David S. Broder / Syndicated columnist
To understand why the level of public disillusionment with politics is so high in this country right now, it helps to go back a dozen years...
WASHINGTON — To understand why the level of public disillusionment with politics is so high in this country right now, it helps to go back a dozen years.
The Democrats took power in 1993 with a young and obviously talented Bill Clinton succeeding George H.W. Bush, who seemingly had played out the string on the shift to conservative government launched in 1980 by Ronald Reagan. Clinton took office as a plurality president, but with Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate seemingly primed for action.
His first year did not go well. His first budget — with a tax increase for top-bracket earners and benefits for lower-income families — barely survived in Congress. He found himself snarled in unproductive fights over gays in the military and other side issues, and in the fall, his big initiatives — reorganization of government, approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and passage of health-care reform — were piling up in Congress.
By the spring of his second year, the most important politically of those priorities — the overhaul of the health-care-delivery system — was hopelessly mired in committee, unable to muster enough support even to bring it to a floor vote in the House or Senate. The problem that Clinton had recognized as most disturbing for families, for business and for all levels of government was left to fester, unsolved.
In November 1994, with thousands of disillusioned Democrats boycotting the polling places, the Republicans won nearly everything, retaking the Senate, capturing the House for the first time in 40 years, and boosting their strength in the state capitols.
The lingering effects of that failure in one-party Democratic government are still felt. While Clinton was able to win a second term and avoid conviction on the Lewinsky scandal impeachment charges, he was never again able — while campaigning for himself or others — to persuade voters to entrust his party with the reins of government.
At some level, the message that many voters took away from the experience was that Democrats may talk a good game, but they don't deliver. It has not helped that subsequent Democratic nominees Al Gore and John Kerry were people who had built their careers in the Senate, a place where the public knows that talk is cheap and action rare.
Fast forward now to 2005, five years after the voters (with a nudge from the Supreme Court) entrusted Republicans with complete control of the elected branches of the federal government. What do they have to show for it?
Well, taxes have been cut — as promised — more for the wealthy than for others, but that promise has been kept. The overall economy has grown, but — in part because of tax policy — the gap between the rich and the rest has increased. The nation, caught unawares, has suffered a grievous homeland attack and the chief instigator of that 9/11 savagery remains at large. We have invaded two countries seeking out terrorists — and years later, violence continues to cost the lives of Americans trying to pacify both Iraq and Afghanistan.
President Bush's chief domestic initiative — reform of the Social Security system — suffered the same fate as Clinton's health-care effort: So little agreement within his own party he was never able even to bring it to a vote.
The self-described "compassionate conservative" has been so lax in his budgetary policy that deficits have reached dismaying levels, and compassion was compromised by gross incompetence in the response to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Meantime, after 11 years of unbroken majority, congressional Republicans are displaying the same personal arrogance (in grabbing for favors) and the same penchant for petty scandals as plagued the Democrats after their 40-year run.
There is one difference. Congressional Republicans, by and large, have maintained greater cohesion and discipline than did the Democrats under Clinton. But the price has been subservience to White House whims and wishes. This has been the most compliant congressional leadership in modern times, one that until very recently was unwilling or incapable of asserting itself against even a minor presidential preference.
Now, with Bush weakened by the war and other problems, Republicans on Capitol Hill are beginning to scramble for safety by voting their districts, not heeding partisan commands.
It is not an edifying spectacle. And the result may well be what it was for the Democrats in 1994, when the cry, "Every Member for himself!!" turned into a rout.
Leaving behind one big question: When both parties have lost public confidence, where do voters turn?
David S. Broder's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org