Sunday, September 18, 2011

Playing the Blame Game: Identifying Where the Buck Stops

Talking in Raleigh, North Carolina today, President Barack Obama repeated the phrase "pass this bill now!" 24 times. The other day in Ohio he used it 18 times. Perhaps this is an apt strategy, because the bill itself appears mighty repetitive to me!!! But in all seriousness, the President isn't really that passionate about this particular bill. Of course, he thinks it will help improve things, and Republicans think it won't, but that's hardly relevant anymore. He isn't positive that it will have an enormous impact immediately, and he doesn't think delay in passing it will damage the economy any more than it's already damaged (after all, he took his sweet old time proposing it, waiting to deliver his speech until he got back from his vacation this August). Rather, he's hoping he can point to the inevitable delay in passing it as the cause of what's damaged the economy.

The President's strategy is to pass the blame. Right now, he's being blamed for everything. The country is in the shitter, and it's too late to keep blaming Bush. The electorate is still angry, and they need a new scapegoat. For the past two years, Republicans have successfully made that scapegoat Obama; if he wants to keep the presidency, he needs to pass the blame back to them. He is desperate for some ammunition to shoot back. Ever since the debt ceiling debates this spring, the artillery he prefers is talk of divisiveness, delay, political games, and partisan motivations. So if he wants a place to point his finger, he needs to engender some more of it! Since the Republicans have the House majority, the bill will require Republican support to pass. Obama knows that's the last thing he's likely to get, no matter how politely he asks. Why? Because if they latch on to his agenda, they can't blame him for the perceived results of his agenda. Obama knows this as well as anyone. He's not pleading with Republicans to pass the bill in emails and private correspondence filled with sound arguments and reconciliatory gestures. Rather, he's doing it publicly, in speeches full of rhetoric and warnings about what will happen if you don't. Each time he urges them to pass the bill on TV, he's actually urging viewers to "look at how they're stopping me from passing the bill!" so he can portray the status of the country as a result of their stalling instead of the result of the policies he's already enacted.

This isn't a new strategy. In fact, for the past 9 years, this has been the prevailing strategy in Washington on both sides; whichever party doesn't control the White House blames all the country's woes on the Party that does, even if that Party doesn't control Congress or even the Supreme Court. This strategy can very effective, but only when the country's in bad times. In bad times, if voters are made to choose between "the way things are now, and a change" in the presidential election, they'll always pick the change. But in good times, they'll always vote for the status quo, because it's not as risky. So in good times, politicians aren't anywhere near as divisive, because both want a piece of the credit. From 1996-2002, the parties both preached bipartisanship and moderation, because the country was doing well. The tech boom happened. The stock market was thriving. 9/11, as horrible as it was, brought the country together and invited foreign sympathy; it was a problem that neither party was to blame for, and therefore a problem they could address together. That was the lesson of the 90's, that whichever side portrayed themselves as closer to the middle would win, because radicals smelled of change, and change was dangerous. Bush Sr., Clinton, and W. Bush were not hard-party-line people, and they were successful. In contrast, Gingrich, Hillary, Gore, and the Republican ideologues of the 1994 elections soon alienated people, making them toxic assets.

But then a funny thing happened. 2002 came along, and the Republicans trounced Democrats in the elections. Bush was popular. Bush was taking a stand against the bad guys, and therefore his party was assumed to be the good guys. Even though Democrats were cooperating with the plan and working alongside Republicans, they weren't rewarded for this at the polls. So they changed strategy and changed their tone; suddenly, they pointed to everything bad Bush was doing, instead of everything good they themselves had accomplished under Clinton. They played the blame game. They threw everything they had at Bush, and by 2006 they controlled congress. Two years later, under rhetoric of "change", they took the White House. Their strategy had worked; not for the country, but for them. And Republicans learned the same thing, devoting the next 3 years to attacking anything and everything Obama in the most partisan way possible. That the parties have ideological disagreements is true, but that they can't afford to agree in bad times is an even more powerful motivator.

This is a problem. So who's to blame for this problem of giving blame? Honestly, the real blame lies more on American voters than anyone else. The practice of associating results exclusively with the presidency is widespread, and it's illogical. Policy isn't determined by the president alone. The whole purpose of a government with a system of checks and balances is that no one branch gets control over the direction of the country. Therefore, no one branch should be accountable for the direction of the country. The electorate can't seem to understand that. This logic of "times were good under Clinton, and bad under Bush, so therefore Clinton and what he advocated must be superior to Bush and what he advocated" is absurd, yet pervasive. We need a change in mindset. We need to evaluate the effects of policies themselves, rather than the effects of certain parties having various levels of power. So long as we do the latter, both parties will continue to play this silly, predictable blame game in which it matters much more who's proposing it than what's being proposed.

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