Why government can be a bad joke

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist  |  Updated Dec. 18, 2017 at 7:13 AM
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Only partly in jest, the great humorist Will Rogers sourly observed that every time Congress passed a law it was a joke. And every time Congress made a joke, it became a law. Perhaps Rogers was only half right. Today, many Americans believe the U.S. government is the joke gone bad.

That does not mean the millions of people employed by or part of government do not have the best intentions. As this column has noted, it is possible that a political system invented by the best minds of the 18th century is simply less suited to the 21st century. Checks and balances no longer work when civility and compromise have been replaced by extreme and pernicious partisanship and hostility where the political reality is that you are either with us or against us.

Sometime this week, unless Congress magically grows a backbone, the tax reform bill will become law. That no one has fully read, analyzed and debated the bill in open session makes little difference. That is how business is done in Washington. Sadly, this dysfunctionality is not new and is growing worse.

Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in the Alabama senate race last week by a razor thin margin. The good news that he won was counterbalanced in that nearly an equal number of Alabamians voted for Moore---someone who has declared homosexuality illegal and that no Muslim should serve in Congress. Perhaps he feels the same way about people of color.

The bad joke is why so many voters still chose Moore despite these failings and of course allegations of child molestation and other predatory acts which he strongly denied. That about 1/3 of Americans still support President Donald Trump also raises profound questions as to the state of our politics. His supporters are so furious with or hostile towards government and the so-called Washington "swamp" that no matter how the president performs has little negative impact on this base.

The litany of the current president's missteps, mistakes and blunders are common to the first year of any administration. Bill Clinton foundered over rookie errors and investigations. George W. Bush's administration was in chaos until September 11th rallied the nation behind him. Barack Obama was also off to a bad start.

One major difference today is the president's tweets. These may energize his base. But they magnify and exacerbate his errors, unforced or otherwise, especially with personalized attacks whether against Gold Star parents or members of his cabinet and Congress. Another difference is the president's inability or refusal to articulate a cogent rationale for his actions and what passes for "strategy" except in simplistic terms.

Recognizing Jerusalem for example "merely recognized reality." North Korea will not have nuclear weapons period. The Paris Climate agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are bad for America. Hence, each was discarded. The question of what if anything replaces them and the underlying rationale are left unsaid.

Who is at fault? As this column has repeatedly asked, where are the lions in Congress? A few Republicans renounced Roy Moore. But why did every member not do so? The answer is another bad joke.

Members fear being "primaried," that is challenged by more conservative aspirants for office. Both parties have become captured by their extreme wings. One result is that the centrist leanings of the nation have been overwhelmed by the magnetic attraction of these polarizing political forces. Political correctness and fear of offending anyone even with straight and honest talk have become potential time bombs that can easily explode.

Al Franken's boorish behavior was trivial compared to the allegations against both Mr. Trump and Mr. Moore. Denial certainly worked for the president. And it came with several thousand votes of electing Mr. Moore.

The real culprit is us, the public. We have tolerated governmental dysfunctionality for too long. Yet the political process provides little recourse since voters can only send their representatives to Congress where the brokenness of the system makes it virtually impossible to turn out good legislation no matter which party is in charge.

The good news is that our main dangers are not existential. No matter how much the Russian, Chinese, North Korean and Islamic State threats may be hyped, none threatens our existence. No one wishes a third world war. The greater danger facing America is failed and failing government. And here the joke is not on us. It will be on future generations.

Unless we make dramatic change, the American dream will become more elusive. Future standards of living for the majority of Americans are too likely to decline. And this is the unkindest joke of all.

Dr. Harlan Ullman's new book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts" and is available at bookstores and Amazon. He can be reached at @Harlankullman on Twitter.

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