Politics to a child
There's a line from the president's speech last night that I've not been able to get out of my head. It comes in the section about Christina Taylor Green, the 9-year-old who was killed last Saturday in Tucson. "She was off to meet her congresswoman," Obama said, "someone she was sure was good and important."
"Good and important." Those are oddly simple words for a speech like this. But they're exactly the words you can imagine a 9-year-old using if her teacher asked her to describe a member of Congress. "She saw all this through the eyes of a child," the president continued, "undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted."
When I give talks around the country, I often describe Congress as a "cynicism machine." The legislative process takes solutions that people are excited about and grinds them down into policies that people are confused by and afraid of. We go to the government with our problems, with the things that scare us, and we leave with more fear and less hope.
And it's not because the language on the page changes so dramatically. It's because the process is so ugly. During health-care reform, Republicans liked to say that they agreed with about 80 percent of what was in the bill. But you don't win elections by trumpeting 80 percent agreement, and you don't sell advertisements by leading the evening news with a special report on how there's still broad consensus that insurers shouldn't discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions. The voices that get heard are not the ones calmly discussing the legislation. Instead, we're like a kid running his tongue over a sore tooth over and over and over again. We just keep poking ourselves where it hurts, where there's a seam, where we're scared.
Consider this exchange (pdf) from a recent debate that former-Rep. John Shadegg participated in over the Affordable Care Act. During the introductions, the moderator, ABC's John Donvan, noted that Shadegg had referred to the health-care law as "Soviet-style gulag health care." Did he still stand by that?
John Shadegg: No. I think that it is a -- it is a part of the dialogue that you try to get attention. And that was an attempt to gather some attention.
And Shadegg got a lot of coverage for that comment, despite the fact that everyone knew it was absurd. Try explaining that to a 9-year-old.
But what's funny is that I don't think the 9-year-olds are totally wrong. I've met a lot of members of Congress, and I do think most of them are good, or at least are trying to be. Serving in Congress is actually a sort of crummy life: You live in a small apartment, you spend most of your time missing your family, you're constantly in airports, and when you do get home you barely have time to see your kids because you're running to meet with constituents. It's a grind. And -- this is where kids and adults alike overestimate politicians -- you're not that important. No one cares about the speech you just gave or the amendments you just proposed. The media generally doesn't pay attention unless you become part of a controversy, or say something dumb. You have to do what your leadership tells you. You get yelled at a lot. Most of the people who stick with the job stick with it because they believe they're doing some good in the world.
But when the public looks at them, they don't see it. Sen. Evan Bayh once told me that "we've got good people trapped in a dysfunctional system." I still think he's right about that. The individuals are trying hard, but the whole is a lot uglier than the sum of the parts. At some point, however, it's up to them to change that. The problem is, no one member of Congress, and no one party, has much incentive to start.
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