THE BLOG
03/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's No Time for Politics as Usual

The U.S. Senate's "Dr. No," Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, best captured the need for political leadership in this time of crisis in accepting his nomination by President Barack Obama to be U.S. Secretary of Commerce: "Now is not the time for partisanship. Now is not the time to stand in our ideological corners and shout at each other. Now is the time to govern and govern well."

Unfortunately, many in Congress, including much of the leadership of both parties, still don't understand that the United States has entered a new civic political era, demanding new rules of behavior in response to our dire economic circumstances. Even as President Obama expresses the "fierce urgency of now," pointing out that if government does not act soon and vigorously it "will turn a crisis into a catastrophe," Congress still seems unable to put aside the ideological arguments and constant efforts to win partisan advantage that characterized American politics in the era the country has just left.

Congressional Republicans seem to believe that the economy can only be revitalized by tax cuts while Democrats say that only vast federal spending, some of it on the pet projects of Members, will produce economic recovery. As demonstrated by the recent House vote on final passage of the economic recovery bill, in which virtually all Democrats voted against all Republicans, working across party lines remains an elusive dream. Republican Members of Congress seem intent on following the strategy from their ideological battles with President Bill Clinton a decade ago in which the goal was to enforce party discipline in the hope that the President and his party would fail and Republicans could blame the Democrats in the next election. But with the stakes as high as they are now, the GOP should instead be listening to the author of that earlier strategy, Newt Gingrich, who has publicly made it clear that the country cannot afford for Obama's economic recovery plan to fail.

Meanwhile, Democrats need to learn some new rules of behavior as well. While NDN's Globalization Initiative Chair Dr. Rob Shapiro has correctly noted that the recovery package now before the Senate contains only the "normal quotient of special interest subsidies on both the spending and tax sides -- think of it as a 'congressional tax,'" -- these clearly aren't normal times. It may be true that, as Rob says, "they really can't help themselves." But like others recovering from an addiction, Democrats will have to at least try to change their approach to building legislative consensus in this new era, one step at a time.

The American public clearly sees the distinction between Congress' approach and that of President Obama. A Pollster.com compendium of national surveys indicates that 70 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of President Obama and 63 percent approve of his performance. By contrast, only 17 percent approve of the job Congress is doing, while 78 percent disapprove. More to the point, in a recent Rasmussen Reports survey, a plurality (42 percent) perceives Obama to be governing in a bipartisan manner. By contrast, only half that number believes the same of both congressional Democrats and Republicans (22 percent each).

Of course, there is a way out. Unlike the social issues that dominated American politics during much of the last four decades, the economic and fiscal issues that are the current focus can be bridged with a non-ideological, post-partisan, and pragmatic approach recognizing that each side may have something to offer. If properly targeted, the tax cuts advocated by Republicans should be useful. If aimed at the right mix of projects, the Democratic spending proposals should help the economy in the short run and provide the conditions for growth in the long run. Keeping people in their homes, as both parties seem to advocate, will help families, neighborhoods, and society.

In short, as Rob Shapiro points out the recovery package can be "a useful first step, and one for which NDN has long argued."

Unlike their legislative representatives, the public has moved on from the cultural wars of the last decade. In a late January Pew survey, more than eight in 10 named the economy (85 percent and jobs (82 percent) as top policy priorities for the federal government, significantly above the numbers saying this about any other issue. In a January Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, only seven percent cited "social issues" as an area on which government should focus compared to 21 percent who cited such cultural issues a decade ago. Paul Helmke, The Republican former mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana, summed up the historical nature of the shift, telling Naftali Bendavid of the Wall Street Journal, that in a time of war and financial crisis, "people tend to focus on pragmatic issues rather than what the framers meant in 1789."

Throughout our history, major transformations or civic realignments have occurred at a time of intense national crisis that threatens the viability or even existence of the Republic. One such crisis occurred in the mid-19th century when the nation, led by Abraham Lincoln, overcame secession and a civil war to preserve the Union and end the moral blight of slavery. Another took place in the 1930s as America, spurred by Franklin D. Roosevelt, created the governmental institutions that allowed it to overcome the greatest economic downturn in its history and later to overcome the threats of fascism and communism.

The makeovers stemming from these crises change almost everything about U.S. government and politics -- voting alignments, public policy, and the rules by which politicians are expected to act and are judged by the American people (as we recently wrote in our essay, New Rules for a New Era). In the idealist periods before these civic realignments political figures more often than not act as moralists bent on the uncompromising advancement of ideological positions across virtually every policy concern--economic, international, and cultural -- and, more often than not, the public applauds and rewards this behavior. But, after civic realignments, faced with overwhelming and severely threatening crisis, the behavioral expectations and evaluative standards of politicians are altered. The public wants politicians to work across party and institutional lines on a non-ideological basis to produce pragmatic policies that deal with the crisis facing the nation. It's time for the House and Senate to follow the lead of President Obama and the American people and adopt new rules for a new era.

Cross-posted at the NDN blog.