Douthat: Washington and the great disconnect

New York TimesJune 24, 2013 

Ross Douthat

Douthat

JOSH HANER/THE NEW YORK TIMES

This January, as President Barack Obama began his second term, the Pew Research Center asked Americans to list their policy priorities for 2013. Huge majorities cited jobs and the economy; sizable majorities cited health care costs and entitlement reform; more modest majorities cited fighting poverty and reforming the tax code. Down at the bottom of the list, with less than 40 percent support in each case, were gun control, immigration and climate change.

Yet six months later, the public's non-priorities look like the entirety of the White House's second-term agenda. The president's failed push for background checks has given way to an ongoing push for immigration reform, and the administration is reportedly planning a sweeping regulatory push on carbon emissions this summer. Meanwhile, nobody expects much action on the issues that Americans actually wanted Washington to focus on: Tax and entitlement reform have been back-burnered, and the plight of the unemployed seems to have dropped off the D.C. radar screen entirely.

In part, this disconnect between country and capital reflects the limits gridlock puts on governance. The ideological divides in Washington — between right and left, and between different factions within the House Republican caucus — make action on first-rank issues unusually difficult, so it's natural that politicians would look for compromises on lower-priority debates instead.

That's the generous way of looking at it, at least. The more cynical take is that D.C. gridlock has given the political class an excuse to ignore the country's most pressing problem — a lack of decent jobs at decent wages, with a deeper social crisis at work underneath — and pursue its own pet causes instead.

After all, gun control, immigration reform and climate change aren't just random targets of opportunity. They're pillars of Acela Corridor ideology, core elements of Bloombergism, places where Obama-era liberalism overlaps with the views of Davos-goers and the Wall Street 1 percent. If you move in those circles, the political circumstances don't necessarily matter; these ideas always look like uncontroversial common sense.

Step outside those circles, though, and the timing of their elevation looks at best peculiar, at worst perverse. The president decided to make gun control legislation a major second-term priority … with firearm homicides at a 30-year low. Congress is pursuing a sharp increase in low-skilled immigration … when the foreign-born share of the American population is already headed for historical highs. The administration is drawing up major new carbon regulations … when actual existing global warming has been well below projections for 15 years and counting.

What's more, on the issues that Americans actually prioritize — jobs, wages, the economy — it's likely that both immigration reform and whatever the White House decides to do on greenhouse gases will make the short-term picture somewhat worse. The Congressional Budget Office's recent analysis of the immigration bill errs on the side of optimism, but it still projects that the legislation would leave unemployment “slightly elevated” through 2020, and average wages modestly reduced. Given that similar estimates greeted the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill in 2009, it's reasonable to assume that carbon regulations would slightly raise the unemployment rate as well.

These costs might be more acceptable in a world where Washington was also readying, say, payroll tax relief for working-class families, or measures to help the long-term uninsured. But since those ideas currently lack constituencies in the capital, we're left with the peculiar spectacle of a political class responding to a period of destructive long-term unemployment with an agenda that threatens to help extend that crisis toward 2020 and beyond.

This disconnect is the most serious threat to the current liberal ascendance. Obama has a good chance to be remembered as “the liberal Reagan,” but the Reagan recovery was far better for most Americans than this one has been, and right now the president's mediocre job approval numbers contrast sharply with the highs of Reagan's second term.

In this sense, for all the (justifiable) talk about conservatism's dysfunction, Republicans have more freedom of movement today than Democrats did after their 1984 defeat. As Yuval Levin wrote in The Weekly Standard in April, there has been no “morning in America”-style indication for this administration; instead, “both parties give the impression of having outlived their eras,” and “the moment feels more like the late 1970s than the late 1980s.” The country clearly prefers Obama to the available alternatives, but it might prefer another alternative still.

So far, though, Republicans have mostly used liberalism's relative weakness as an excuse for not moving much at all, and sticking with an agenda that's even more disconnected from the anxieties of the average voter than the White House's second-term priorities.

Their assumption seems to be that eventually the public will simply have to turn to them. But their obligation should be to address both parties' most conspicuous failure, and actually meet the voters where they are.

Email Mr. Douthat at editorial@nytimes.com.

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