Monthly Archives: March 2017

Can Anyone Govern?

The Republican Party has spent much of the last two months demonstrating its Second Amendment cred by using its own feet for target practice. President Trump piddled away political capital on misdemeanor mendacities and twitter fritter. The fireworks planned for Obamacare repeal damp squibbed into embarrassing flunk and failure. Mounting evidence of Russian electoral meddling has done little to stem the GOP smoochie-grams to Putin. No wonder the polls are down and the electorate’s blood is up.

Given the mortifying early returns on GOP jefe-dom it’s not surprising that an increasing number of people are asking: Can the Republicans govern? And to be clear, this isn’t just me, or the Democrats, or the media, or that guy whispering secret sweet-nothings into Devin Nunes’ ear after midnight in the White House shadows. Nope, Republicans themselves are raising the issue. As Florida Congressman Tom Rooney put it this week, “I’ve been in this job eight years, and I’m wracking my brain to think of one thing our party has done that’s positive.” Yowza. If the cast admits they’re not ready for prime time, just imagine what the critics make of the show.

Given that their playbook so far seems to consist of the four Fs–flub, fluff, fib and fumble—questioning the GOP’s governing capabilities is reasonable enough. Reasonable, yes, but it also distracts from a deeper and more fundamental question: can anyone can govern the republic, given the hot mess in Washington, DC?

I fear there’s a reasonable chance that the answer is a negative. This is due in no small part to the current mismatch between the political system’s ground rules and the ground realities of how contemporary politics is conducted.  A lot of people in American politics, like certain presidents and Freedom Caucuses I could mention, act like they’re in a Westminster system. In other words in a classic parliamentary set up similar to the UK. That is government based on the philosophy that if anything is going to get done you have to give the windbags in the majority the unquestioned juice to do it. So you might have a legislative chamber with plenty of hurly and bags of burly, but it’s a domicile of democracy very different from the US House and Senate. Power is strongly concentrated, the executive leads the legislature, members of the majority party tend to be unified, and backbenchers toe the party line.

That’s a very different way of doing things compared to the system of divided government we have in the United States. The operating philosophy here is that no agglomeration of ballot box carpetbaggers should get their hands on enough power to do any serious damage, at least not without a lot of help. Rather than stuffing power into one big confection and letting the majority party gorge on it, the US system parcels out power in calorie-controlled portions. The US system scatters power across its elected institutions like sprinkles on a cupcake.

So getting anything done typically requires more than just a majority, but a peck of wheeling and a parcel of dealing. Old school legislators—the Tip O’Neills, the Bob Michels—made their political careers on helping to stitch together differing interests within an institutional context they thoroughly understood. This often meant not just managing a fractious party caucus, but a sensitivity to inter-chamber dynamics, and a working relationship with whatever ingrate was in the White House. More often than not this meant you had to work with the opposite party in some fashion to get anything worthwhile done. These guys understood that the system worked best, and maybe only worked at all, with some level of good-faith compromise. Don’t get too misty-eyed about bygone eras of party comity, there were still a lot of sharp partisan elbows being thrown about. The difference was that the grown-ups running the joint knew if they couldn’t scrape together enough of those sprinkles, the system simply wouldn’t chew the legislative pastry.

Current GOP poo-bahs don’t seem to get this. They seem to think, or at least did before their healthcare plans went pear shaped, that their majority gave them the power to unilaterally call the tune, Westminster-style.  That seems a dangerous assumption given that roughly half the Republican Party suspects the other half of collusion and apostasy, and what’s left over is being driven to Xanax and Zoloft by cack-handed muddle bums machine-gunning tootsies down at the White House. Seriously, the booed dude at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue seems to have only a dim idea of how the system works at all. Who knew about all those incredibly arcane legislative rules the president complained of? Well, if Team Trump ever wants to get anything done, somebody should find out (we have seats available in POL SCI 101, just sayin’). On the other end of the executive-legislative axis, the few dozen uber-conservatives in the Freedom Caucus seem to view any type of compromise as anathema, so within the context of the United States political system they are simply not serious about governing.  What they are deadly serious about, and extremely good at, is preventing anyone else from governing. Paul Ryan can’t fix this as Speaker of the House. He is not a mini-prime minister. He’s more like a hall monitor.

It might be easier to ignore all the bats flitting about the Republican belfry and actually get something done if GOP moderates could find a way to work across the aisle. Fat chance of that. For one thing, these days GOP moderates are rarer than truth in a Trump tweet. And even if they were available in plentiful numbers, willing Democratic partners are probably not. The Democrats were clearly paying close attention as Mitch McConnell, the Republican Party’s Senate equivalent of Emperor Palpatine, spent the Obama years turning the Republican Party into the Greatest No on Earth. The eight-year partisan blockade obviously paid big political dividends—bagged the Republicans a unified majority, successful shoplifting of a Supreme Court seat, and look at all the sprinkles we got! Thus shown the power of the dark side of the Force, the newly constituted Darth Dems seem committed to exploiting it for themselves. Which is why I wouldn’t expect the federal government to get much done at all, at least in the short term. The Republicans strategy of not playing ball until they controlled the whole game paid off. But now they are finding they can’t make the big score because the rules make it really, really hard to do that if no one else wants to play with you. And right now, no one does. Not even a lot of Republicans.

 

Facts Bite Back

 

After being hunted to near extinction over the past year, facts are making a modest comeback. There have been confirmed sightings of modest-sized pods of veracity in the nation’s capital, and in resurfacing they’ve been quick to demonstrate why they were once considered the apex predators of politics. This week the fangs of verity sank deep into the posteriors of various members of DC’s piffle and perjury squad. You could hear the squeals all the way out here in flyover country.

The sorest fact-bitten keister clearly belonged to the president. And no wonder. Early in the week the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the head of the National Security Agency toddled up to Capitol Hill and, in so many words, publically announced, “The President of the United States is, (a), a big fat fibber, and (b), if we open up this here bag of facts we’ve been collecting we’re genuinely worried that they will not just jump out and bite him in the ass, but literally masticate his buttocks off.”

While the FBI and NSA poo-bahs were testifying, the Donald was trying to keep it all under the tweets with his patented 140-character diversionary ditties. Look, he said, the head of the FBI and the NSA are telling Congress that Russia did not influence the election. Forced into fact checking the president in real time while still testifying before a Congressional committee, the heads of said agencies replied, um, no, that’s absolutely not what we’re saying. And so was added another a five-Pinocchio, pants-on-fire assessment to a presidential statement. By the chiefs of his own government’s security and intelligence agencies, no less. And thus a newly hatched historical fact jumped out of that bag, gnashed its chompers and headed straight for the front page and Donald’s derriere.

It wasn’t just the president, though, dealing with the unchained hounds of verisimilitude. Fox News was having similar problems. One of its wind generators, Andrew Napolitano, had claimed on air that Barack Obama had sought the help of British intelligence to spy on Trump. There is not a scintilla of evidence to support this explosive assertion, but to no one’s surprise that fact-free moonbeam was soon shining out of the White House portico. Such delusional fudge-o-grams are a staple offerings of the alt-right aluminum-hat conspiracy brigade, and these morsels typically get swallowed by the news cycle without causing heartburn to those who issue or promote them. But not this time.

Agog and in high dudgeon, the Brits demanded an apology. Nuh-uh, won’t do it, said the Trumpsters, and stuck their tongues out.  Through gritted teeth and stiff upper lips the nations’ closest ally more or less said, “Christ, have you Yanks have gone completely potty? You realize this sort of stuff can have serious consequences, right?” As it all tipped into international incident territory, Sean Spicer had to tap dance even faster than usual and Fox was compelled to yank Napolitano off the air. They also issued a public statement that said, “Jeez, you don’t actually believe any of the shinola put out by the wingnut tattle trust we employ, do you?”, or at least words to that effect. This was followed by thuds resembling the sound of distant artillery bursts as Shep Smith and Chris Wallace hit the ceiling.

Most people have been chalking all this up as tallies in their political win-loss columns. The Bernie Bros and Never Trumpers are chortling and enjoying a “W.” The Trumpinistas, well, they never admit a loss, but seem to concede this is looking like a tie. There’s a more hopeful lesson here, though, than who won this week’s round of shout and pout. It’s not just the appearance of facts, but their resurgent bite, that seems noteworthy. At least for a news cycle, the facts sent their alternative doppelgangers mewling back to the twaddle vendors and bunkum wholesalers from whence they came. We’re in a political world where that is not a particularly common occurrence.

The demonstrable fact that it can happen, though, gives us some modest leeway to imagine that we’re not yet in the post-truth political and social system that recent experience has suggested. Can you imagine a world where elected leaders and cable news personalities who make a habit of spritzing unsubstantiated and inflammatory cow flop across the civic discourse get held accountable for doing so? Perchance even suffered the odd consequence or two? That sounds pretty good to me.

It would be nice, of course, if this state of affairs didn’t require having the heads of security and intelligence agencies in Congress and under oath, and/or having to impugn the British government and its double-oh machinery. The best path to this happy state is for those who play a prominent role in our national discourse to simply pause and think about consequences before ejecting yet more risible rhubarb out of their pie holes. Could that actually happen?

Possibly. After the embarrassing disaster of the James Bondian whoppers from Napalitano, maybe Fox News windbags will be a little more inclined to sober analysis and a little less to bombast and fishy allegation. Smith and Wallace have been trying to nudge them this way, and once those two get excavated from the ceiling tiles, hopefully they’ll continue doing so. Maybe the president, or at least some grown up in the vicinity of his phone, will cotton to the notion that sophistry rationed out in two-sentence social media dollops is not a rational basis for governance.

I’m not holding out too much hope, mind you. Facts are still pretty much on the political endangered lists. But wouldn’t it be great if we actually could grow and harvest our facts sustainably, and keep the polluting fertilizer that feeds the crops of division and divisiveness to a minimum.  There are certainly going to be consequences if we cannot. After all, it’s not like facts actually can go extinct. No one can really kill a fact, recent experience just shows they can be chased out of the political arena for extended periods of time. They can’t be kept out forever though. And the longer people collude to keep them out, the higher the probability that when they do stampede back in they will bite all of us in the butt.

Sleep State Government

Arthur Laffer is a reality-optional economist best known for convincing people who should know better that supply side fairy tales can come true. His most influential feat of magic bean counting is the have-cake-will-eat theory that cutting taxes increases government revenues. Governments attempting to harvest fiscal windfalls from enchanted Laffer legumes, as a general rule, have not fared well. Look at Kansas. It gulped down the Laffer Tax Cut Kool-Aid in 2012 and has been piddling red ink ever since.

While Laffer is best known for peddling economic moonbeams, his notoriety among political scientists—at least those who study bureaucracy and public policy—is tied to his somewhat tenuous grasp of the reality of government bureaucracy and the programs it runs. He is notorious in my crowd for a particular contribution to the bellicose breast beating that surrounded the Obamacare debate back in 2009. At the time, Laffer went onto a CNN wind fest to argue against Obamacare and did so by warning viewers that if they thought the Post Office was run poorly, “just wait ‘til you see Medicaid, Medicare … run by the government.”

Intended as a cutting dismissal of the Obamacare proposal, a pitch slap if you will, his remark sent coffee shooting out the noses of political scientists everywhere. Why? Well, Obamacare was never going to cause a government takeover of Medicaid and Medicare because—prepare for a shocker–the government already ran Medicaid and Medicare. Government always ran Medicaid and Medicare. They are, after all, government programs run by government bureaucracies. You’d think a Stanford Ph.D. would know this. Heck, we polisci types thought everyone knew this. How wrong we were. Protests against the Obamacare legislation were soon speckled with protesters carrying Laffer-approved slogans like “Keep Government Out of My Medicare” and “Don’t Steal from My Medicare to Support Socialized Medicine.” It wasn’t any use pointing out that Medicare already was a government-run form of socialized healthcare. Believe me we tried, and spreading such facts around was not an activity for the faint of heart. People acted as if we’d strolled into Starbucks and started flicking boogers into their lattes.

Laffer’s dire warnings of the government taking over, um, the government was way more effective than many in my professional parish thought possible. Turns out that he was simply channeling a common belief that government bureaucracy and programs are bad. Period. And if something is popular and well-liked or at least useful it cannot, by definition, be a government program or come from a government bureaucracy. This, of course, is logically both flap and doodle and for the most part it doesn’t matter. The mumble and moonshine that partisan piffle mongers blow up the masses of the electorate rarely threaten the agencies and programs making important contributions to the common weal. Well, at least as long as the grownups actually running those things don’t buy in. If the grownups get told to take a powder and leave the get-the-government-out-of-government fact fiddlers in charge, though, it might be a problem. So, Houston, we definitely got us a problem.

We currently have a government that is, in effect, Laffer-like committed to governing against government. Of late this has been most prominently displayed by the alt-right hooey hurlers getting the vapors about a “deep state” thwarting Trumpian policy aims. This is the idea is that the Obama administration somehow stuffed loyal sleeper agents into the federal bureaucracy like blueberries into a muffin. These spawn of Machiavelli somehow still manage to run everything even though they are not actually in charge of anything. Apparently they take their marching orders from coded emojis beamed from Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server right into Kellyanne Conway’s microwave. Or something like that. Like everyone else, I’m kind of fuzzy on the details.

It doesn’t matter because it’s not the deep state that is going to do any serious damage to the ability of the federal government to carry out its policy and programmatic responsibilities. It’s the sleep state. Right now the Trump administration is anesthetizing a broad swath of the federal government’s capabilities. This is partially being accomplished by simply failing to staff federal bureaucracies with the political appointees that normally provide the policy and programmatic direction desired by the guy in the Oval Office. Right now there are literally hundreds of unfilled appointments in federal agencies. It’s bad enough when the top positions are manned by empty suits (a not uncommon occurrence), but we’re talking empty chairs.

Wikipedia keeps a running tally of Trump appointments. If you click on over there and drop down to the lists of federal agencies that do big important stuff what you’ll see is a lot of nuthin’. Forget appointments, right now there are no nominees for secretaries of the Army or  Navy, Chief of the National Guard, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Commandant of the Coast Guard, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, no ambassador to a whole slew of big-ass important countries (Germany, France, India). Nobody is in charge of the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, there’s no Director of the U.S. Mint, there’s no commissioner of the Social Security Administration. I’m just hitting a few highlights. The deputies, assistants, and associate secretaries, directors and administrators—the political middle-management that actually does the work of carrying water for a president’s policy agenda—are mostly blanks. Right now the federal government is largely incapable of systematically and coherently implementing anybody’s political or policy agenda because there’s nobody there to do it.

Even more alarming than the narcosis induced by enforced absenteeism are the bold plans for outright euthanasia. We haven’t got full details on Trump’s budget, but from what we do know the White House is hoping to stuff the military with cash and tell everyone else to get stuffed. The Coast Guard, the EPA, and federal support for everything from rural airports to meals on wheels is on the chopping block. The pattern of anti-government government is made even clearer by some of the appointments Trump has made. An anti-public school billionaire (Betsy DeVos) is running the nation’s Department of Education, and the Environmental Protection Agency is headed by a guy who thinks the fossil fuel industry knows what’s best for the environment (Scott Pruitt). The Department of Energy is in the capable hands of Rick Perry, someone who, (a) openly declared while running for president that he was committed to getting rid of the DOE, (b) kind of forgot point (a) even though he was still committed to doing it (don’t ask), and (c) when tapped to run the agency he wanted to eliminate but forgot he wanted to get rid of, it became painfully obvious that he was only vaguely aware of what that agency actually did. Somebody should have told him it was in charge of regulating Red Bull consumption.

Now a lot of people are in full-throated support of this open assault on federal agencies. Trump says a lot of the appointments aren’t needed because it’s just a heap of useless, redundant bureaucrats. And lots of Americans think there’s too much federal bureaucracy and want to see less of it. And I’m here to tell ya that a lot of those attitudes are backed by not much more than Laffer-logic fairy dust. Sure, government agencies do some dumb things, and yeah, we probably can organize things to be a little leaner and meaner.

But don’t kid yourself. Those agencies also do a lot of stuff we like and it’s going to sting if that’s taken away. It’s great to get a good rant on about wasteful government, but when a hurricane hits it sure as hell ain’t Goldman Sachs flying into the storm to rescue sailors in peril. If rural farmers want better foreign markets for their crops it helps to have savvy appointees in the Department of Commerce fighting in their corner at international trade conferences. If foreign governments seeking alliances see how dark it is over at the State Department, you can bet your bippy China and Russia still have the lights on.  What’s going on right now is not a rational attempt to run a tighter federal ship, it’s just pointing the boat at an iceberg and setting the engines to all ahead full. While some might smile at the thought of the feds going smash, denuding the government of the United States of America of its basic functional competence is, make no mistake, going to hurt. Everybody.

So if you agree with Laffer and think the prospect of government taking over government programs is scary, just wait until you see what happens when they don’t.

Brittle House on the Prairie

Nebraska’s state government is a strange and wonderful thing. To start with, it is an institution rife with sexual innuendo owing to its unusually phallic domicile. Wikipedia says the state capital building thrusting skywards from downtown Lincoln is popularly known as the “Tower on the Plains.” Hah. Check out the picture above and you tell me what it looks like. That’s right, it does. Out here in flyover country we call it, “the penis on the prairie.” And swinging below this 400-foot high art deco putz is, no dicking around, a one testicle legislature.*

Nebraska is the only state in the union with a unicameral, non-partisan governing assembly. It is actually these traits rather than the over-compensating jumbo johnson architecture that makes it really, really different from Congress and every other state legislature. It contains no minority or majority party and no internecine rivalries between upper and lower chambers. It has only 49 members, meaning Nebraska has the fewest elected legislators of any state.

No political parties? No House-versus-Senate snit squads? Total membership in the Most Noble Order of Hot Air Traffickers limited to what will fit on the average bus? That all sounds pretty good to most people. But, does it work? As in, could it provide an example to Congress of how to do things better? Well, maybe. Especially if people will let it.

The Unicam has been an eighty-year experiment in a very different sort of way to run government. Sure, anyone can figure out who in the chamber is actually a Republican and who’s really a Democrat. They might run as non-partisan, but state senators generally make no secret of what party they boogie with. Still, while legislators are not scrubbed clean of all political loyalties when they enter the chamber, there seems to be little doubt the absence of the party whip has a certain liberating quality. Republicans have regularly voted for Democrats to be powerful committee chairs and vice versa. Lacking party caucuses, at least inside the chamber, there’s remarkably little of the sort of partisan Hatfields and McCoys irrational blood feuds so characteristic of contemporary governing institutions.

Instead, coalitions have tended to be fluid, forming around one issue only to dissolve and re-form around another. The closest thing to an institutionalized split is an urban-rural divide, but even that’s pretty blurry, with both types generally getting on with each other. Even if it’s not a Unicam utopia, it’s generally been a place with a damn sight more civility and comity than the slander factories often found polluting the commonweal with bluster and accusation under capitol domes.

There are two groups that aren’t too thrilled with these shockingly high lawmaker kumbaya levels. The first is, believe it or not, political scientists. For my crowd it’s mostly an issue of representation and accountability. We’ve repeatedly proven that the sum total of an average voter’s (accurate) political knowledge can be written in large letters on one side of a Starbucks receipt. And have room to spare. What most voters do know about politics, though, is that Republicans and Democrats are different—one is more righty, one is more lefty. Party labels, then, provide voters with a quick, semi-informed basis on which to vote and hold government accountable.

Take away those party labels and people do not suddenly say, “ah crap, I better start reading detailed policy proposals and looking up voting records so I can sort these suckers out.” Nope. Lacking a party label, voters simply search for something else easy to latch onto, which like as not is candidate name. Recognize it? More likely to vote for it. Dudes also seem to get more voter love, so having some manly-man moniker like Duke Studmuffin is probably more of an asset than something like Lucy Limp-Lemon. Out here in Nebraska something recognizably German or Danish is probably a good vote-getter. Something sporting tildes dancing merrily above multiple syllables probably not so much. Being a good old fashioned “Al” is likely a plus. On the other hand, “al-Harambi” isn’t likely to get the vote machines ringing. As a rule, political scientists generally view picking lawmakers on the basis of last name diphthong counts as a poor basis for representative democracy. So until every citizen enthusiastically signs up for Intro to American Politics at the local U, professional scholars of government would prefer party labels on the ballot.

The other group that really wants party labels put back is, not surprisingly, political parties. Or more specifically, the Republican Party. The GOP quite correctly surmises that if the Unicam was partisan it would rule the roost and could get down to the serious business of turning Nebraska into Kansas. Nebraska is a very red state and the number of senators with a known Republican Party affiliation is well north of 30, while known Democrats are not even half that. What drives the GOP bats is the fact that this huge majority often doesn’t do them much good. Senators regularly and routinely wander away from the party line, bouncing back and forth depending on the issue. Republicans have supported expanding Medicaid, ending the death penalty, allowing illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses and all manner of other insults and heresies to Republican Party orthodoxy.

In Congress and pretty much every other state, punishment for such partisan backsliding is likely to be certain and swift. It’s a lot harder to primary a party apostate, though, when there’s no party primary. It must gripe them no end, but Republicans in Nebraska have discovered that political scientists are essentially correct—no party labels means most voters are never quite sure what their representatives have been up to. And, at least in Nebraska, that’s turned out to be not necessarily a bad thing. Freed from the hammer of party discipline, senators have been much more likely to pay something approaching reasoned and thoughtful attention to the issues at hand. Fancy that.

This much displeases party grandees, especially our governor the Very Republican Pete Ricketts. Corralling any legislature is hard enough, but feline flocking a non-partisan assembly into lockstep fealty to a party agenda has proven dang near impossible. Ricketts and the GOP are certainly putting in the effort, though, and they seem to be making some headway. They are aided by two things—Ricketts is bona fide billionaire and the legislature is term limited. This means the guv’s deep pockets can help recruit and promote the candidacies of sworn party supplicants, and as senators regularly get term limited out there are plenty of open seats for them to run for. If you’ve got a big enough group of devout partisans with more loyalty to the governor than to the institution in which they serve, chances are you can start to approximate the ideological follies common in every other legislature.

And, sure enough, the little house on the prairie is starting to wobble from this concentrated attempt to make it more partisan. In the most recent session there was a lot more obvious partisanship than usual in selecting committee chairs. The legislature spent an inordinate amount of time debating rules changes that would allow smaller majorities to ram through legislation. Partisan elbows went out in the selection of committee chairs. Levels of irritation, if not outright animosity, have ratcheted up a bit. The Unicam has shuffled closer to the norm of lawmaking by partisan prattle and pretense.

And that’s a shame. What the Unicam has shown is that a non-partisan representative legislature can work, and work well, within the political system of the United States. Rather than trying to get rid of it, it might be a better idea to emulate it. Could that really happen? Sure. If only some people had the balls to let it.

*the “one testicle legislature” label was, as far as I’m aware, coined by Dan Moser, former local NPR personality and very funny guy. You should follow him: @danmoser1961.

Politics Needs More Grown-Ups

Government has never lacked for callow windbags with straight teeth and crooked morals, but the junior varsity junta currently running things must be setting some sort of record for puerility. The maturity level of the flummery flingers holding federal office currently hovers somewhere between the terrible twos and that awkward stage of adolescence where everything is a spastic response to a hormone surge. There’s no doubt about it, we need more grown-ups in government.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. The most common grown-up response to the elementary school food fight that increasingly constitutes modern politics is not resistance but a migraine. The thought of taking on the chore of pulling Donald Trump off his mama’s tweet and telling Paul Ryan to stop squirting ideological milk out of his booger hole is enough to give anyone a headache. It’d be better if there was help from other partisan quarters. Mostly what’s over there, though, is the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They seem to be concentrating on showing the world they can expectorate moo juice further out their snoot shooters than Ryan can. Kids!

Believe it or not, we actually used to have people in government who had long outgrown the sort of playground slap fests that currently substitute for reasoned lawmaking. I was reminded of this the other week while reading the obituary of Robert Michel, who recently passed away at the ripe old age of 93. He spent nearly 40 years as a member of the House of Representatives, serving the last 14 as party leader. He was a conservative, he was a Republican, and he was a genuinely decent guy. Above all, though, he was a grown-up and his exit from politics offers some insight into the juvenilia his successors seem to be so enamored with. It also offers some sobering insights into why we’re not likely to see grown-ups come back to politics for some time.

Michel spent his entire congressional career in the minority—four stinking decades of second banana billing in the big house. These days being in opposition gives elected officials the fantods, prompting a good deal of foot stamping, thumb sucking, and a general lack of temper modulation. Actually, that also pretty much describes the majority party. While Michel certainly can’t have enjoyed being permanently outnumbered, temper tantrums weren’t his style. He fought his party’s corner hard, but he generally put good governance above scoring ideological points. He practiced politics as the art of the possible, angling to secure a gettable half-loaf rather than screaming for the entire bakery and having a conniption when he didn’t get it. He was GOP to his core, but this didn’t stop him from working with or respecting Democrats like Tip O’Neill, Tom Foley (both House speakers), and Dan Rostenkowski (long-time chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee). He even got on with Bill Clinton.

It was just these sorts of grown-up traits that cost him his political career. I spent an afternoon with him in his congressional office back in ’91 or ’92, and by then it was clear Republican back benchers were out for his blood, and he knew it. He told me in so many words that he was deeply worried about that crowd not because they were after his job—that was just business—but because they didn’t want to be grown-ups. What they wanted was power, they wanted it now, and they intended to use it to ram through a policy agenda with no lame-o Bob Michel compromises. That new generation was led by a rhetorical bomb thrower by the name of Newt Gingrich. Michel retired just before his own caucus could get their knives into him. Shortly after he left Democratic fortunes waned and the GOP finally got its majority.

And what did they do with that newfound power? Well they impeached Clinton for shagging interns, shut down the entire daggum gumint because if-we-can’t-have-it-no-one-can, pinkie-swore fealty to a mashup of moonbeams and hornswoggle called the Contract With America, and generally acted like teenagers who just found the keys to dad’s liquor cabinet. They didn’t want to work with Democrats and they didn’t respect them. Gingrich called them “traitors,” the party of “total bizarreness, total weirdness,” and, most famously, the “enemy of normal Americans.” Plus Dems had cooties, everyone knows that.

Newt didn’t last that long because his unwavering conservative principles coexisted with a set of moral standards that wavered like jelly on a jackhammer. While he was moralizing about Clinton’s horny-goat antics he was cheating on his wife. He got caught working dodgy financial side-deals that traded on his day job. He had the dubious distinction of being the first-ever Speaker to be reprimanded by the House for ethics violations. You might think that seeing Newt and his merry band of hucksters and hypocrites in action for a few years would leave people thinking, “is Bob Michel is still around? Think we could get him to run again?” If so, you’d be wrong. The main lesson learned was, “Hey, Newt won. Think if we called the Democrats booger heads we could win more elections?” The answer to that was, pretty much, yes. And that’s set the tone ever since. While primarily a phenomenon originating on the right, the left has enthusiastically joined in. The Democrats’ statesman-like response to being called booger heads was, in so many words, “oh yeah?  WELL YOU’RE ALL FART FACES.” Plus, they said it in all caps so you know they were serious.

With adult supervision somebody could have told both sides to stop poking each other with sticks before they put someone’s eye out. Increasingly, though, adults became thin on the ground in both political parties (especially in the House Republican caucus), and when they did show up the children ran them off or made their lives so miserable they were glad to get the hell out (see how happy Obama looks these days).

As you might imagine, putting the kids in charge doesn’t lend itself to rational decision making, or any decision making at all. House Republicans currently have what The New York Times politely calls a “wonk gap,” which is a nice way of saying that they have a caucus stuffed with way too many Newt Gingriches and not enough Bob Michels. They’ve got a lot of bumper sticker barnstormers who can get the base frothing at the mouth, but pitifully few of the compromise-oriented swotters and detail geeks that have the temperament and maturity to get things done. This makes it hard to enact policy even in the majority. Governing is hard. Who knew?

Well, we should have. Parents often get blamed for the behavior of naughty children, the general thinking being that kids who are irresponsible, obnoxious and generally incapable of playing nice with others must not be getting the right values and discipline at home. And in this case there’s a good deal of truth to that. The rascals in DC are not going change their behavior unless they get a good old fashioned ear bending—maybe even a butt spanking—from dear old mom and dad. And that’s us. As voters we collectively birthed that brat house and until they start acting like adults—which doesn’t seem likely any time soon—they’re our responsibility.  We used to be able to rely on the Bob Michels to herd the rotunda romper room toward governing responsibly. No more. There’s none of those guys left because as an electorate we pretty much abandoned them.

I say it’s high time we found some more Bob Michels. That first requires all of us to grow the heck up.