Washington is broken, but don’t blame the GOP

By Darrell Delamaide
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WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — The Beltway blogosphere has a new buzzword — “postpolicy nihilism” — to explain why nothing is getting done in Washington.

If you hear echoes of “postapocalyptic” (think “World War Z,” “The Hunger Games,” “The Road”), it’s probably not coincidental because the term implies that the scorched-earth strategy of the Republicans has pushed Congress beyond dysfunctionality to complete breakdown.

Liberal political analysts are brandishing the term because it purports to describe how Republicans have given up even the pretense of pushing policy and are openly and exclusively focused on sabotaging the administration.

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Rachel Maddow coined the phrase “postpolicy nihilism” to describe the Republican Party’s obstructionism.
Whether it is health-care reform, immigration, student loans or deficit cutting, this term suggests the Republicans are not offering alternatives, only obstruction.

They block new bills and prevent laws that have been passed from being implemented by stalling nominations, defunding operations, or simply neglecting congressional oversight when regulators fail to meet deadlines.

Republicans, this line of reasoning goes, are willing to inflict any amount of damage on the economy, any amount of hurt and misery to individuals, or any amount of harm to the environment and atmosphere, in pursuit of a short-term political goal: discrediting and sabotaging this president and his party.

But, liberals argue, this strategy will backfire, because, in their failure to propose any constructive measures, to seek any compromise for the common weal, to willfully alienate whole swaths of the population, Republicans are neglecting their current constituencies and courting demographic doom.

Maybe they’re right and the party is digging its own grave.

But how do you account for the anomaly of a congressional approval rating dipping to 10% and a 90% success rate for incumbents seeking re-election in 2012? It can’t all be due to talk radio or biased television news.

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The liberal blogosphere has been talking for some time about Republican “nihilism.” MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow is credited with inserting “postpolicy” as a modifier.

As with other “post” things — such as postmodern, postindustrial, postracial — the idea is that the Republican Party has moved on. It has gone beyond policy and operates solely as a partisan political machine.

So liberal bloggers like Steve Benen at the Maddow Blog, Jonathan Bernstein at Salon and Greg Sargent at the Washington Post now routinely refer to this “postpolicy nihilism” as a given in the political debate.

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In his Plum Line blog this week, Sargent even claims that “well-respected Beltway insider” and mainstream political analyst Chuck Todd, chief White House correspondent for NBC, is lining up behind the term.

“What’s the line between fighting for your ideology and ensuring that the government that pays your salaries actually works — or even attempts to work?” Sargent quotes from a blog post co-authored by Todd. “At some point, governing has to take place, but when does that begin?”

But negation can itself be policy. If you believe abortion is murder, restricting abortion is policy. If you believe guns are vital to your safety and your constitutional rights, blocking gun control is policy. If you believe deficits are immoral, reducing government spending is policy.

Nor would true believers perceive any of this as nihilism. Rather, preserving what you see as being of value is the very definition of conservatism.

If the real beef is that lawmakers do not really believe this stuff, but are simply manipulating voters in order to stay in office, then a more accurate label might be “postrational cynicism.”

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But neither term is really a battle cry that will rally followers for change, because they are, well, fairly negative themselves. “Freedom and Justice for All” or “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” are much more effective motivators because they appeal to positive values.

And here is where liberals run into trouble. They had a standard-bearer who proclaimed positive values — “hope and change” — but who failed to deliver on them. Why and how will keep historians busy for decades.

Barack Obama, in fact, has managed to combine bold rhetoric and timid policy in a way that achieves the worst political result possible. He alienated the opposition and disappointed his followers.

Congress has indeed gone beyond dysfunctional. It is for all intents and purposes completely broken. But don’t blame just the Republicans.

Darrell Delamaide is a political columnist for MarketWatch in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @MKTWDelamaide.

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