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The Self Shelf: Romney remarks small part of systemic problem

Published: September 21, 2012
Section: Opinions


A few days ago, a tape was released of a United States presidential candidate, disavowing 47 percent of U.S. citizens as living beyond his help. This, however, did not strike me as particularly surprising.
Every once in a while, the shiny, populist veneer of our politicians fades for just a second and we get a glimpse of their true colors. These episodes of unexpected honesty are what we refer to as gaffes. What surprised me was not that Mitt Romney uttered such a line but rather the fact that he immediately owned up to it and tried to defend his sentiments.
A man running for the nation’s highest political office openly proclaimed that if elected, he would not be able to represent nearly half of his constituents. This unprecedented episode is just another trajedy in what has become the most polarized and pessimistic presidential campaign I have ever witnessed. How is it that United States politics came to this?
How did we get to the point where a presidential candidate feels comfortable enough in his constituency to openly proclaim that he does not care about those who do not have the means to support themselves? While I am sure that the true roots of this problem could be traced back to the founding of the country, I think this most recent trend of polarization began with Bush vs. Gore. I am referring to the Supreme Court case that handed George W. Bush the presidency as opposed to the presidential election, which on its own could not. One can debate the merits but a 5-4 decision on ideological grounds, in order to decide the presidency, does not appear as unbiased justice to the losing party.
Thus, when President Bush took office, he took office with a significant proportion of the population, especially liberal Democrats, viewing his presidency as at least somewhat illegitimate. This sentiment manifested itself in the first year or so of his presidency (the numerous attacks on the amount of vacation time he took comes to mind) before 9/11 momentarily united the country. Yet, as the war against the Taliban made way for the Iraq War, the angry minority manifested itself once more. The 2004 presidential election was closely contested and Bush won narrowly.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party had taken control of the Senate and the House of Representatives. It seemed that America was trending conservative. Yet the very vocal and fiercely polarized minority of frustrated liberals was coalescing into something more corporeal.  One can see this minority manifested in, for example, the runaway success of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a movie that accused Bush of everything from engineering election fraud in 2000 to protecting the Bin Laden family after 9/11. I find it quite difficult to imagine a similar movie coming out about the Clinton presidency in 1996 (although admittedly, it may have been far more interesting if it had). Additionally, one can see this minority manifested in the largest wave of anti-war protests in the United States since the Vietnam War.
Yet this polarization had and continues to have its most politically meaningful impact in the increasing usage of the filibuster. It appears to be common knowledge that the usage of the filibuster has become the norm in recent years but it was not always so. The filibuster was considered a technique that was only to be utilized in desperate measures. As Ezra Klein of The Washington Post pointed out, using a convenient graphic depicting the frequency of the usage of cloture in the past few decades (cloture refers to the parliamentary procedure for breaking a filibuster so an up or down vote on a bill can take place), the amount of times cloture is needed (and thus filibusters have taken place) has nearly doubled since 2006. This increase in filibusters is emblematic of the increase in polarization as it is the literal representation of a political system collapsing due to an inability to compromise. I would argue that much of this started with the anger of the left toward Bush v. Gore but in the end, it was the right wing that truly revolutionized the way in which the filibuster is used.
In the 2008 elections, the Grand Old Party lost control of both houses of Congress and the presidency. The Bush presidency was commonly referred to by both parties as a political debacle and the name of Karl Rove was essentially a political taboo. The Democrats had a historic and popular president with a strong mandate, a filibuster proof majority in the Senate, and a strong majority in the House of Representatives. The angry minority that had decried Bush v. Gore stood triumphant. The severe recession notwithstanding, the first few weeks after President Obama’s election-win seemed like the most politically calm days of the new millennium.
Yet there were occasional ripples that foreshadowed what was to come. Rush Limbaugh talked about his desire for Obama to fail. Right wing pundits chafed at the idea of having a so-called socialist agenda forced upon them. When Obama took office in January of 2009, his idealism ran into a steadily hardening pit of quicksand in the Republican Party. The stimulus was passed by an increasingly divided Congress—it was one of the last major bills that would be passed during President Obama’s first term. Yet it was the President’s pursuit of the heretofore impossible liberal dream of providing every American with health insurance that proved to be the utter undoing of any hope of bipartisanship. The battle over the health care policy was (arguably) won by the Democrats but at the cost of nearly everything else on their agenda.
The increase in filibusters that had started with the far left in the waning Bush years had increased substantially with the new Republican minority. At some point during these years, Congress simply started deciding whether bills were passable based on whether they could produce sixty votes in the senate, as opposed to a simple majority. The filibuster ceased to act as a tool of last resort and had instead become a formality.
The conservative movement reformed itself after the Bush years into a leaner, more libertarian version of its former self. The combination of this return to grassroots conservatism and the strong discontent with President Obama’s health care plan led to the formation of the tea party (there were other causes but I would argue that these were the most important). Similar to many grassroots movements, the tea party was not of the compromising disposition. On the other hand, unlike other grassroots parties, they were one of the main factors in delivering the House of Representatives to the Republicans in 2010.
At the beginning of the summer of 2011, the political climate was polarized between a Democratic Party that had just passed something as close to universal health care as the United States will see for some time, while the Republican Party had just dominated an election with its most libertarian platform in decades.
The recipe for disaster was complete; all that was needed was a relatively routine vote to raise the debt ceiling. This had happened many times under Bush and under Obama in the past. Yet the increasing national debt had become a matter of Republican concern due to the advent of the hawkish tea party. Such a clash of philosophies climaxed with the budget crisis of 2011, when Congress’ inability to get around a Republican filibuster-threat nearly destroyed the credit rating of the richest country in the world.
With this background in mind, the negative tone of the 2012 election makes sense.  The election is between a president who finds himself uniquely powerless before an intransigent Congress in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Obama is going negative because it is the only chance he has to win the election. The better question is why Romney is going negative. Could he not create a campaign based on the idea of a vision of a better America? And if he could, what would that vision be?  Romney has been careful to avoid such specifics but perhaps this leaked tape of his true sentiments speaks to these questions.
If Romney’s vision involves telling 47 percent of the country that he cannot truly help them, perhaps he has made the political calculation that it would be best for him to remain silent and simply attack Obama. After the tape was released, Romney pointed to a tape of Obama stating that he believed in the redistribution of wealth. Irrespective of whether these are the true ideologies of these candidates it appears that politics in the United States will continue to function as if this were the ideological distance between the views of the two main parties.
Regardless of who wins in 2012, increased polarization will likely continue to plague politics for the foreseeable future.