TCS Daily

It Ain't a Picnic

By Russell Roberts - June 11, 2004 12:00 AM

As the caisson carrying Ronald Reagan's casket moved slowly up Constitution Avenue toward the Capitol, some news stations let us watch in silence. Others filled the moment with talk about the man and his era. One theme that kept recurring was how bitter and partisan Washington is these days and how it was different back in Reagan's time.

The media's nostalgia for a kinder and gentler Washington is a bit bizarre. Many of us have vivid memories of the 1980s. The Reagan era wasn't a bipartisan love fest. Reagan, like the current President, was mocked, derided and hated by much of the intelligentsia. Not surprisingly, this mood drifted into the politics of the day. Politics has been a nasty business in America since about, oh, 1800. The more things change the more things stay the same.

But my biggest complaint with the nostalgia for bipartisanship and gentility is that it shows a fundamental misunderstanding about the very nature of politics and the nature of Washington life.

To hear the media talk, the problems of the country are essentially engineering problems. When you work on an engineering problem, teamwork and cooperation are essential. If you want to build a bridge or a tunnel or put up a skyscraper, you have to put aside ego and pride and roll up your sleeves and get to work. And you have to work as a team. Bickering and partisanship on an engineering project are incredibly destructive.

But most of the work of Washington isn't about engineering or problem-solving akin to building a bridge when the river bottom is unstable.

Most of the work in Washington is a fight over who gets what. It's about dividing a pie among various groups, all of them hungry. In such settings, partisanship has to be the order of the day. And when Washington isn't handing out goodies, but is actually trying to fix something like Iraq or Medicare, it still isn't an engineering problem where you have to sit down and figure something out. Solving these problems involve deep philosophical questions that have nothing to do with compromise or geniality, the essence of bipartisanship.

Teddy Kennedy for example, has said that President Bush lied in leading the nation into war. If he is right, should he stay silent in the name of bipartisanship or out of fear of being divisive? If he is right and he does speak out, should he do it politely or with gusto? How can you accuse the President of being a liar in a genteel fashion? It can't be done. If Ted Kennedy thinks the President is a liar, surely he should say so.

So let's stop this wistful longing to turn the Washington political scene into some kind of family picnic with a softball game where you let a ball go through your legs so your six year old nephew can feel like a hero. Politics is a blood sport and always will be. There will always be heat in the kitchen. If you don't like it, you ought to be in a different room.

Russell Roberts is a professor of economics at George Mason University and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.


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