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Posted at 10:58 AM ET, 01/13/2011

Politics to a child

By Ezra Klein

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.

By Ezra Klein  | January 13, 2011; 10:58 AM ET
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Yeap. In fact, did you know that Currently, many insurance companies do not allow adult children to remain on their parents' plan once they reach 19. Companies cannot do that any more. Search onilne for "Wise Health Insurance" and you can insure your kids if you are in the same boat.

Posted by: terryjobe | January 13, 2011 11:17 AM | Report abuse

Unlike many of the dysfunctions you chronicle, this one isn't unique to America. It seems pretty universal that people think their own job is complex, nuanced and requires great skill, but everyone else's job could be done by a semi-trained monkey wearing boxing gloves.

Given that politicians don't instantly solve the country's problems using the straightforward approaches put forward by the speaker, the only conclusion must be either that they are terminally incompetent, or they are incorrigibly venal, or they are vessels for some deepwer evil - or some combination of all three.

And so the human journey from darkness into darkness continues...

Posted by: vagueofgodalming | January 13, 2011 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Well, congressmen could start by reminding themselves everyday that they are there to actually solve problems and do the people's business. Not amass power and reward their campaign contributors.

Your example about Shadegg was revolting. He knew it was wrong, but he said it anyway. Anything to get a little traction with the press. In my mind that disqualifies him for office. He was willing to completely distort the debate over a very serious problem - all to score a few political points. Can't let Obama and the dems have a "victory." What a complete jerk. Seriously. What's completely lost is what's best for the american public.

Posted by: lcrider1 | January 13, 2011 12:21 PM | Report abuse

I would agree with Mr. Klein's conclusions. In business, you find the same thing where individuals try to add their "value" to relatively simple problems and needed decisions.

I would disagree with his interpretation of cynicism. Generally cynics are seen as very pessimistic people, seeing only the worst of the situation. However, research shows optimism and pessimism are at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum; one's interpretation overly good, the other overly bad. The cynics however analysis was more dead-on than either. A small peeve, but we should have more cynics who can see the situation clearly.

Posted by: Darsan54 | January 13, 2011 12:22 PM | Report abuse

when my oldest son was very young, we lived in a very urban area, and in a densely populated, middle-income project.
we always had congressional folks and assemblypeople...on our street-corner, passing out literature.
i always took my son to speak with them, and to get their autograph.
when he was young, my mantra with him, was to"grow up to be part of the solution, not part of the problem."
there were always firefighters, policemen in our area...many community members doing good work, visibly, everyday.
my son truly grew up to believe that if you did good work, you could make a difference.
the words i tried to leave him with each day, were....
"you can make the world a better place."
today, he does extremely important work in environmental justice, and affects legislation for many people....and fights very hard battles, and wins many of them.
i believe those words paid off....
"be part of the solution. not part of the problem.
get a good to do good, and let your fortune be measured in that way.
make the world a better place."
children need to be able to believe in the role models around them. furthermore, they want to believe that the people they look up to, are doing the right thing for them.
for the most part, they grow up in public schools, playing together, for the most part....working together....and many are involved in community projects, recycling, food drives....many worthwhile things....and learning new things, each day., in a system where there are many good and caring teachers.
we must do everything we can to speak with uplifting words, and lead by example, where our children are concerned.
if you tell them they can make a difference,
they will really believe you.
if you tell them that there are good people in the world, working to make the world better for them,
they want to believe that, too.
trees always grow toward the light, and in darkness, they wont thrive at all.
president obama's words were so poignant and meaningful last night.
we need to stay on the highest ground, for the sake of our children... and employ words and actions that bring light, kindness, compassion for others, hope, activism, respect for knowledge and wisdom, and a sense of accountability and social responsibility into their lives.

Posted by: jkaren | January 13, 2011 12:24 PM | Report abuse

From the book "__ ________ _____ (1)"

The basis of any democracy is justice. During the last half of the 18th century, the Americans didn’t rebel against the British Empire because they didn’t like the British flag, they rebelled because they thought they weren’t being treated fairly. Often the individuals of a society undervalue the importance of having a well-managed and efficient judicial system. Societies proclaim openly the technological advances of their individuals, but frequently they lack the will to accommodate those advances in their justice system; or their justice system is unable to keep up with new social developments. Either way, the result is that justice falls behind the necessities of the people due to excessive confidence and an ingenuous placement of limitations. When that happens, the pillars that sustain a democracy can fall and people can rebel, producing the consequent social unrest.

Posted by: kanino | January 13, 2011 12:30 PM | Report abuse

"And so the human journey from darkness into darkness continues..."

no. that would be your individual choice, to move into darkness, or into light.
"what a man thinks, is what he becomes."
it is actually up to every single individual, to bring light into the world. and to keep that as their highest spiritual practice everyday, in spite of our human frailties.
martin buber wrote that the most important place for you to do work in the world is where you find yourself standing.
it is up to you, and to each one of us, to examine our daily lives....and to decide if our role in the human journey is to move from darkness to darkness....or from darkness to light.

that is something for each of us to consider, as it relates to our place in the world.
we should think less about what others are doing,
and more about what we are doing, as we live out each day.
that is a good place to start.

Posted by: jkaren | January 13, 2011 12:33 PM | Report abuse

That's probably all true, but we have to remember that the system is dysfunctional because the people involved in it prefer it that way. Are they tired of constantly being in airports on the way to or from fundraisers? Public financing is only a vote away. Are they tired of being meaningless ciphers in a party machine? There are far more cipher votes than there are leadership votes. Do they think the media should pay more attention to policy and less to outrageous rhetoric, stunts, or ethical blunders? More policy discussions and fewer stunts are well within their control. The media can't report on that which doesn't happen. And who, after all, is in control of the ethical process? The only reason it doesn't work is because they don't want it to work as it would limit the unethical things they themselves want to do.

I'm sorry, you may think they are good people trapped in a bad system. I don't. They made the system and they are the ones who could remake it but don't bother. This is the system they want. If it is bad, then that is a reflection on the character of those who run it.

Posted by: pj_camp | January 13, 2011 12:46 PM | Report abuse

"Well, congressmen could start by reminding themselves everyday that they are there to actually solve problems and do the people's business. Not amass power and reward their campaign contributors."

Is it possible these things are actually connected and complementary, not separate and contradictory?

Posted by: dollarwatcher | January 13, 2011 12:54 PM | Report abuse

I once feared apathy and ignorance as the downfall of a democracy, but I have come to the mind of late that it is basic goodness which will decide our fate.

I see many people I would call empathetic and informed that decide it is better to ignore reason and act selfishly.

The incentive for those that are good is to do good. Each individual is responsible for their actions and how they influence the environment in which they work. It's up to them whether they choose to respond to the media or the example of Christina Taylor Green. Paraphrasing John Kerry, they can go for a soundbyte or substance.

Posted by: ballpwh | January 13, 2011 2:34 PM | Report abuse

I think the contrast between a child's vision of what goes on and an adult's view goes to most elements of life and the world. It is sad or telling that this is so, but the fact is that the making of legislation is complex and contentious in the best of circumstances, and a nasty meanspirited partisan affair in the normal course of events. The loss of that poor child's very innocent life is a tragedy and an outrage that transcends any sheepishness we adults might feel about the sausage making aspects of much of life.

Posted by: bdballard | January 13, 2011 4:45 PM | Report abuse

I think the contrast between a child's vision of what goes on and an adult's view goes to most elements of life and the world. It is sad or telling that this is so, but the fact is that the making of legislation is complex and contentious in the best of circumstances, and a nasty meanspirited partisan affair in the normal course of events. The loss, the taking, of that poor child's very innocent life is a tragedy and an outrage that transcends any sheepishness we adults might feel about the sausage making aspects of much of life.

Posted by: bdballard | January 13, 2011 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, politics attracts those with the mind of a juvenile delinquent...and clearly some of them are elected.

Posted by: denim39 | January 13, 2011 4:54 PM | Report abuse

No . . . Congress and White House folks are NOT there primarily to solve problems. They are there to do the bidding of lobbyists who explain the needs of those who finance campaigns. Those who are not wealthy also need to pay heed to the benefactors who will provide their future employment when they leave the Congress or Administration.

Posted by: WisconsinReader | January 13, 2011 5:01 PM | Report abuse

the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Posted by: iculus | January 14, 2011 10:56 AM | Report abuse

jkaren is an insufferable pedant, and his (or her) son is a treehugging do-gooder whose actions are likely crippling the economic growth that is the only thing that has ever made life better for large numbers of people.

Posted by: reheiler | January 14, 2011 2:04 PM | Report abuse


I want to agree with the main point you made. I too have met many (local- and state-level) legislators and politicians, and regardless of their party affiliation, I think they tend to be, as you noted, well-intentioned, hard-working people who are indeed trying to do something good and worthwhile for their communities. It's a real shame that there so many people who are paid so much money to tear down "the other guys."

Posted by: MOmark | January 14, 2011 5:48 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Klein:
I'm sure members of the national legislature, senators and members of the house of representatives, believe that they deserve better than they have - nothing exceptional about Americans aspiring to greater riches and comfort. Nor is it unheard of that private parties seek wealth at the expense of their fellow citizens by virtue of government license issued in return for "campaign" donations and electoral support. All political parties and every ideological flavor that attains such powers usually seeks to exploit them.
However, it is unseemly to ask the general population, suffering record rates of unemployment, and looking forward to worse (e.g. "stagflation") as a result of the feckless efforts and malfeasance of their elected representatives, to sympathize with or feel sorry for these practiced "con artists". And it is an "infamnia" to attempt to hide the misdeeds of public officials in the grave of a child who died with the childish opinion that such officials are, in general, "good and important".

Posted by: ryan13 | January 14, 2011 7:29 PM | Report abuse

You write that the rain puddles comment feels cheap.

It did not feel cheap so much as disconnected but I think because he directed to those children listening while the rest was meant for their parents and others. I respected his attempt.

Posted by: gmfarrell | January 14, 2011 11:42 PM | Report abuse

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