Richard Davey is wrong

There may indeed be such a thing as Democratic or Republican potholes.

In Sunday’s Globe, the Secretary of Transportation voiced optimism that a compromise in DC could be worked out to fund national transportation needs. He noted, “Tip O’Neill said it best: ‘There’s no such thing as a Democratic or Republican pothole.”

The piece by Noah Bierman was not formally a part of the Globe’s Broken City series, but it could have been.  That series takes us through the wasteland that is our current federal government.

I was reminded of how bad politics in Washington has become when I hosted former Senators Paul Kirk and Mo Cowan at Stonehill on Monday night.  Both lamented the state of affairs in DC, the pursuit of money and ideological zeal that has gripped our contemporary politics.  Senator Kirk, in particular, seemed despondent.  He recalled a conversation he had with a foreign observer who noted that while the US is still a global economic and military power, “Your government doesn’t work.”

Today’s Washington is about obstruction and Secretary Davey’s hope is, in the context of our Broken City, quaint.  It ain’t Tip O’Neill’s DC.

Take the small but powerful faction of the Republican party, the faction that has earned the ire of Speaker Boehner, is not a limited government conservative faction. It is an anti-government radical faction that has not, in the three years of its ascendancy, been interested in the type of pragmatic deal-making that was the hallmark of the O’Neill speakership or the Reagan presidency.

It’s not better in the Senate.  The shabby treatment shown to former Majority Leader Bob Dole and the defeat of an international treaty on disabilities at the hands of his own party is illustrative of a government that doesn’t work.

The barely concealed contempt that our Senator Majority and Minority Leaders seem to have for each other doesn’t help.  This isn’t Mike Mansfield and Hugh Scott.

In the Madisonian system of checks and balances with a multiplicity of interests represented in the Congress, one faction would not be the tail that wags the dog. But there exists much in our contemporary politics that Madison could not foresee: the development of party primaries that appeal to ideological extremes,  the rise of big money and the concomitant time commitment members of Congress devote to raising it, and the technological developments of the information age that have helped to crowd out the space of governing in favor of a permanent campaign.

Tip O’Neill’s time was not devoid of partisanship.  It was not the epitome of bipartisan bonhomie, despite the many claims made, wrongly, that if only President Obama and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could celebrate happy hour together, we’d return to the halcyon days of yore.

Still, there are differences. Take the idea of political compromise.

This particular art form is increasingly extinct.  Partisan warriors like O’Neill and Reagan simply would not recognize the broken city DC has become.  They would not hold in high esteem today’s leaders, who find virtue in castigating those engaged in pragmatic compromise.

Richard Davey is hopeful.  I’m not sure he has reason to be.  Our government doesn’t work.

About Peter Ubertaccio

Peter Ubertaccio is the Director of Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College in Easton and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science & International Studies. His work focuses on political parties, marketing and institutions. He received his Ph.D. in Politics from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Professor Ubertaccio and his family live on Cape Cod where he is on the Board of Directors of the OpenCape Corporation and the Sandwich Economic Initiative Corporation.
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