As I See It by Cynthia Tucker — With his rousing State of the Union speech, President Obama almost had me persuaded, once again, that he can change a political culture that is self-indulgent, hyperpartisan and steeped in monied special interests.
WASHINGTON — Hope and change, allow me to introduce you to money and lobbyists. Compromise and bipartisanship, come meet ideological purity. Now, let's see if we can get some work done.
With his rousing State of the Union speech, President Obama almost had me persuaded, once again, that he can change a political culture that is self-indulgent, hyperpartisan and steeped in monied special interests. He was, by turns, funny and contrite, firm and mature, using his bully pulpit to urge Congress to abandon a "perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headline about the other side — a belief that if you lose, I win."
Though the president has had a tough first year — a year of Republican obstructionism, bipartisan pettiness and legislative sausage-making — his powerful commitment to keep on trying to overcome gridlock restored my idealism. For a moment or two.
Then I remembered that there were lobbyists and professional pollsters and cynical party hacks who were already at work to turn the State of the Union speech into a partisan call to arms. While no political opponent yelled out "You lie!" during the speech, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., suffered no loss of stature for doing so last September. As Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has noted, "After he raised a few million dollars off of it, I was thinking, 'Why didn't I say that?'"
As for Democrats, Obama's call for less interparty combat was wasted on them, too. They waited an entire 14 minutes — according to the Talking Points Memo Web site — before they sent out to reporters video clips from the speech with an embarrassing headline. Look to see that same video, in which Republicans failed to applaud Obama's call for a tax on banks, in ads soon. Of course, those advertisements will be expensive to run in large markets and will require more campaign donations.
Some observers thought the president was impolite to take on the Supreme Court's recent decision on campaign finance. Obama wasn't rude; he was right. With a ruling that was as "activist" as any of the last 20 years, an ideologically riven court overturned precedent, granted corporations the rights of humans and opened the floodgates to influence-peddling, many believe, from foreign interests.
Already, corporations flood voters with pseudo-facts from outfits whose names pervert the truth. A group called "Clean Water for Kids," for example, might be funded by a giant polluter that poisons groundwater near schools. With the latest Supreme Court ruling, Saudi princes might fund a front called "ForeignOilSavesUSA."
The money is poisonous. So are the politics of fear, opposition and obstruction. Inside the Beltway, it's fashionable in some quarters to take an above-the-fray, pox-on-both-their-houses view of congressional dysfunction. Fashionable, but not factual.
Democrats aren't paragons of virtue. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., has rightly been mocked and scorned for an ugly bit of behind-the-scenes, porkbarrel deal-making that promised his vote on the health care bill in return for millions for his state. His vote-sale outraged many, and understandably so.
Still, it's Republicans who have abandoned any attempt at governance. They have upped the ante on hyperpartisanship, coarsened the discourse and abandoned comity.
The Republican Party has been taken over by its extremists — held hostage by the tea-partying, give-no-quarter, brook-no-compromise ideological purists. You know that when Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga., a leading candidate for governor of Georgia, challenges the president to prove he's a U.S. citizen.
Blame Republicans in the Senate for using the filibuster to outflank simple democratic processes. Because the GOP now threatens a filibuster before practically every Senate vote, an extra-Constitutional supermajority is necessary for almost any bill to pass. That's certainly not what the Founding Fathers had in mind.
Sadly, this dysfunctional system is working pretty well for the folks who use it to stay in office. It's just not working for the rest of us.
Cynthia Tucker is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.