Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Political Winds

Apart from the apparently growing anti-incumbent trend--which has been building for at least a decade--there are a few other political wrinkles to note.

1. The defeat of veteran and very conservative Senator Bob Bennett of the very conservative state of Utah by presumably even more conservative GOPers backed by Tea Partiers was prompted, some say, by Bennett having worked with Democrats on a few legislative items. Is there going to be more of this extreme ideological purity? Yes. I think the theory of absolute oppositionism among GOPers in Congress is based on the idea that (as a NY Times poll indicated) voters identifying themselves as conservatives is the highest ever (38%) but identifying themselves as GOPers is very low (in the 20s%.) The theory is that the self-identified conservatives are Tea Party ideologues, and oppositionism is needed to bring them into the GOP. That's probably not reality-based but it does seem to be the operative GOPer strategy.

How it plays out politically remains to be seen. But if it is successful enough, it is not a trend that permits effective governing, by anybody. The Dems are likely to lose seats in Congress, and if they retain majorities it may not be by much. It might be a good time for voters to use their imaginations, and picture what absolute unyielding gridlock looks like in a time of mounting peril, before the federal government gets locked into it for two years or more. But that requires imagination to trump emotion, projection, denial etc., not usually a good bet. It did work in 2008, though.

To this trend of hardened extremes, there are however a few other interesting counter-developments.

2. President Obama's nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court has upset ideologues on both sides. Yet a discussion among legal experts who know her on the PBS News Hour suggests she has excellent personal and legal qualifications to be an effective Justice immediately. These folks have no doubt that her views are progressive. But the appointment is yet another indication of Obama's stubborn insistence on effective governance. (And yes, on ideological grounds, I would have preferred Diane Wood.)

And these two odd events, the significance of which remain to be seen, but they have a common element: the unlikely cooperation of opposites.

3. For the first time in the Obama Presidency, a substantive bill passed the Senate with bipartisan unanimity, by 96-0. And whose bill was this? Which Senator from the mushy middle could convince colleagues on both sides? None. The bill was a strong oversight bill to audit the Federal Reserve, force it to divulge the names of banks and other institutions it lended to during the economic emergency. The sponsor was the Senate's only professed Socialist and a party of one: Bernie Sanders. Moreover, a similar bill passed the House, sponsored by one of its most outspoken liberal Dems (Alan Grayson) and the libertarian GOPer Ron Paul.

4. Finally, the UK has a new government, comprised of a Tory (Conservative) Prime Minister and a Liberal Dem #2. Both made statements expressing their determination to put aside differences to work together for the good of the nation, currently in its own fiscal crisis. All I really knew about this election was that people at the BBC were really worried they would face massive cuts if the Tories took over from Labour. How this all plays out remains to be seen, and will be especially interesting in a country where the ideological difference between extremes is far smaller than in the U.S., and the culture of fact-based governance is greater.

But these last two suggest the possibility that effective governance can occur from the extremes, rather than from the middle. A novel concept, to say the least. And hardly a proven one. Stay tuned.

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