occupied by political giants, moderates, and thoughtful deal-makers until far-right Republicans dragged it into the mud–is the conventional wisdom du jour. As a narrative, the book also reads well, which is no small accomplishment, given its dive into the nuts and bolts of policy battles that are only dimly recalled: Jimmy Carter’s conservation initiatives and his failed stimulus are not exactly the stuff of lore. As Shapiro reminds, there actually was an ample amount of substance and rigor in many of those debates, and the quality of the fight seems, in Shapiro’s telling, richer than our current sound-bite clashes.
To be sure, there is much that is admirable about this book from one of the most credentialed public policy lawyers in DC. It’s worth asking though, whether Shapiro’s underlying theory of senatorial decline and right-wing liability really holds up as a description of the last thirty odd years. Two threshold criticisms: first, the supposed dark ages after 1980 contain a lot more bipartisan accomplishment than Shapiro acknowledges. While his epilogue makes a nod to a series of eighties era achievements, including a refinancing of Social Security, a work-over of Title VII, tax reform, immigration reform, and the patent protection that enabled the generic drug market, it’s a run of success that Shapiro seems to dramatically understate and which is at odds with his premise. If Shapiro is right about the sources of dysfunction, a Republican lurch to the right and the surge of cut and slash ad wars sponsored by conservative cash, the eighties should have been one long pattern of gridlock. The fact that they weren’t gives Shapiro’s case fits that he doesn’t really address.
As for the last twenty years, they seem relevant to Shapiro only to the extent they reinforce his operating theory–impeachment, rancorous confirmation battles, fringe fights like Terry Schiavo. He literally ignores welfare reform and the first balanced budget in nearly forty years in the Clinton-Gingrich era. Likewise, no mention of the scorecard from the last decade, which for all of its acrimony, produced No Child Left Behind, McCain Feingold, the Patriot Act, even the Troubled Assets Relief Program, whose passage combined bipartisanship with a genuine willingness to buck public opinion for the sake of the national interest.
Virtually all of the above have left more substantial footprints than, say, the Alaskan Lands bill Shapiro spends ten pages dissecting, or the equally forgettable energy package in late 1979. That curiously out of focus perspective for an observer whose legislative insights are so perceptive is hard to explain as anything other than cherry-picking. It also makes his argument seem guilty of a particular DC based nostalgia that confuses the cozier and more fraternal politics of an earlier time with productivity.
A second flaw is that what Shapiro laments is not so much the decline of bipartisanship but the decline of a specific, liberal friendly brand of it: namely, the times when Republicans regularly broke ranks with their party to preserve Democratic priorities. He seems altogether less enthused about the times when the reverse happens—the crossovers of moderate Democrats to pass the first and second round of Bush 43 tax cuts, or the critical Democratic votes that passed the Medicare prescription drug benefit in 2003. Shapiro’s recent essay in the New York Times is even more explicit on this score, as he blames Mitch McConnell’s obstructionist approach on healthcare and financial reform legislation while never criticizing Democratic intransigence. Here, Shapiro is channeling the liberal talking point that it is Republicans who have turned ideologically insular while Democrats remain a party with a rich array of viewpoints.
Shapiro is right about the costs of McConnell’s hard line tactics. But the fact is that a genuine bipartisan compromise on healthcare, for example, would have required not only a conservative willingness to bend but a liberal willingness to give on some of the central aims of the Affordable Care Act, including a preference for government centric delivery systems. There is not a shred of evidence, though, that any meaningful cohort of Democratic senators (or congressmen) would have embraced reform based on conservative policy pillars like tax vouchers or even that Democrats would have settled for a slimmed down version that emphasized Medicaid reform, portability of private plans, and tighter rules on preexisting illness exclusions.
The same can be said for the rest of the stagnant congressional agenda in the Obama years. The most comprehensive deficit reduction scheme that has emerged, the recommendations from the Simpson Bowles commission, has languished as much out of a lack of Democratic enthusiasm as it has for Republican opposition to tax hikes. The prospects of a comprehensive immigration bill would require liberals abandoning their insistence on a citizenship path for illegal immigrants; likewise, a meaningful congressional education agenda would require Democrats to surrender their visceral resistance toward merit pay for teachers and any weakening of tenure.
It is clear at every turn that the right is a political villain, perhaps the only one, in Shapiro’s account of contemporary politics. And the right has done its share of damage: the eighties and nineties produced too many one or two term mediocrities who won on the strength of conservative trends and relentless negative advertising, and who, in Shapiro’s nice turn of phrase, left their records of non-accomplishment firmly intact. But the voluntary departure of Democratic stalwarts like Sam Nunn, Dale Bumpers, John Breaux, Jim Webb, and Evan Bayh had much to do with their sense that centrist politics were falling out of favor in their own party. The passive role that moderate Democrats like Blanche Lincoln and Ben Nelson played in the legislative process in 2009 and 2010 reflected their fears of left-wing primary challenges; undoubtedly, Mark Warner has been constrained by calculations about how the activist left might damage his presidential hopes in the future.
It’s not that Shapiro is wrong about the smallness and the shrillness of contemporary elections. It’s more that he fails to see that the trends are much bigger than hardball GOP tactics and the irrelevance of positive forces like Olympia Snowe and Lamar Alexander. The whole regime of politics is diminished by a culture that rewards partisan purity, a financing system that overvalues the sentiments of the far left and the far right, and a cable/internet spectrum that turns the dimmest lights into the most passionate ones, on both sides of the divide. The last three years really are worse than anything in the last thirty. If only fixing politics were as simple as electing better senators.