Whether the Democrats and Republicans like it or not, they are in bed together and may as well be married. Neither has a majority in both houses of Congress that can impose one-party rule. The filibuster provision in the Senate allows a minority to stymie the majority. The Constitution doesn’t guarantee that political bedfellows will get along – there were no parties when the Constitution was written, and now we observe a marriage from hell. Unlike civil marriage, there’s no chance for a divorce.
Is it possible to approach the situation in the role of a marriage counselor? There are several aims when a counselor faces two spouses whose relationship has become rocky.
- Provide a safe place for honest discussion.
- Air grievances without becoming obsessed by them.
- Find an opening for compromise.
- Encourage adult behavior rather than impulsiveness and a desire for revenge.
- Find a renewed basis for the relationship to move forward.
These aims aren’t always reached, and in the end the marriage dissolves. But since the Democrats and Republicans can’t divorce, our only hope is that reconciliation is possible. For that hope to materialize, the points I’ve listed must become feasible. What they imply is a process. One of the biggest problems in Congress is that both sides want to skip the process and jump straight to the results.
The results are also familiar from bad marriages. Both sides want to win, to be proven right, to make the other eat humble pie, and to bypass compromise out of a sense of self-righteous certainty. We hear the word “ideology” applied a lot to the most rigid partisans on the left and the right. But I think ideology is a mask for being a bad spouse. This marriage will never work when one or both spouses insists on getting their own way, no matter what.
Another problem with refusing to start the process of reconciliation centers on posturing. The term “political Kabuki theater” applies here. both sides say and do things for ritualistic purposes, like passing a budget that has no chance of being enacted, accusing the other side of being totally at fault, making demands that are stalking horses to satisfy the most extreme wing of the party. This resembles nothing more than two warring spouses fighting through their lawyers with wildly inflated blame, knowing all the while that the actual settlement will be a compromise.
I don’t think that compromise has become a dirty word, especially among the Tea Party, merely because of extreme intransigence or the vaunted ambition of making government less corrupt. Congress is no more corrupt than human nature and no less. The reason compromise is a dirty word is that when it is reached, neither side is satisfied. When Solomon offered to settle a dispute between two mothers by cutting the baby in half, the compromise was deliberately outlandish in order to bring the true mother to light – she would be the one who selflessly gave up her claim so that the baby might live.
In Congress we see bad-faith compromises that are designed not to work. The health care act is a prime example, and so is the debt-ceiling deal. The right sabotaged a viable compromise by forcing legislation that they could denigrate in public afterwards. In the final analysis, Congress is acting as badly as its constituency wants it to. The public decries how divided our current politics is while electing rigid representatives who make the division worse. The voting public is acting like the families of two bickering spouses, pleading for an end to the fighting while at the same time telling each party that they are right and the other spouse is totally at fault.
What this comes down to is human relations. In the coming year leading up to November, both parties seem ready to adopt a scorched earth policy. Kabuki theater and ideology will have a field day. But behind the scenes, expectations have moved in a direction that nobody wants. Lincoln’s words about a house divided still apply. If Congress keeps up its current behavior, we may see all reasonableness come to an end, and the marriage may turn as ridiculously vicious as the one in the movie “the War of the Roses,” where nothing less than destroying our spouse is acceptable. Without the process of reconciliation, the only foreseeable outcome is a massive crisis with debt, entitlements, or Iran, that forces husband and wife to cling to each other because peril has forced them to go into survival mode.