Updated: August 20, 2013 6:31AM
It’s no surprise the latest Gallup Poll finds only 15 percent of Americans approve the work of Congress. This “dismal” rating, as Gallup put it, has been consistent for some time now. But Americans seeking an explanation for the poor job performance of our national lawmakers might look in the mirror.
The makeup of Congress represents the polarized views of we the people. Voters increasingly congregate in places where their politics are shared — blue states get bluer and red ones shine a brighter red. Gerrymandering of congressional districts exaggerates this trend.
The result is fewer moderate Democrats and Republicans in
the Senate. No wonder so little gets done.
Consider this: Liz Cheney, a rising star on the right and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, is challenging incumbent GOP Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming in next year’s primary, accusing him of “cutting deals” with liberals. Enzi has a lifetime ranking of 92 from the American Conservative Union. Recall that Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000, only a few years later was deemed insufficiently liberal by Connecticut’s Democrats when he ran for re-election in 2006 and ultimately had to win on a third-party ticket though he remained a registered Democrat. After that term, Lieberman retired.
Hard lines are even harder in the House. Only 16 of the 234 Republicans in the GOP-controlled House come from districts won by President Barack Obama in 2012. Yet as recently as 2008 Democrats won a commanding majority in the House. That victory came thanks to blue dog Democrats from right-leaning districts. They were sacrificed, and with them the Democratic majority, when then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led Democrats over the cliff passing a liberal agenda out of touch with the moderate congressional districts.
Illinois once was a swing state, now blue. Texas once sent a lot of Democrats to Washington, not so many any more.
Because statewide outcomes can be more volatile in swing states, it may be easier to shift control of the Senate than in the House. The fact that Democrats have to defend 21 seats and Republicans 14 raises GOP hopes of capturing the Senate next year.
One politician is elected by the nation as a whole and in a position to provide leadership to bridge the partisan divide — the president. Yet that kind of leadership has been lacking for more than a decade. President George W. Bush began his term working with the late liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy to pass the No Child Left Behind education law. The Sept. 11 terror attacks rallied the nation. But Bush, assuming the mantle of war president, squandered that unity by launching a war of choice in Iraq that at the start was opposed by significant minorities in both houses of Congress and later by a majority of Americans when the war descended into bloody chaos.
Obama won the White House in no small measure on a promise to change Washington’s cynical politics. But impressed by his own victory and the Democrats’ big majorities in both houses, Obama chose to push a left-wing agenda to transform American society — and ended up further polarizing the nation’s politics.
Americans are dividing into partisan camps and we don’t like how that paralyzes Congress. Only a unifying leader or an unexpected upheaval on one side will change that.