Boring Politics, Please

In a column last April that had a subtle but profound influence on the financial-regulation debate, Paul Krugman recalled that when he was in graduate school in the 1970s, "everyone knew that banking was, well, boring." Make it boring again, Krugman proposed, by eliminating the crazy risks, huge bonuses, and near meltdowns that have characterized Wall Street since the late 1980s.

I don't remember when banking was boring (mine was the generation of the original "greed is good" Wall Street, not the forthcoming sequel), but I do remember times when Washington was a lot more boring. And while politics should never be as boring as banking, it would be a good idea for politics, too, to dull things down a bit.

In the 12 years since the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, being interested in politics or lucky enough to write about it has been an endless, often terrifying thrill. We've witnessed a series of high-stakes gambles, all-or-nothing showdowns, frauds, and schemes for total power that look a lot like some of Wall Street's more hare-brained high-flying plays. There was Bush v. Gore, Karl Rove's plan for 30 years of Republican rule, Dick Cheney's hidden government, and the "nuclear option" -- not to mention the deceptions of the rush to war in Iraq, the endless state of emergency, and the wiretapping and other abuses of civil liberties after September 11. These schemes, like those of the bankers', created huge systemic risks to democratic government.

All those moves were by Republicans, but in response, progressives and Democrats developed their own sense of urgency and total commitment to victory in the 2006 congressional elections, and then again in the huge crusade that elected Barack Obama by a wide margin, the most fascinating electoral drama of my lifetime. Since the election, we've returned to winner-take-all battles: Legislative fights -- notably on health care -- quickly become showdowns over the very legitimacy of the administration and the Democratic majority. The Tea Party movement demands, "Give us our country back." Arthur Brooks, the mild-mannered academic who runs the American Enterprise Institute, recently wrote a book called The Battle in which he invites a "culture war" between the 70 percent of the country that loves free enterprise and the 30 percent that is socialist, hates free enterprise, and yet has somehow usurped power.

The consequences of this apocalyptic rhetoric and all-or-nothing politics fall on the rest of us when government can't act. But American politics hasn't always been like this. When our system works, it is with a dull, workmanlike sense of compromise and grudging respect both for the majority's mandate and the minority's right to participate in the process, along with the many other interests that complicate the process. When has it last been like that? Well, I remember the period between Clinton's re-election in 1996 and the beginning of his impeachment as being pretty boring -- and also productive. That's when the State Children's Health Insurance program was enacted, and an agreement that led to federal budget surpluses and near-full employment was reached.

The American political system wasn't built to handle showdowns, culture wars, crises of legitimacy, or bids for total power. In times when bitter legislative fights and ideological fissures stymie progress, one response is to try to change the system's very structure, perhaps to something more like a parliamentary process, so that a government with a majority is able to enact its agenda, while the minority steps into the background. Ending or reforming the Senate filibuster would be a small move in this direction.

Such structural changes, even small ones, are likely impossible and would have their own downsides. But even without them, there are signs of hope for boredom's return. Despite predictions of backlash, Democrats have won seven of eight special elections for House seats, and I'll predict here that the November election will not bring a massive wave of Republican victories. As in many other years, most of 2010's congressional races will be decided on local issues, with the economy always in the background, exactly as political scientists would predict. The Tea Party flame will flicker and die out, like every far-right craze before it, and the Republicans will slowly realize -- as they began to during the debate on financial regulation -- that not every issue can be fought like the Maginot Line. As Republicans' massive resistance gives way to grudging cooperation, Obama's unrelenting insistence that cooperation in government is possible will look less like an illusion, and we will move toward solving some of the country's pressing problems, along generally progressive lines.

And if we're lucky, we won't even notice because it will be, well, boring.

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