Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY

Opinion

June 15, 2012

A politically polarized time

FRANKFORT — Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and the son and brother of ex-presidents, got into hot water with fellow Republicans last week. He said it would be hard for Ronald Reagan and his father, George H.W. Bush, to succeed in today’s Republican Party.

That brought howls from many in the party who accused Bush of trying to position himself for a 2016 run for president should Mitt Romney lose this year. Bush is known for speaking his mind and actually answering questions candidly.  He was saying Republicans needed to be less ideologically rigid, soften positions on things like immigration and consider compromise on big issues in order to move the country out of gridlock.

After the criticism, Bush didn’t entirely back away from his comments, but he amended them to say Democrats are also guilty. They are, but most of the present responsibility for inaction in Washington lies with Bush’s Republican Party. Part of the reason is institutional — if Republicans controlled the White House and a slim, ineffective majority in the Senate while Democrats controlled the House, their roles might reverse in the current polarized political climate.

Another reason Republicans have been unyielding is their leaders must watch their right flank. The tea party-leaning freshman class in the House has been unwilling to accept compromise. They are numerous enough to hamstring any move by Speaker John Boehner, who previously was seen as a deal-maker, to compromise with President Barack Obama and Democrats. A Republican Congressman privately told me Boehner cannot get the 218 votes necessary to pass legislation in the House exclusively from Republicans, not without agreement of the ultra-conservative and uncompromising Republican freshman class. His choice is to craft legislative to suit those on the right, which then has no chance to pass the Senate, or to tailor it so he can pick up enough Democrats to get to the 218-vote majority. But that would almost certainly lead to a leadership coup.

Kentucky’s U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader who would love to negotiate a grand bargain, emulating his hero Henry Clay, is in a different position but must also watch his right flank. Because of Senate rules and the narrowness of Democrats’ majority, McConnell has been able to thwart Obama and Democratic policy in the Senate but can’t pass alternative legislation.

His colleague from Kentucky, Sen. Rand Paul, personifies the ideology of the right and has considerable political clout back home where McConnell must run for re-election in a couple of years. While Republicans feel pressure from their base, Obama faces growing pressure from the left which thinks he’s been too willing to cede advantage to Republicans.  Romney abandoned and denied much of his previous record during the primaries to try to win over the right.

Meanwhile, a PEW Research poll indicates Americans are more politically polarized than ever and a majority now self-identify more by political ideology than by class or ethnicity. Those who see themselves as conservative listen exclusively to commentators on the right and those who call themselves liberal do the same on the left. It’s little wonder the presidential election will probably be decided in about eight swing states and by independents or that Obama has written off states like Kentucky and Romney his home state of Massachusetts.

Jeb Bush is probably right but it’s not just politicians in Washington who won’t talk civilly to one another.  The politicians are often only responding to the thinking of those who elected them. As Walt Kelly’s cartoon character Pogo put it: We have met the enemy and he is us.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com.

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