Originally Published on The National Interest, on 2/22/2013
If you believe that the consensus of the pundits can be wrong, please read on. Washington is not so much gridlocked as it is subject to a string of conservative victories in foreign policy, homeland protection, economic policy and the courts, as well as changes to the rules of the game (except in cultural matters, such as gay marriage and family law).
Gridlock exists when party A wants to move east and party B seeks to move west. Hence nothing budges. However, when party A wants to move east and party B wants to stay put, and there is little movement, what seems like gridlock is in effect a victory for party B. That the last Congress enacted fewer laws and considered fewer bills than any other on record, often seen as a sign of gridlock, actually reflects the conservative thesis that the government that does less, does best.
On foreign policy it is almost a cliché to note that Obama has so far mainly followed policies similar to those of the second Bush Administration. It continued the neoconservative nation-building effort in Afghanistan and interpreted the 2001 AUMF (Authorization for the Use of Military Force) broadly, to mean that the United States could “act as though it were in an armed conflict in every part of the globe wherever a terrorist might be found.” This served to justify its extensive use of drones, which has been much increased over the last four years despite liberal criticisms. Moreover, Obama is the first U.S. president to authorize the targeted killing of an American citizen overseas. True, the administration put an end to enhanced interrogation, but it was prevented from closing Gitmo and from trying most terrorists in civilian courts. There is no sign that Secretary of State John Kerry plans to change course on any of these fronts.
Whether President Obama will succeed in extending gun control remains to be seen. For his efforts over the last four years he received an “F” rating from the liberal Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence on issues related to background checks, closing the gun show loophole, gun trafficking, guns in public and the federal assault-weapons ban. The Obama administration has deported record numbers of illegal immigrants. Bush-era domestic surveillance practices were continued under an extension of the Patriot Act in 2011.
On the economic front, the Obama administration temporarily extended all of the Bush tax cuts in 2010, and recently extended them—permanently—for more than 98 percent of all Americans. While liberals sought to treat income from capital gains and dividends as ordinary income (from labor), at 39.6 percent, Congress enacted and Obama signed into law only a small increase in these rates (from 15 to 20 percent)—and only for those earning more than $400,000.
Obamacare, widely considered the administration’s greatest liberal victory, was proposed without even granting a hearing to the preferred liberal option of a single-payer system, and the moderate Medicare buy-in scheme (the “public option”) was quickly dropped in the face of conservative opposition. The law’s key component, the individual mandate, was originally proposed by the conservative Heritage Foundation and then implemented in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney. Conservatives, which practically all elected Republicans are, with at least tacit support from select conservative Democrats, also changed the rules of the game, through their much-extended use of the filibuster.
The Supreme Court, which disappointed conservatives by upholding Obamacare, otherwise advanced major conservative causes. Citizens United ruled that corporations and rich individuals can inject unlimited amounts of money into elections. District of Columbia v. Heller deviated from all precedent by interpreting the Second Amendment as an individualized right to bear arms rather than that of a “well regulated militia.”
All this comes as a surprise only if one thinks about American politics in terms of Republicans versus Democrats. In these terms, the Democrats have an advantage (more voters identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans), and gained 53 percent of the popular vote in the last election. However, if one thinks in terms of conservatives and liberals, one finds that (a) for the last twenty years, for every liberal voter there have been two conservative ones, and (b) while most GOP elected officials are conservatives, so are at least a third of the Democrats in Congress. No wonder liberal policies often not only fail—but are not even granted a hearing, indeed often are not even brought up. In short, the much-maligned Congress is in fact expressing the will of the majority of the electorate, which wants less Washington and does not favor liberal policies.
I am not saying all is well in Washington. One wishes Congress could get to where it is going—or decide not to go—more expeditiously, and I do believe there is too much private money flowing into politics. I also wonder why the majority of the people hold that the nation is going in the wrong direction given that Congress is in fact heeding the preferences of the majority. But to argue that Washington is dysfunctional—when it follows its master’s voice—is to misplace the blame. If the voters want Washington to follow a different course, they better give it different directions.
Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Rgoogin. CC BY-SA 3.0.