Can Washington Be Fixed?

The war. Healthcare. Airline delays. Katrina. Americans are fed up with inaction—and demanding change.

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There they go again.

The White House and Congress are in a nasty stalemate over expanding access to children's healthcare. President Bush predicts a "fiscal showdown" this fall with Democratic legislators over virtually all his spending priorities. "We're now more than halfway through October, and the new leaders in Congress have had more than nine months to get things done for the American people," Bush told a news conference last week. "Unfortunately, they haven't managed to pass many important bills. Now the clock is winding down, and in some key areas, Congress is just getting started." In a familiar tit for tat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shot back: "There is no better example of why Washington is not working for the American people than the president claiming to seek common ground at the same time he is bitterly attacking Congress."

Beyond that, no solution has emerged for the subprime mortgage meltdown that may cost hundreds of thousands of Americans their homes and endangers the wider economy. The Iraq war grinds on, with no apparent end in sight. Idaho Sen. Larry Craig is reviving the sleaze-factor saga that has been so damaging to Washington by trying to withdraw his guilty plea to disorderly conduct stemming from a restroom sex sting.

It's the constant refrain from the presidential candidates, political scientists, and, most important of all, everyday Americans: Washington is broken. Rancorous partisanship has nearly paralyzed the government. The nation's leaders have lost touch with the people. Above all, it's time for a change. Historians and pollsters say the zeitgeist is clear. Americans are more frustrated with their government today than they have been in a long time, even more so than during the Watergate scandal. And those negative feelings have become the subtext of the 2008 presidential race. "Distrust of politicians and politics are part of American culture," says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer. "But the distrust is getting worse."

With good reason. The government can't seem to solve any of its major problems, from reforming Social Security to illegal immigration. "Anytime there is a major policy failure," such as the disastrous government response to Hurricane Katrina, Zelizer says, "it decreases Americans' belief that government can do good." The Democrats and Republicans are increasingly relying on their base voters and aren't reaching out to anyone else, making compromise nearly impossible. Corruption scandals have increased public cynicism. The 24-hour news cycle emphasizes conflict and wrongdoing more than ever. The Iraq war has deepened the nation's anxiety. President Bush and Congress endure record-low approval ratings. In fact, 7 out of 10 Americans now say the country is headed in the wrong direction. "People feel nothing gets done in Washington, that the hot air of summer has become a permanent condition," says Kenneth Duberstein, former White House chief of staff for Ronald Reagan.

The need for change is such a dominant theme that all the main presidential contenders are calling for an end to business as usual. The Democrats, trying to draw contrasts with the GOP White House of George W. Bush, are the most pointed. Front-runner Hillary Clinton says her experience as first lady and as a senator from New York enables her to bring more positive and effective change than her rivals. "She has represented change all her life," says Mark Penn, her chief strategist , "and she's been fighting the special interests all her life." Illinois Sen. Barack Obama goes further. "There are those who tout their experience working the system in Washington," Obama says. "But the problem is the system in Washington isn't working for us, and it hasn't been for a very long time." And John Edwards told U.S. News: "Washington is severely broken. And I think the system is rigged, and I think it's rigged against the American people and it's rigged by powerful interests and their lobbyists in Washington."

The Republicans are more restrained in attacking Bush, the titular head of their party, but they realize that public resentment of the status quo runs deep. "When, every day, Americans are being shot and Iraqis are being blown up, it feels lousy," says former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. "I happen to think that the failures in Iraq have a great deal to do with the wrong-track sentiment that exists in the country today."