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Inauspicious Politics

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
January 2, 2013
Folha de Sao Paulo

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First published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.

Washington's deal to avoid the 'fiscal cliff' will appropriately raise taxes on the wealthy, while briefly postponing negotiations on spending, the deficit, and debt. Party leaders, President Obama among them, will champion the deal as a sign of political leadership and of necessary, even democratic compromise. But the deal marks the end of the grand bargain, the much coveted, much elusive bipartisan formula of an earlier era in American history.

The new normal in Washington is one of hyper partisanship, in which the Republicans have learned that if they wait long enough the Democrats will soften at the end of negotiations. My Republican friends will tell me that the Democrats are just as intransigent. But the Democrats no longer have a powerful left wing that prevents them (if it ever did) from political compromise. Bill Clinton broke that old New Deal coalition with welfare reform in the 1990s. The party is still a coalition that spans progressive to center-right views and interests. But since the Clinton years, Democrats have seldom blocked their own president or congressional leadership.

GOP intransigence, a curious posture in light of the national ethos that just re-elected Barack Obama, does not derive from unity of vision. On the contrary, the GOP leadership, especially in the House of Representatives is plagued by Tea Party ideologues whose opposition to most non-military government spending has paralyzed the old, more compromising ways of doing political business.

With the Republican speaker of the House unable to unify his party, which holds the majority in that chamber, how did the White House achieve the partial deal on tax increases? As one New York Times reporter noted: two 70-year old men picked up the phone. Joe Biden, a Democrat and the vice president, and Mitch McConnell, a Republican and Senate minority leader, who served in congress together for 28 years before Biden joined Obama's presidential ticket.

There is something both reassuring and unsettling here. Personal ties ultimately do matter and often are crucial to overcoming paralyzed political processes. We know this from diplomacy and from human experience. Some of my best friends are 70 and 80 year-old men: I treasure them for their wisdom and experience. But we just had an election that showed how demographics—age, ethnicity, gender—are powerful agents of change in the United States, remaking the country far more significantly than the compromise Biden and McConnell worked out would suggest.

Will the GOP's own divisions again perversely empower it to thwart the President's agenda on immigration reform? Gun control? Mitch McConnell, who vowed at the beginning of Obama's first term that the Republican Party's legislative agenda would be shaped first and foremost by the objective of preventing Obama's re-election, is now the White House's political ally. And that's an inauspicious beginning for 2013.

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