The President of Disappointments How Obama Has Failed to Deliver
Part 5: The Vanishing Center
If Obama's results are not as glowing as his voters had anticipated, it's partly the fault of people like Grover Norquist. Back in 1986, when he was a young anti-tax activist, Norquist came up with a pledge that would eventually become a powerful weapon on the political battlefield.
Norquist is a short, bearded man who likes to juggle in his office. His pledge reads: "The signer pledges to: ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates."
It sounds like just another sentence from the complicated world of politics, but it has become a creed among Republicans. Of the 47 Republican senators, 41 have signed Norquist's "anti-tax pledge," as have 238 of 242 Republicans in the House of Representatives. Of course, presidential candidate Romney has also signed the pledge.
Norquist, 55, is proud of his achievement, and he views his program as a sort of Republican quality control -- and as a recipe for guaranteed success. When he wrote it in 1986, he proclaimed his dogma: Anyone who did not comply with the anti-tax pledge would be punished by the voters.
Norquist believes that his prediction was borne out six years later. George H. W. Bush signed the pledge, Norquist says. "Then in the campaign, he said, 'Read my lips. No new taxes,' and so he won. Then two years later, the smartest people in the world went to him and said it's okay to raise taxes, it's okay, no one will mind. And he raised taxes and lost the next election."
'Greedy Monster of the State'
Norquist's system is mafia-esque. The lobbyist has candidates running for office sign the pledge, and in return he supports their campaigns. Later, if they are elected, he reminds them of their promise.
Every Wednesday morning, Norquist hosts a conference on the sixth floor of his office building near the White House. He claims that some 200 activists regularly attend the meetings, and that they constitute the spearhead of about 150,000 online sympathizers. Representatives of sponsors like Pfizer and Microsoft, which pay Norquist a lot of money for his anti-tax crusade, which has saved them a lot of money, also attend the Wednesday sessions.
Norquist, sitting at the head of the table like a general, speaks in Churchill quotes -- demanding blood, sweat and tears in the fight against the "greedy monster of the state, which must be tamed." Can't the state achieve anything that the market isn't capable of doing? It's the wrong question for Norquist, who says: "When you look at the Pyramids, that's really cool. Versailles is really cool, but the peasants might have wanted some of that money they spent on Versailles."
His Wednesday group is called "Leave Us Alone," a quasi-religious service for those who believe in the anti-state. The notion that America could use more tax revenues to repair its broken roads, ports and schools is considered blasphemy here. And so is the question of whether a single family like the Waltons, the co-owners of the Walmart discount chain of superstores, should be allowed to own as much as the poorest 30 percent of all Americans.
The Democrats count Norquist as one of the "tax Taliban," arguing that Norquist has only one solution for those who don't agree with him: "Off with their heads." Norquist chuckles. But haven't the Taliban won? And is there anything he should be ashamed of? In Washington, it's easy to conclude that it's impossible to engage in politics against someone like Norquist. But what does this say about America's democratic culture? And what does it say about the culture of Washington today?
Bravado and Absurdities
Few people are more familiar with this culture than journalist Dana Milbank. He doesn't just write about the Washington establishment; he is the Washington establishment. In his student days, Milbank was a member of Skull & Bones, the legendary secret society at Yale University, whose members include former President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry. Milbank attends every important off-the-record meeting in the capital, and in his column he dissects with relish the bravado and absurdities of Washington politics.
Milbank, 44, meets with us at the Willard Hotel, an old establishment in which, as legend has it, the term lobbyist was invented. Petitioners allegedly waited in the hotel's lobby for President Ulysses Grant. Chronicler Milbank also muses about the past: "Parties in America used to be heterogeneous. Each party would have conservatives and liberals and moderates. Now, there's no longer a center in American politics."
As a result, says Milbank, Washington has become the capital of lonely hearts. In the past, members of Congress brought their families to the capital, and their children played together. Today the new Tea Party lawmakers sleep on the couch in their offices to prove that they haven't become a part of the establishment. "Now what happens is they come in Tuesday afternoon and they leave Thursday night," says Milbank.
The 112th US Congress has been the most unproductive Congress since the end of World War II. When lawmakers were supposed to come to an agreement during a few dramatic weeks last summer over reducing the country's gigantic debt burden, the task was initially assigned to a bipartisan "Gang of Six." It failed. Then a "Gang of Twelve," made up of the most level-headed lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, tried its hand. There was still no agreement.
Ironically, compromise is what the United States of America urgently needs. The country's infrastructure is crumbling. Its administration, especially the government in Washington, is urgently in need of renewal. Public schools and large segments of the education system are in disastrous shape, as are many cultural institutions.
A Poor Country
The fiscal and social systems are still designed for a superior economy that derives its prosperity from constant growth in consumption. But the old days, in which everything worked out somehow, thanks to the sheer energy of a great country, are drawing to a close. America has no plan for its future as a nation that is still powerful, but no longer superior.
Many problems are simply ignored. Los Angeles, for example, is the biggest Thai city outside Thailand and the world's third-largest Spanish-speaking city. Three-fourths of all children in the giant Los Angeles school district speak Spanish. The obvious question -- Is this or is this not a problem? -- isn't asked.
But the spirit of multiculturalism that prevails in the cities on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts is not shared by all. In the forests, deserts and mountains, and in the states along the southern borders, a new sense of anxiety -- and a new racism -- is taking shape in the form of new, crude immigration laws. Local ethnic conflicts are heating up in southern California, Texas, Arizona, Alabama and Florida that are hardly ever mentioned in national debates. But they won't go away on their own.
Another problem is the fact that the United States is a poor country, at least in much larger parts of it than the world suspects, and that its unsophisticated backwaters are populated by people who lives in huts and run-down mobile homes, people who often lack the bare necessities and, even more often, lack so much as an elementary education. There are an estimated 11 million immigrants in the country, about half of them Mexicans. Almost one in four teenagers is unemployed. There is no question that American needs a new plan.
Does it need a new president? The question is certainly justified. What has Obama done to address his large country's many serious problems? Not enough. Could he have done more, not just at home but in the rest of the world? Probably. Have the Republicans starved him? Undoubtedly. But would their candidate Mitt Romney, the mysterious, filthy rich Mormon, be the better president? Most certainly not.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan