January 6, 2013

Michael Cuzzi: Washington's partisan dysfunction a cautionary tale for Augusta

Maine's leaders must stay focused on action and results, and call their ideological wings to heel.

In 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama's primary campaign in New Hampshire began in my unfurnished Manchester apartment with wireless Internet, four folding chairs and a bubble jet printer. I slept on the floor.

It was an extraordinary experience but -- quite intentionally -- my last campaign.

After working for nearly a decade as a campaign manager and operative, I eventually found the partisanship of electoral politics -- particularly at the federal level -- increasingly brutal, unavoidable and unproductive.

Campaigns are about drawing contrasts and party affiliations and are an all-too-convenient foil for painting your opponent as a big-government-loving, tax-and-spend liberal or a callous, big-business, anti-environment Republican.

The result is a campaign environment where reasoned discussion of the issues almost inevitably devolves into a shouting match of poll-tested caricatures and well-parsed half-truths.

But what's worse is that the myopia, gamesmanship and bitterness of our political campaigns have bled over into our government and similarly infected it.

Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in "It's Worse Than It Looks" that ideological extremism has created a Congress more dysfunctional than any other time since the Civil War.

Even to casual political observers, ample evidence suggests they're right.

The manufactured and avoidable debt-ceiling debacle in the summer of 2011 brought the nation close to defaulting on its debt, put world financial markets on a knife's edge, and resulted in a bond rating downgrade from Standard & Poor's.

A similar episode unfolded last week as we needlessly peered over the so-called fiscal cliff.

The cliff crisis, created entirely by congressional dysfunction, as well as the subsequent inability to strike a grand bargain on spending and debt reduction, reflects a near-pathological willingness to sacrifice the best interests of the country for partisan ideology and short-term political gain.

In fact, so deep is the vitriol and distrust in Washington that House Speaker John Boehner allegedly twice hurled a crude sexual remark at Senate President Harry Reid just outside the Oval Office in the days before the cliff approached.

This is leadership?

Partisan politics even briefly stymied a vote on federal disaster relief for states affected by Superstorm Sandy.

That spending became a political football for tea-party Republicans and prompted New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie to lash out at his own party, calling its inaction "disappointing and disgusting to watch."

Christie further opined, "In this current atmosphere everything is the subject of one-upsmanship and everything is a potential piece of bait for the political game."

In Maine, Congress' intractable partisanship motivated Olympia Snowe to retire from the U.S. Senate as she lamented the loss of the "sensible center" and, in part, fueled independent Angus King's commanding victory over his party rivals.

In 2010, Elliot Cutler, another independent, came quite close to capturing the Blaine House.

It is no surprise then that the majority of Maine's voters -- and an increasing number of voters nationally -- have unenrolled from the major parties as they simply look for leadership capable of doing the people's business.

In Maine, we've had a proud history of comity and bipartisanship in our Legislature, but Washington's dysfunction is a cautionary tale for Augusta.

Last year, Maine set records for spending on political campaigns, including a jaw-dropping half-million dollars to win Bangor's state Senate seat. And, for the first time ever, outside groups spent more than the campaigns themselves to influence the outcomes.

The influx of money -- largely created by the elimination of clean-election matching funds and the Supreme Court-sanctioned super PACs -- ratchets up the heat and volume of campaigns while doing little to inform voters or facilitate a responsible discussion of the issues.

When the dust settles, the bitterness, distrust and resentment of the campaign trail can pollute the halls of Augusta as easily as it does Washington.

Thankfully, our legislative leaders in Maine have thus far set a generally constructive tone for the coming session. But given the deep fiscal crises facing the state, as well as a governor certain to hurl partisan bombs at the Legislature, it will be both easy and appealing to devolve into traditional partisan camps.

Legislative leaders cannot let that happen.

No one expects the legislative process to be pretty and, increasingly, there is little expectation it will be fact-based or civil. But even with that low bar, Maine's leaders must remain focused on action and results, recognizing that sacred cows often make the best burgers.

By calling their respective ideological wings to heel and reclaiming the virtue of compromise, Maine's leaders can prevent the state from traveling the road to Washington-style dysfunction.

Michael Cuzzi is a former campaign aide to President Obama, Sen. John Kerry and former Rep. Tom Allen. He manages the Portland office of VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm based in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at:

mjcuzzi@gmail.com

Twitter: @CuzziMJ

 

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