Outside editorial: Political entrenchment

Posted: Monday, March 10, 2008

The following editorial first appeared in the Washington Post:

T he absence of competitive congressional districts takes a toll on the political process. As one keen observer of the matter told us Thursday, with "polarizing, tough issues" such as immigration or the war in Iraq, members of Congress are "worried about taking a rational position" because they fear being punished in primaries by challengers questioning their ideological purity. "So you see the tendency is for these congressmen to head to the flanks to fend off the primary (challenge). They have no worry about the general election."

The surprising thing in this statement is not the content but the speaker: the president of the United States. In a meeting with The Washington Post editorial board Thursday, President Bush touched on topics from free trade to immigration, but one of his most illuminating answers came when we asked why he had not been more successful in finding the common ground he talked about as a presidential candidate and whether he thought his successor, whoever he or she may be, would be able to do better. Bush's analysis of the structural problems that have interfered with his ability to accomplish things is correct - and it points, unhappily, to problems that are likely to plague the next president as well. Certainly the president didn't cite this as the only factor inhibiting bipartisanship. We don't think it is, either, but it is one that is real and fixable.

We have long warned about the pernicious consequences of entrenched incumbency and gerrymandered congressional districts. Such districts, as the president noted, produce a Congress more ideologically polarized than the electorate it represents. A House of Representatives in which members need only tend to their bases may be good for those re-elected to the majority of seats year after year, but it is bad for the country when moderates in both parties are increasingly squeezed out of the process. Politicians forced to the ideological fringes produce bad legislation or, more often, partisan gridlock that results in no legislation at all on the crucial issues facing the country. Enormous sums are devoted to the scant handful of truly competitive races. A more vibrant process would not provide a panacea for all that ails the modern politics, but it would remove one roadblock to the ability to find common legislative ground and forge common-sense solutions.

The temptation for Bush's critics will be to dismiss his observations as too little, too late, from a tainted source. After all, Bush's party benefited enormously from the outrageous mid-cycle redistricting engineered in Bush's home state of Texas and with the help of his political architect, Karl Rove. The Texas redistricting took an existing problem and helped raise it to a disturbing new level by promoting the notion of having legislatures redraw lines between censuses, whenever one side or another seized the majority, however fleetingly. The president wasn't exactly lamenting the absence of competitive districts or calling for structural reform then. Fair enough, but the president's point remains an important one. There are various ways to address this situation, whether on a national or state-by-state level, and introduce rationality and nonpartisanship into what threatens to become an even uglier process. Bush's point may come late in his presidency, but it is nonetheless an important one.

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