Mario Cuomo used to say, "You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose." Today, however, we campaign in venom and govern in malice. Let's face it, slash and burn rhetoric can work in winning elections. Dividing the public into warring camps and creating even artificial fissures to energize an activist base is often highly effective. Unfortunately, overheated language has become every bit as common in our government as our political campaigns. And, it continues to erode public confidence in our national institutions and make the fundamental processes of governing nearly impossible.
Whatever nonpartisan collegiality and harmony Congress may have once known began to die in 1994, and it's virtually non-existent today. When Republican leaders actually announce a strategy of opposition to every Obama initiative; when they have 190 Republicans amendments included in the final health care reform legislation, then vilify and oppose it unanimously, claiming they were left out of the process; when they foment and actively stoke a hate-filled anti-government demonstration on the Capitol grounds during House debate on health care reform; when they block or oppose bill after bill to offer tax relief and expanded loan guarantees to small businesses, then turn around and accuse Democrats of being anti-business; or when Senate rules are used to block any consideration of over 200 House-passed bills and more than 45 top-level Administration nominees simply to deny the majority any accomplishment, then government has become so toxic that it's no longer functioning effectively.
Yet, when the Democratic leadership becomes impatient and frustrated with these obstructive tactics and simply goes around the minority to enact its agenda or when it ignores them or uses the House Rules Committee to prevent their meaningful participation in the process, it is simply throwing gasoline on partisan fires.
Part of the problem lies in the nature of contemporary political campaigns, which tend to rely on emotion-laden messages that don't just disagree with the opposition, but demonize them, attacking their honesty, integrity and character. We're treated to a parade of TV and radio spots that tear at our hearts or fill us with outrage. And, today's campaigns are much less constrained by the truth. So, the public also gets a large dose of spots that appear factual, but either tortuously distort the record or just plain make it up.
When this becomes acceptable language for political campaigns, it can't help but metastasize into government. The same tactics that are effective building and motivating support in an election work just as well building and motivating support on public policy. So now the public is treated to mega-doses of the House and Senate minority leadership attacking the intelligence, integrity and motives of the majority, and frequently, promoting their own views by knowingly, shamelessly lying. What makes it even more distasteful is that Democratic communicators in Congress have proved hopelessly inept at framing any sort of compelling message of their own -- 'A New Direction Congress?' Please! As a result, we witness the continuing spectacle of nasty Republican bullies verbally beating the crap out of hapless Democratic nerds.
Yet the most distressing effect of this toxic environment may be on a pathway to bipartisanship -- to any ability of the two warring factions to actually address to resolve national problems. The pathway grows steeper and more precarious with every blast of invective.
First, if an angry and sectarian electorate continues to elect angry, sectarian candidates, Congress will continue to move away from, rather than toward, rapprochement. These new guys are not walking in the door of the Capitol looking for opportunities to work across the aisle.
Second, if running angry and sectarian campaigns works, one side or the other is going to win more elections and regain or strengthen its hold on power. Why in the world would they change a winning strategy?
Third, when you have a Congress populated by candidates who were elected by being angry and sectarian, they couldn't change their attitude if they wanted to. How could they ever work with the other side without being accused by the people who elected them of betraying their principles and selling out? Ask soon-to-be former Republican Senators Bob Bennett of Utah or Lisa Murkowski of Alaska what can happen in your own party's primary election if you're not pure enough?
Fourth, the losers -- even Democrats -- aren't likely to sit around humming kumbaya indefinitely. Sooner or later, they'll get their mad on and start organizing their troops for the next war. And, it continues.