Divided government and partisan polarization have us stuck in a status quo that no one wants. Maybe we need fewer principled stands and more compromises.
For decades, Gallup has been asking people how satisfied they are with “the way things are going in the United States”. As you can see from the graph, results vary. Painting in broad strokes, most people were dissatisfied under President Carter, the country got increasingly more optimistic under Reagan, got discouraged again by Bush the First, were pretty happy by the final days of the Clinton administration, stayed happy for a while, and then became almost unanimously negative by the end of Bush the Second’s administration. Then the graph flattens out: There was an initial bump towards optimism when President Obama took office, but since then satisfaction has been running somewhere in the 20s. 
The last time a majority told Gallup they were satisfied was more than 12 years ago, around the time that we captured Saddam Hussein and thought the Iraq War might be over soon.
Ordinarily, you’d expect this level of dissatisfaction to lead to a series of throw-the-bums-out elections, but it hasn’t. Obama won a second term by nearly 5 million votes in 2012. Year after year in Congress, over 90% of incumbents get re-elected. President Obama’s approval rating is over 50%, and the candidate promising to continue most of his policies is far ahead in the polls. A handful of incumbent Republican senators are in trouble, but once again the majority of incumbents in both parties will return to Washington with the apparent mandate of their voters.
So we think things are screwed up, but we don’t seem to be taking it out on anybody in particular. Why not?
Neither party claims the status-quo. In a typical election year, the party in power tells us that things are going pretty well, while the party out of power says that things are bad and we need a change. So there’s a status-quo party and a change party.
The first step towards unraveling our current political mystery is to realize that neither party thinks it represents the status quo. Obama in 2012 didn’t run a stay-the-course campaign, and neither has Clinton in 2016.  Neither party’s congressional candidates are telling us that Congress is doing fine, so we should leave them in office to do more of it.
Both major-party presidential candidates talk extensively about the changes they want to make. Trump wants to scrap our trade deals, build a wall on the Mexican border, stop admitting immigrants and refugees from Muslim countries, cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy, reduce commitments to our NATO allies, get friendlier with Russia, repeal ObamaCare, repeal the Dodd-Frank rules on Wall Street, and reverse all of President Obama’s executive orders on climate change.
Clinton wants to raise the minimum wage, substantially increase spending on infrastructure, give undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, let students graduate from college debt-free, put more restrictions on Wall Street, increase taxes on the wealthy, reverse the Citizens United ruling, end mass incarceration of non-whites, expand and repair ObamaCare, and invest in sustainable energy sources.
So the paradox isn’t that a status-quo-hating electorate keeps voting for the status-quo party and rejecting the change party. It’s that we have two would-be change parties dominating different parts of a divided government. Neither can achieve its vision alone, but they also can’t work together on more-or-less anything. So on issue after issue, the country is stuck in a place that no one likes, but neither side can muster the power to move it somewhere else.
Let’s look at some examples.
No one wants millions of people to keep living in the United States without legal status. The usual estimate says there are about 11 million undocumented immigrants. They have to work under the table, possibly for less than minimum wage or in unsafe or unsanitary conditions — which drags down conditions for any legal worker who competes with them. They are afraid to call the cops if they witness or are the victims of a crime. They are afraid to go to the emergency room if they’re sick, so God help us if there’s an epidemic. They may or may not dare to send their kids to school.
This is a bad situation that neither party likes, but they can’t agree on what to do about it. Throw them all out? Legalize them? Just throw out the “bad hombres”? If you legalize them, can they become citizens or just residents? Will legalization encourage more people to come, or can we prevent that somehow?
Three years ago the Senate, after much wrangling, negotiated a bipartisan compromise and passed it 68-32. And that was the last official action taken. The House has not even held hearings on that bill or any alternative. No one has any idea when or how we might resolve this situation.
No one wants to keep anticipating the next government shutdown. Back in 1974, Congress laid out a sensible budget process that used to produce a product more-or-less on time every year.
Here’s how it’s supposed to work: Each year the executive branch puts together a budget, which the president submits to Congress by February. Congress then either edits or rewrites it and passes a budget resolution by April 15. The various congressional committees then know how much money they have to work with, so they write 12 separate appropriation bills that spell out the programs in more detail and authorize the Treasury to write checks. Congress passes those bills, maybe with some amendments. The President either signs or vetoes them; if he vetoes, he and the congressional leadership work out their differences promptly, so that all 12 bills get passed and signed in plenty of time for the fiscal year to start on October 1.
There hasn’t been a successful budget process in years. In 2013, the government shut down for a little over two weeks, and we’ve had “fiscal cliffs” and a series of other scary deadlines that usually get met with only hours to spare.
This year’s struggle was comparatively tame: Authorization to keep the lights on past October 1 got passed on September 29. But that wasn’t an annual budget; it just keeps things going until December, when the lame-duck Congress can do it all again.
Nothing is gained by this brinksmanship. Whatever numbers and programs come out of the December negotiations — assuming something does come out of it — could have been agreed to by the end of summer.
No one wants a perpetual budget deficit. Most economists understand that a budget deficit can be useful in shortening a recession or necessary when fighting a war. But no one believes that a large annual deficit should be a permanent feature of the federal budget.
The federal government’s trillion-dollar annual deficits between FY 2009 and FY 2012 were worrying, but maybe not unreasonable as long as they were temporary. By FY2015, the shortfall was down to $438 billion — a number that used to seem stratospheric, but by then looked like progress. But FY2016’s deficit increased to $587 billion and seems to be headed back up. CBO projections have it returning to the trillion-a-year altitude by FY2022. That’s the baseline, and doesn’t assume any extraordinary emergencies. If there’s another major recession or war, the numbers could be much higher.
No one argues that this is a good idea, but (like the mule who starves because he can’t decide which pile of hay to head towards) we are caught between two solutions and end up pursuing neither: Conservatives won’t agree to higher taxes, and liberals won’t agree to spending cuts without higher taxes. So nothing happens, and the deficits continue to build.
No one thinks Medicare is in good financial shape or wants it to go bankrupt. Healthcare inflation has been lower since the Affordable Care Act passed, but Medicare is still expected to run out of money in 2028, when I’ll turn 72. (The Social Security trust fund is expected to hit zero in 2034, but for a variety of reasons that fix should be easier.)
Medicare is an enormously popular program, because no one wants to see themselves or their parents face a choice between death and bankruptcy. And there are many ways to keep it going well past 2028: raise taxes, cut benefits, raise the age of eligibility, or fold it into a larger universal healthcare program with a new funding stream. But we can’t decide which way to go, so the bankruptcy clock continues to tick down.
No one wants to leave Supreme Court seats vacant. The Constitution describes a simple process: the President
shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for
Justice Scalia died in February, and his seat is still unfilled. President Obama nominated Merrick Garland in March. But the Senate has not seen fit to hold hearings or votes on his nomination, so no one has had to explain to the public why Garland should or shouldn’t be on the Supreme Court.
Senator McCain recently said that the Senate might continue refusing to fill the seat after the election, if Clinton wins. If Trump were to win and Democrats regained control of the Senate, they might feel that turnabout is fair play. So there’s no telling when that seat might be filled, or what will happen if some other justice dies or retires.
Without a new justice, the Court often has a 4-4 deadlock, which leaves lower court rulings intact but does not establish any new national precedents. The longer this goes on, the more issues there are on which the country has no official interpretation of its laws.
You may blame the Senate for not acting, blame President Obama for not nominating someone Senate Republicans like better, or blame both of them for letting their relationship reach this low point. But you can’t argue that this is a good practice or a good outcome.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea well enough to find your own examples.
How did the Republic last this long? When the Founders wrote the Constitution, they were mostly worried about tyranny, so they created a system of checks and balances that kept any one person from having too much power. To get anything done in the Founders’ system, a political leader either needs overwhelming support from the public or has to cooperate with leaders of other parties or factions.
As a result, backdoor deal-making and horse-trading goes back to the beginning of the Republic, as the Hamilton musical makes clear
No one really knows how the game is played,
the art of the trade,
how the sausage gets made.
We just assume that it happens,
but no one else is in the room where it happens.
Hamilton comes out of that room with the votes for his financial plan, and Jefferson gets the national capital located next to Virginia.
We’ve made deals like that all through our history. Henry Clay was known as “the Great Compromiser” for the ways that he kept the slavery issue from wrecking the country. (In retrospect, he delayed the Civil War by several decades.) Think about that: These days it’s an insult to call someone a “compromiser”. We’re all supposed to be people of firm principles, not compromisers — much less “great” ones.
When FDR was preparing the country to enter World War II, he didn’t try to run over Republican opposition, he appointed Republicans to be his War Secretary and Navy Secretary — and they accepted.
We’ve had a number of periods of divided government before, and presidents of both parties have worked amicably with congressional opposition leaders, like President Eisenhower with Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, and President Reagan with Tip O’Neill . The historic Clean Air Act of 1970 came out of President Nixon’s cooperation with an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress.
Traitors and the principle budget. The last such bipartisan pairing was President Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich, who managed to shrink the deficit to the point that Clinton could claim a surplus after Gingrich left office. Clinton ended his term not just with a budget surplus, but with low inflation, low unemployment, and the nation at relative peace.
President Bush and Speaker Pelosi never developed such a relationship. Neither did President Obama and Speaker Boehner or Speaker Ryan.
One reason Clinton/Gingrich was the last bipartisan power-pairing is that Clinton is remembered in some circles as having betrayed the Left. Betrayal is a word you hear a lot in our politics these days. Paul Ryan “betrays” conservatism every time he avoids a government shutdown. Bernie Sanders “betrayed” his movement by endorsing Hillary.
Principled, on the other hand, is an entirely good word. We all want to be principled. We admire the man or woman who takes a strong principled stand and refuses to be moved. If we have a choice between framing our positions as good ideas and framing them as principles of the highest order, we choose the later. It just feels stronger and purer.
Here’s the thing, though: We can’t afford too many principled stands. Our system of government isn’t set up that way. It’s set up for people who will take half a loaf and keep the process moving. In our history, we have had one period where principle won out over all other considerations: the Civil War. It was, by many descriptions, a glorious time during which giants walked the Earth. But it was also the fucking Civil War. It was the bloodiest, most destructive period in our history, and the Republic would not have survived if we’d tried something like that more often.
So I want to throw out a radical idea: Rather than trying to found our entire platform on unshakeable principles, we should be giving ourselves a principle budget: Is this the issue we want to be principled about? Is this short list of issues the hill we’re prepared to die on?
By all means, we should have principles and try to do right by them. But at some point we all need to accept a mixture of the things we want and the things our opponents want. The alternative is to wind up with things that nobody wants.
 Real Clear Politics averages a lot of polls asking similar questions, and shows a similar result: All through the Obama years, the “on the right track” number has struggled to stay above 30%.
 Most of us don’t even remember what a stay-the-course campaign sounds like. But examine some past presidential re-election slogans. War-time presidents Lincoln in 1864 and Roosevelt in 1944 ran on “Don’t swap horses in midstream”. In 1956, Eisenhower edited his 1952 slogan: “I still like Ike.” Reagan in 1984 optimistically claimed “It’s morning again in America”. “Stay the course” was not literally a Nixon slogan in 1972, but he said it a lot. His actual slogan was “Now more then ever”.
But my favorite has to be McKinley in 1900, who ran for re-election under the unbelievably modest: “Leave well enough alone.”
 O’Neill’s son wrote in 2012:
No, my father and Reagan weren’t close friends. Famously, after 6 p.m. on quite a few work days, they would sit down for drinks at the White House. But it wasn’t the drinks or the conversation that allowed American government to work. Instead, it was a stubborn refusal not to allow fund-raisers, activists, party platforms or ideological chasms to stand between them and actions — tempered and improved by compromise — that kept this country moving.