Matt Miller - The Archives
A grim vision of 2012 and more gridlock
The Washington Post, August 25, 2010

I wish I could say "I have a dream," what with the anniversary of Dr. King's famous speech coming this weekend. But it's more like a grim vision. A vision of nearly zero progress on the major challenges facing the country between Wednesday, November 3, 2010 and January 20, 2013.

Call it a chronicle of gridlock foretold. Here's the chain of logic. It seems clear that Republicans are poised to make big gains in the midterm elections. Not thanks to their soaring vision for the country, mind you—the public's view of the Republican Party is at one of its lowest points, according to recent polls—but because the Obama administration hasn't produced enough jobs and growth.

It seems equally certain that Republicans will over-interpret their victory as a call for "more of the same" in the run-up to 2012. In this case, "more of the same" means relentless Obama-bashing, an invocation of tax cuts as the answer to any woe, a refusal to offer plans that add up or cohere, and in general the kind of vacuous but politically effective maneuvering of an "out" party on the scent of getting back "in."

To be sure, there will be a responsible GOP voice or two insisting on something more substantive. But so long as Republicans hold just the House, or, perhaps better for them, if they simply narrow the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate without actually winning power (and responsibility) in either, negativity and obstruction will prevail. It's like the laws of physics, or gravity—behavior baked into the nature of things as the surest route to power in 2012.

What about the Democrats? Chastened by big losses on Nov. 3, they will begin their orgy of recriminations and finger-pointing the next day. The charges will be contradictory and self-serving, as is always the case during party meltdowns. "Obama wasn't progressive enough." "Obama governed too much from the left." You can script the shout-fest on MSNBC already.

The question mark is the president. He's famously (and admirably) allergic to "small ball." But, as reality sinks in, he'll probably come to terms with what Bill Clinton had to accept after his own midterm blowout. The affirmative phase of his presidency will be over. All resources must be marshaled for victory in 2012. With luck, Obama will reckon, there will be license to think big again come 2013. In the meantime, it'll be time for the mandatory White House shake-up, the news conference in which Obama explains that he "gets it," the public call to Republicans to make progress together and the private plotting to bury them.

Bottom line? We're looking at two years of posturing with an eye to 2012, with next to nothing being done to renew American competitiveness, rescue the middle class or [insert your favorite neglected agenda item here].

Remember how we moaned that the incentives facing Wall Street led bankers to run risks that made them rich even as they wrecked the economy? Turns out the incentives facing politicians don't serve us well, either.

Winning is a politician's first duty. But what it takes to win political power bears no relationship to actually solving public problems. Etch this in stone somewhere. Our problem is that simple—and that complicated.

Meanwhile, as we dither for another two years, China will boost wages and invest in clean energy. Singapore will get even more efficient. Finland will keep educating kids fabulously in ways that prepare them to take jobs American parents once assumed were their children's birthright.

At this point in any soliloquy on gridlock, someone like me wishes wistfully for a parliamentary form of government, so that when a party wins, it actually gets to enact its agenda and then gets to be held accountable by voters. Conservatives usually reply that the "genius" of America's system is that it's hard to make anything happen. Well, "genius" is one word for it. But I suspect this kind of genius is no longer useful, in a Darwinian sense, to ensure that America flourishes. It's not that we're no longer the "fittest." We're not really fit at all.

Martin Wolf, the author and Financial Times columnist, has a great line about the competitive advantage of a nation in a global era being not its natural resources or even its people but, ultimately, the quality of its governance—because everything else depends on this. Can anyone on that metric boast "we're No. 1"?

I hope I'm wrong about this. By nature I'm a cockeyed optimist. My wife thinks it's a high-serotonin issue. Come November, I may need some new meds.