WASHINGTON – The just-ending 113th Congress was not, by most measures, productive. But its endgame was at least instructive.
As a trillion-dollar omnibus spending bill trundled into law, the populist wings of both political parties declared themselves both revolted and in revolt. The bill, complained Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, “does nothing, absolutely nothing to stop President Obama’s illegal and unconstitutional amnesty.” “Who does Congress work for?” asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. “Does it work for the millionaires, the billionaires, the giant companies with their armies of lobbyists and lawyers?”
While this unexpected alliance of outrage did not prevail, it managed to preview some of the most important debates leading up to the 2016 election.
The challenge from the populist right is now familiar, but it is far from spent. Conservatives offended by the omnibus – and even more offended by Obama’s immigration executive order – wanted to do something. This is often the whole substance of conservative strategy: “do something.” After blowing up the Senate process and disrupting the travel plans of their colleagues, Cruz and company demanded a point-of-order vote on whether Obama’s executive order was constitutional. Only 22 senators supported it.
With all the charm and appeal of nails scratching on a chalkboard, of screeching children on an airplane, of dogs yelping endlessly in the night, Senate conservatives forced a symbolic vote that ended up symbolizing their broad repudiation. But at least “something” was done.
The open revolt of the populist left is more novel. In this case, it was a rebellion against a sitting Democratic president, joined by former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, forcing the White House to conduct a last-minute scramble for votes. The main provision at issue was the swaps “push-out” rule of the Dodd-Frank financial services reform bill. But Warren used the occasion to throw a large rock into the Democratic pond. The ripples radiate.
There is an element of progressive populism that is looking for a leader – and it is not Hillary Clinton. In 2008, Clinton was beaten by a primary opponent (Obama) from the anti-war left. There may be a similar market, this time around, for a candidate from the anti-Wall-Street left. MoveOn.org is circulating a draft-Warren petition.
Clinton will be forever associated with former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and an overwhelming desire to please the bond markets. Some baggage can never be checked. And some of us find her past association with economic sanity to be reassuring. But it means that Clinton’s attempts at Occupy Wall Street rhetoric are laughable. Witness: “Don’t let anybody tell you that, you know, it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs.” This is the Democratic equivalent of Mitt Romney trying to sound “severely conservative.” The maneuver is not just awkward; it is the reduction of politics to a game of pretend.
This is the current challenge to both parties, raising some of the largest questions in our politics: Can establishment figures restore the tarnished legitimacy of governing institutions? Will Clinton or, say, Jeb Bush be able to constructively channel populist anger, or will they be overwhelmed by it?
Many American institutions – starting with the House and Senate, and extending to the manner in which we tax ourselves, fight poverty, care for the old and educate the young – are in disrepair. This must be recognized and confronted.
But some populists thrive on further delegitimizing institutions. They use Congress as a stage for their anger, not as an instrument of reform. They set unattainable goals that encourage political alienation. They adopt a conspiratorial mindset, in which systems are not just broken but rigged by scheming opponents. They demand to do “something,” but end up doing things that serve narrow political and fundraising goals.
America is in desperate need of a politics of repair, not a politics of demolition and rebuilding. We need leaders who take populist discontent seriously, but direct it toward projects of practical reform. America’s distrust of institutions is a fact. But it is a problem, not a goal. The proper response is the renovation of institutions that allow us to live a decent, compassionate, orderly life together. This is the dignity and importance of the political profession.
Michael Gerson’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.