TOPICS > Politics

After Long Debt Battle, Is Current Version of U.S. Government Sustainable?

August 3, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
After many months of heated debate, Washington was finally able to compromise on a debt deal to avert a government default this week. Judy Woodruff discusses how the battle over the debt ceiling compares to other politically polarized times with Yale University's Beverly Gage and Harvard University's David King.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: Washington barely eked out a compromise to avert a government default, and Congress has now gone home for the rest of the summer.

In the aftermath of the messy fight that led to a last-minute deal neither side was crazy about, we get some perspective on how the nation’s capital looks compared to other times.

For that, we are joined by presidential historian Beverly Gage. She’s a professor of American history at Yale University. And David King, he’s a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and faculty chair of Harvard’s Program for Newly Elected Members of Congress.

It’s good to see you both again. Thank you for joining us.

David King, to you first.

You’re both outside of Washington, so let me ask you, does this city look as bad as we’re hearing voters think it does right now?

DAVID KING, Harvard University: It looks bad in the short term, and, actually, it looks bad historically, this level of polarization, deeply — deep division we haven’t seen in really a couple of generations.

And everyone in the middle, sort of middle Americans and people who are moderates, have every reason to be upset that compromise took us right to the brink of disaster.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Beverly Gage, what do you see when you look at Washington?

BEVERLY GAGE, Yale University: Well, I see both a sort of momentary crisis that hopefully has now passed, though it’s anybody’s guess for how long.

And I think it’s also the culmination of some much more substantive long-term trends, both within Congress, within the Republican Party itself, and also at the White House, where I think this has been a real test of some of Obama’s strengths, but mostly his weaknesses. And I think it’s not going to play out very well for Barack Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are some of those strengths you’re pointing out and weaknesses on the part of the president?

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, I think Obama came to office with a real moment a few years ago.

In fact, I happened to be looking back at an old issue of Newsweek from early 2009, and it seemed incredible to me, but the headline on the cover of Newsweek was, “We Are All Socialists Now.” And this was just a couple of years ago.

It’s almost impossible to believe that that was really the case. And I think Obama had a moment when he came to office, when he had both houses of Congress, in which he could have mobilized people around a different sort of economic agenda certainly than we’re seeing now or even that he himself attempted to put into play when he came to office.

And one of the things that’s really astounding is how quickly that moment has passed and where we see ourselves two years out from that moment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David King, dissect a little bit of what you see going on now. And how does that compare with what presidents have faced in the past?

DAVID KING: Well, of course, the thing that intervened between 2009 and today is the elections of 2010, an off-year election in which very few voters actually voted in the primaries.

So, you had only 16.8 percent of eligible voters voting in the primaries. And, today, we have the Congress that is very representative of the folks who were actually involved in that election. We have seen a real trend from the 1970s to present with ever-increasing levels of polarization.

This is a very difficult country to govern. And the last time we saw these kinds of levels of polarization were in the 1920s, and then before that in the late 1850s, and before that in the 1820s. So, we’re in or approaching the fourth epic of deep division and polarization. We’re not sure what’s going to happen to our institutions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The 1920s. So, you’re saying it hasn’t been this bad in 90 years?

DAVID KING: Well, if one looks at the Democrats vs. the Republicans and how solid they are, one against the other, yes, that’s where we are. We have not seen this since the 1920s.

And if you expand it further and look at every state legislature for which we have data, we have seen a continuous increase in polarization, Democrats vs. Republicans, refusing to get along, unable to get along, since the early 1970s.

So, we’re at a moment. We don’t know where we’re going to go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there any moment, Beverly Gage, that you could compare this to, or does it just stand out on its own?

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, one of the things that’s so interesting about this moment is, usually, when you have these kinds of big showdowns, particularly between the White House and the Congress, particularly when you have the White House of one party, at least part of Congress dominated by the other party, it’s around some grand legislative initiative.

So, you think of Woodrow Wilson’s showdown over the League of Nations in 1919 and 1920, or maybe Franklin Roosevelt’s showdown over his court-packing plan in 1937. But in both of those cases, you had a White House that was putting forth something really bold, something adventurous, something untried, and then running into opposition.

And what’s really remarkable about this moment, and I think fairly hard to find a precedent for, is that this wasn’t actually about anything new. This was about a set of decisions that had already been made about how money was going to be spent, right, the debt ceiling at its heart. That’s really what we were talking about.

And it was also about a set of future decisions that might be made that, to some degree, Congress went ahead and made, but that, for the most part, haven’t been made. So, it wasn’t a response to some grand new initiative. It was looking to the past, looking to the future.

And that’s a very strange situation, which suggests that this is really primarily about a struggle for power, as opposed to really about the substance of what’s going on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, David King, when there have been these kinds of struggles in the past, how have they worked themselves out? What has happened? What have they done to get through it?

DAVID KING: Well, from the point of view of polarizing political parties, in 1828, there was, of course, the creation of the Democratic Party, a mass-based party with President Andrew Jackson.

And in the late 1850s, that resulted in the demise of the Whig Party, the rise of the Republican Party, and the Civil War. In the 1820s, it was, you know, a very deeply divided country, urban/rural, rich/poor, Protestant/Catholic, that moved towards the New Deal era.

And I think now we do actually have something that is a big question, and that is, what is the proper role of government? Is the current version of government sustainable at all? I think that’s what we’re really trying to address. And the Tea Parties or the Democrats, liberals and conservatives, they’re grappling with some of the most important and fundamental question that were — questions that were left by our founders: What’s the right role for government going forward?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And one hopes we’re not heading for another civil war.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Beverly Gage, what do you see in the past in terms of anything to give us hope for how this is going to resolve itself, or — or not?

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, I think it’s hard to quite see, as I said, an entirely similar situation in the past. I think David is right. These have often been resolved through electoral mechanisms, although it seems highly unlikely to me that we’re going to see anything like a third party coming out of this.

And I think there is a real question. On the one hand, you have got very divided parties in partisan terms, but, in some sense, the ideological spectrum has also narrowed and shifted very far right over the past 30 years. So you have got these two things going on simultaneously.

I mean, I think history suggests on the one hand that people often feel that they’re in crisis, and they mostly muddle through, and that crisis kind of passes. And, on the other hand, there are real moments of crisis when things do not get better; they, in fact, get worse. And I think the question right now, both economically and politically, is, are we looking at a moment like 1937, when people thought that they were coming out of a crisis, the Depression in that case, but, in fact, they were heading into a much deeper one, both economically and politically?

JUDY WOODRUFF: David King, I will give you final word. So, I guess not much for us to hang any hope on.

DAVID KING: Well, I think there is.

And I will say something people aren’t expecting. I like Congress. I have a lot of faith in the institution…

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID KING: … although it’s kind of difficult to actually watch them work.

We have this super committee, this joint committee that will be reporting out by Dec. 9. And then the Congress has to vote on up or down, can’t be amended, can’t be filibustered, have to come up with $1.5 trillion in savings at a minimum.

I’m actually somebody who is very hopeful that wise men and women are going to sit down, do serious business, and back us away from the brink.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I may be…

BEVERLY GAGE: I hope you’re right, David.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: I hear both of you. And I may be phoning you both up as we get close to December to talk about that.

All right. Beverly Gage, David King, it’s good to see you both. Thank you.

DAVID KING: Thank you.

BEVERLY GAGE: Thanks, Judy.