When Politics Becomes the Game
by Heather Taylor-Miesle NRDC Action Fund, Thu May 03, 2012 at 02:49:02 PM EDT
The NRDC Action Fund just released a book called Reckless about the House Republican majority that cast more than 200 votes against environmental safeguards last year. We aren’t the only ones dismayed by the rise in GOP extremism. Republican leaders are too.
This week, two esteemed conservative thinkers published a must-read op-ed in the Washington Post entitled, “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem.” Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote:
“The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Mann and Ornstein are no lightweight centrists; they are the Republicans of the Republicans. If they see fault in their party’s lurch to the far right, then you know things have gotten out of hand.
Their piece made me realize just how many lawmakers seem to have forgotten why they serve. This is true of Republicans and Democrats alike, but the Republicans have cast themselves as the Party of No and made the defeat of the other side their primary goal. No one actually wins this kind of game. Instead, we end up with one big loser: the American people.
Citizens send lawmakers to Washington to govern, not to play chicken. GOP’s obstructionism may score points with their base, but it prevents Members from actually doing the work of government and administering the public’s shared resources including roads, schools, clean air and water.
Most of the public servants I know—from Hill staffers to PTA presidents—pursue their line of work because they want to make things better. Politicians who see victory in paralysis seem to have lost sight of that goal. They have become like the young boy who dreams of playing in the NBA, but gets so focused on the machinations of what it takes to make it that he loses his love of the game. I get it. Institutions like Congress can grind people down. But that’s why we need leaders to stand up and offer inspiration—not nay saying.
The proliferation of negative ads is a symptom of this larger trend. Every political operative will tell you: campaigns use negative messages because they work. They lodge in people’s minds and deliver votes. But here is what’s different this year: PAC money. A new post by Paul Blumenthal includes some stunning statistics:
“While spending in support of one candidate nearly doubled from $19.14 million in 2008 to $36.59 million in 2012, spending against other candidates by independent groups exploded by 680 percent, from only $6.97 million in 2008 to $47.28 million in 2012.”
PACs are fueling the antagonism of an already polarized election cycle. When my two children are fighting, I don’t step in and raise the heat by saying: “Son, don’t you remember how your sister stole your ball? Or “Honey, he hit you first, didn’t he?” The PACs are the equivalent of a mother reminding her children why they hate each. If you stand in the way, you will never find resolution.
Then again, some companies behind the PACs don’t want resolution. Bloomberg News recently reported that 81 percent of anti-Obama ads focus on energy. Americans for Prosperity—a group supported by oil companies—spent more $16.7 million between January and March on negative ads attacking Obama’s energy policies.
Oil companies benefit from a paralyzed political landscape. If Congress can’t pass any laws, then companies don’t have to clean up their pollution, invest in low-carbon technologies, or give up their generous tax breaks. The American people, however, are stuck with the dirty air, the extreme weather events, and the wind turbine factories moving to China.
Candidates who make clean energy a central part of their platform can correct that imbalance. Clean energy is about job creation, competitive advantage, clean air, health families, and keeping our troops out of harm’s way. It’s about building things, not destroying them.
That’s what makes it a powerful antidote to current political antagonism. Lawmakers may debate the best way to promote clean energy or confront climate change, but the fact remains that expanding the clean economy will benefit America. Isn’t that why lawmakers serve in the first place?