Behind the Obamacare Temper Tantrum

Underlying the defund movement is simmering anger and economic insecurity.

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Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and the tea party caucus in Congress have been throwing the political equivalent of a temper tantrum. They rhetorically fold their arms and stomp their feet, refusing to let anything happen they don't like. Their threats to shut down the government over defunding Obamacare are just the latest example, but like any tantrum, that is just the flashpoint of a deeper anxiety. Maybe it is time to return to honest and straightforward talk about what ails us to create a strategy to deal with the economic and social shifts that are behind our Congressional dysfunction.

After the banking crisis and recession that began in 2008, Americans still haven't fully recovered. Many are in worse economic shape today than they were 10 years ago. Unemployment is higher. Wages have been stagnant for 30 years. The wealth gap has gotten wider. Housing value and pensions have been lost. In the last 5 years, over 90 percent of the income gains have gone to the top 1 percent of income earners. Manufacturing jobs that were once plentiful have been replaced by computers, robots or cheaper labor abroad. Replacing them are $14 an hour jobs in auto plants that once paid $26 an hour or service related jobs in health care, retail and hospitality.

Meanwhile there is a social transformation taking place as we become more diverse and more urban. For the first time in the nation's history we elected a black man president (and re-elected him). More women work outside the home than ever and their incomes are responsible for any household income growth most families have experienced. In 2003, Democrats who came out for civil unions between gay couples were considered to be on the leading edge. Today legalized gay marriage is a reality with support from the president and Supreme Court. Demographically, African-Americans have been overtaken by Latinos as the largest minority group and white children under five years old will soon be in the minority.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

For middle-aged or older Americans, especially those who live outside of major metropolitan areas, all of this social change on top of the underlying economic shifts can be pretty overwhelming. While educated urban residents celebrate the social changes and are more likely cushioned from the severity of the economic blows, others are just, well, pissed off.

Our political system makes it worse. Gerrymandering has resulted in congressional districts that are so partisan-leaning that minority factions of each party control the politics of the nation because of their strength in primary elections. Voters in the vast swath of the middle can exert influence at the national and statewide levels but are boxed in when voting for legislative candidates.

We can fix these problems.

The social transformation is happening. There is no way to stop it. Those who are uncomfortable will either have to get comfortable or be angry until they die. However, if we can address some of the economic concerns, perhaps people will feel more generous.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

On the economic front voters are anxious to hear a consistent message of economic renewal and see real progress. There are creative ideas bubbling up. The Center for Economic Development, for example, is a proponent of increasing government support for portable savings and development accounts of children and individuals that can be used for education, home ownership or entrepreneurship. The infrastructure bank that has been so tough to get out of Congress would leverage public resources to attract new money from the private sector to modernize American roads, bridges, ports and airports. The president wants to wire 99 percent of schools and libraries with high speed broadband by 2018 through his ConnectED program, bringing the world closer to each student. To do these things we must generate new revenue. Bringing foreign profits back to the United States at a discounted rate is one solution.

Politically, Americans must demand real reform of the redistricting process. Having a nonpartisan commission draw up legislative district lines should produce more competitive districts that lower the influence of party regulars and increase the importance of the less ideological voters in the district.

There will always be political disagreement and jockeying, but the level of dysfunction in Washington is maddening. Although the tea party caucus is the one throwing the tantrum, it makes everyone look bad. Something has to change.

  • Read Robert Schlesinger: Shutdown or Defund Obamacare? Americans Say No in New Poll
  • Read Jamie Stiehm: Harry Reid Is Right to Oppose Republican Food Stamp Cuts
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