05/14/2012 10:27 am ET Updated Jul 14, 2012

Long Ago, When Politicians Put Governance First

A lifetime ago, Howard Baker, a Republican senator from Tennessee, and Edmund Muskie, a Democratic senator from Maine, drafted the Clean Air Act and got it passed into law.

Coming in at all of 38 pages, the 1970 law laid the foundation for the hard work, still incomplete, of keeping the air reasonably free of noxious gases, soot, and other unhealthy pollutants.

Could such a feat of legislative craftsmanship be repeated today? Pardon the cynical guffaws. Not in today's Congress, consumed as it is by partisan one-upmanship and maneuvering for the next electoral stop on the permanent campaign trail.

It's easy enough to blame members of Congress, whose approval ratings are stuck in the crawl space. Voters are rightfully fed up with a bickering bunch that seems to lack the maturity God gave 8-year-olds to get along, share their toys, and work out their differences.

Yet every time voters throw the bums out -- firing Republicans in 2006, firing Democrats in 2010 -- the dynamic remains the same. Indeed, Congress watchers fear matters will only get worse, regardless of who wields the gavels when the 113th Congress convenes next January.

Which means there is more to the story than grimy politicians playing games. The Baker-Muskie achievement was based on a set of circumstances that no longer exists.

In their day, the media wasn't fractured into prejudice-reinforcing echo chambers where partisans and pundits breathe each other's exhaust.

Political campaigns didn't cost as much, so candidates weren't forced to spend so much time calling up donors who usually want more for their money than good government.

The Capitol wasn't swarming with so many pledge-happy organizations demanding complete obeisance to their contradictory agendas and prepared to make life miserable for politicians who don't go along.

As Baker said in a 2005 speech: "It was easier to be a leader and less important to be a follower."

Charles Mahtesian, Politico's national political editor, wrote on May 1 that today, extremists rule the roost and set the agenda. "The ideological middle is a political no-man's land," Mahtesian wrote.

Meaning, there is no place for a center-right senator like Baker to work up a mainstream clean air bill with a center-left senator like Muskie through good-faith negotiations. Both parties have become far more ideologically uniform. Factions talk past each other, unable to agree on common sets of facts, let alone on compromise solutions.

Purity is the new political correctness. Politicians can't win. The more they try to please purity-obsessed ideologues, the more the ideologues move the goal posts and demand tighter fealty to their all-or-nothing agendas. Never mind that governance by litmus test can't work in a diverse, highly complex society. The shouters' message is, it's better to be right than to be effective.

Can't say we weren't warned. In 1964, a prominent Republican governor warned: "Dogmatic ideological parties tend to splinter the political and social fabric of a nation, lead to governmental crises and deadlocks, and stymie the compromises so often necessary to preserve freedom and achieve progress."

That governor's name was George Romney.