Steve and Cokie Roberts

AAOS Now

Published 4/1/2014
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Maureen Leahy

Partisanship in Washington at All-time High

“I am asked all the time if this the most partisan time we have ever had in American history,” said Cokie Roberts. “The answer is no, because the parties are not shooting each other.”

Although the days of politicians dueling are over, this is a “very, very partisan time in our country,” Ms. Roberts said.

Ms. Roberts and her husband Steve, both veterans of the Washington political scene, were this year’s Annual Meeting guest speakers. They presented “A View from Washington,” to a packed crowd yesterday in LaNouvelle Ballroom of the Morial Convention Center. Speaking both in tandem and separately, the journalist and the pundit analyzed current politics.

Polarized politics
“As Cokie pointed out, partisanship has resurged in this country and Americans don’t like it,” Mr. Roberts said.

To prove his point, he provided the following current statistics:

  • President Obama’s approval rating has fallen to 41 percent.
  • Only 19 percent of Americans have confidence that Republicans will make the right decisions for America.
  • Only 30 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction.
  • The approval rating for Congress is a dismal 12 percent.

“By any measure, the last Congress was the single worst Congress in American history in terms of productivity. They can’t even get the most basic measures passed,” he said.

Mr. Roberts outlined several reasons for the polarization of the American political system. The first, he said, is Congressional redistricting along party lines.

“Gerrymandering is nothing new, but what is different is that modern technology can be used to draw district lines with such precision that, in America today, there are almost no real swing districts,” he explained. “Ninety percent of all the districts in this country are now drawn to protect one party or the other.

“If members of Congress have no incentive whatsoever to worry about election, no reason to consult the other side or listen to differences, then something very precious is lost,” he added. “They are not accountable to voters because they are protected by the district lines.”

And it’s not just the district lines that are to blame. Another contributing factor is called “self-sorting”, Mr. Roberts noted. “People are moving to and clustering in communities in which they feel more comfortable politically. As a result, the red districts are getting redder and the blue districts are getting bluer.”

According to Mr. Roberts, the biggest fear for many members of Congress is losing in the primary elections. “You can see the effect that this has—candidates are always looking over their shoulder, always worried about the purists in each party attacking them. And this is exacerbated by outside interest groups that have a tremendous effect on how Congress operates.”

He pointed out, for example, that any sensible assessment of how to reduce medical costs in this country would include tort reform and lower pharmaceutical prices, but the Affordable Care Act did not include either one.

“Tort reform was left out because the trial lawyers poured millions of dollars into political races, mainly for Democrats, and they had one goal and one goal only and that was to block tort reform,” he said.

Similarly, the bill did not give the federal government the ability to negotiate lower prices on pharmaceuticals because the drug companies gave millions of dollars to the political races, mainly for Republicans, to block it, Mr. Roberts said.

Mr. Roberts believes the leadership in Congress is fundamentally flawed; they are too focused on what is good for their party instead of what is good for the country and good for the economy.

According to Mr. Roberts, both immigration reform and free trade zones would have a positive impact on the country’s economic growth. “Most economists agree that legalizing immigration would create jobs rather than take jobs away, on a net basis.”

He added, “As the biggest export nation in the entire world, foreign trade is absolutely essential to the economic health of the United States. Yet, immigration reform and trade bills can’t even get to the floor of the House or the Senate because of failure of leadership in both parties.”

Respect for the presidency and Congress has unfortunately been lost among politicians in Washington. This is due in large part, Mr. Roberts believes, to members of Congress not bringing their families with them to Washington. He admitted that it is not always feasible to uproot families and move them. However, when politicians and their families live nearby, worship together, or visit on the sidelines of the soccer field, they get to know—and respect—each other, despite party differences.

“These kinds of relationships that were absolutely central to the smooth operation of Congress have all been lost,” Mr. Roberts said.

Finally, he also blames the media for fueling the problems in Washington. “We give our microphones to the loudest, shrillest voices,” he said. “It might make for good television, but it’s not real—it exaggerates differences. And if we reward confrontation and exaggeration, that’s what we are going to get.”

Looking ahead
“Republicans are likely to do very well in this off-year election, especially if they stay firmly focused on the Affordable Care Act and the economy,” Ms. Roberts said. “If I had to put money down today, I’d say that the Republicans hold the house and take the Senate in November, which will make the last 2 years of President Obama’s term pretty miserable.”

However, time will tell if the same dynamics that are in place this year will hold true for Republicans in 2016, Ms. Roberts pointed out. “But I do know two things: 1. Anytime that you think that one party has a lock on something—whether it is the electoral college or the Congress—it turns out to be temporary, and 2. Anytime that it looks like one party is sunk for one reason or another, the other party comes along and saves it.”

Maureen Leahy is assistant managing editor of AAOS Now. She can be reached at leahy@aaos.org

Stuart J. Fischer, MD, Interviews the Robertses
After their presentation at the 2014 AAOS Annual Meeting, Steve and Cokie Roberts sat down with AAOS Now editorial board members Stuart J. Fischer, MD, for a personal interview. They discussed the fate of the Affordable Care Act, the possibilities for bipartisanship, the stories the media is missing about orthopaedics, and the impact of orthopaedic surgeons on their lives.
Listen to the podcast here