The End of Policy

America’s political parties have reached the end of their agendas.

WhiteHouse.govWhiteHouse.govWashington is in a post-policy moment. Congress passes little of substance. Few bills make it to a vote, and those that do are intended as messages, symbols, or stunts, rather than policy reforms. The president makes speeches gesturing toward policy reforms, but they largely repackage old ideas. The true subtext of those speeches, meanwhile, has less to do with the policies themselves and more to do with the gridlock and obstructionism that the Obama administration sees as blocking legislative advances. The last presidential campaign was not fought over new ideas and initiatives, but over policies past. A vote for Romney was a vote to undo the big-ticket policy measures of Obama’s first term. A vote for Obama was a vote to keep them, and try to make them work.

The stasis has not escaped notice. And a convenient conventional wisdom has developed, blaming Republican party obstructionism for refusing to cooperate with Democrats to get the gears of legislation turning again. GOP obstructionism is not imaginary, but this self-serving narrative misses the point. It is not unreasonable for Republicans to decline to cooperate on an agenda they do not support. And if it seems like they rely heavily on blocking tactics, that is because, as a minority party that controls one half of Congress, they have few other tools at their disposal. Republicans can stand in the way. And so they do.

No, the real problem is that Republicans do not have a policy agenda of their own. They have opposition to the president, and a lingering taste for tax cuts, defense spending, and domestic surveillance. And that's about it. 

Democrats have ridiculed Republicans for their limited agenda. "Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call me in the morning," President Obama quipped at last year’s Democratic convention. But they too are stuck in a rut. Yes, as the party of activist government, there is always something more to be done. But the president's party seems nearly as drained of policy energy as the GOP, resting on recycled ideas and expansions of existing programs. 

This is what really lies underneath the recent policy stagnation—not obstructionism, but exhausted party agendas with nowhere left to go. The truth is that both parties have largely achieved their long-term policy goals. And neither has a strong sense of what to do now.

Over the past four decades, the GOP has effectively ensured that relatively low marginal tax rates and spectacularly high levels of defense spending are all enshrined in American politics. Sweeping federal surveillance of civilian communications is entrenched in the government. Bush-era military adventurism has survived a Democrat in the White House. Drone strikes in foreign countries continue. We’re still at war

Democrats, meanwhile, have successfully defended and expanded the entitlement state. Near-universal health care, the holy grail of the American left, is at hand, and the administrative state has grown large and unaccountable. The most recent Republican presidential nominee ran against Democratic cuts to Medicare.

Yes, both parties have made sacrifices along the way. And of course, there is still more both parties say they would like to accomplish. But it’s more of the same. The parties are like middle-aged couples who find themselves in the jobs they always wanted, the homes they hoped they’d have, or at least pretty close. There are still new projects to run and renovations to complete, taxes to be cut and programs to be expanded, but the task is no longer to build toward something. It’s to defend what’s already been done.

One key difference between the two parties, however, is that some Republicans have realized that they are spinning their wheels, and are looking for a way to escape. Hence the various factions vying for a new path forward: Libertarian populists, conservative reformers, neocon revivalists, security-state skeptics, other right-leaning entreprenuers all start from a shared assumption that the Republican party’s policy ammunition is largely spent. The party needs a new story, a new framework, and new ideas to drive it.

Democrats, on the other hand, have not yet taken stock of their situation. But already Obama’s second term resembles a once-promising TV series stretched over far too many seasons. Like so many Republicans in the Bush years, there is widespread belief amongst Democrats that they are ascendant. But much like Republicans during Bush’s second term, they are already running out of steam. Hillary Clinton, the party’s most likely presidential nominee in 2016, is intimately linked to the two previous Democratic administrations, and will run as a defender of their achievements. Beyond Clinton, the party’s bench is weak. It won't be long before Democrats are as exhausted as Republicans are now. 

The end of policy is not permanent. For better or for worse, both parties will eventually settle on new directions and new agendas, perhaps modified only slightly from their old ones, perhaps radically changed. But first, both parties will have to figure out what it is they want, and what they stand for. Republicans, having had an earlier start, are beginning this process, however slowly. Democrats have yet to begin. 

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  • AlmightyJB||

    The official policy is FYTW.

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  • AlmightyJB||

    They can't move go too much farther than they have until they finish building out the Security State. When they can track all your movements and everything you do and say. When they confiscate your weapons. When they federalize local police departments. What then? Baby they're just getting started.

  • Invisible Finger||

    And neither has a strong sense of what to do now.

    They could pack up and retire.

  • Rrabbit||

    The problem can be summarized in merely two words: party agendas. There is not even a faked attempt to do what might be good for the country; it is all about party agendas. Party agendas fueled by corruption and looking ahead to the 2016 elections.

  • Robert||

    And the really sad part is that that's true not only of the politicians, who can at least make a living off it, but even at the grass roots.

  • mtrueman||

    "it is all about party agendas"

    I think this is willfully naive. I think the article is willfully naive for the same reason. To pretend that it's 'all about party agendas' and ignore the agendas of those who fund (to the tune of at least a billion for a presidential campaign) the elections. These agendas show no sign of running out of steam, and are in no way drawn up for the 'good of the country.'

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Not sure I agree with the "sky high" military spending assessment. The US spends 4.4% of GDP on defense and that number is falling. We spent more in the 60's and far more in the 50's. That's not to say that there aren't saving to be had in defense spending. But I'll reiterate that defense (can we just go back to calling it the war department? seems more honest to me...) has just become a Republican shadow entitlement state. We can talk about program cost overruns and $800 hammers but the reality is that what's breaking the bank is TriCare and military entitlements.

    And Team Blue isn't out of ideas. There's always more equality to be had. Of course we need single payer health care in spite of the fact that that is a large contributor to the increase in health expenditures in this country. And since costs are too high we should cut more reimbursement to providers but we can't cut services so that means we should legislate a must-see law for providers, i.e. they cannot refuse to see a patient regardless of payment status. It would just be a slight tweak to EMTALA.

    And I'm sure we need more central control of education. It's truly bothersome that states and local boards have a say in the process at all.

    No to mention this country clearly lacks a coherent, centralized industrial policy. All of this free market nonsense just leads to bad choices. Right thinking will be rewarded, wrong thinking punished.

  • Rrabbit||

    The US military spending is way more than 4.4% of GDP. You need to add up all military spending, not just the defense budget. Benefits for veterans, maintaining the nukes, etc. Hundreds of billions of defense spending are not on the defense budget.

    Then, you need to compare that against the actual nominal GDP, rather than the Hollywood accounting published GDP numbers, where a $300 smart phone counts $600 towards the GDP.

  • Calidissident||

    I also don't see why % of GDP is a good indicator. Why would defense spending need to be proportional to that? Our military spending dwarfs our nearest competitors and has risen significantly in real dollars in recent years.

  • Duke||

    It’s not a good indicator. But it’s the only number you can compare the defense budget to so that it looks “small.” The best indicator is percent of tax revenues, then comparing it to what other similar military powers spend.

  • R C Dean||

    All-in military spending as a percentage of "real" GDP (that is, GDP that is net of deficit spending by government at all levels) would be an interesting number, indeed.

    Not, of course, that it really tells us all that much about whether military spending is too high or too low. That is a function of what war Congress has directed the military to fight.

  • msimmons||

    "...spectacularly high levels of defense spending..."

    No matter what measure one uses for defense spending, this characterization is laughable. You want spectacular spending? Current and extra-constitutional spending on social programs, and unfunded liabilities for same. Defense spending is a drop in the bucket by comparison, a bargain, and not extra-constitutional. Doesn't mean no waste so never cut, just invoking e=mc(c)...sorry, no super scripts on this ipad thingamajig.

  • Robert||

    Do it Fortran or PL/1 or Pascal style with double asterisk or carat.

  • 16th amendment||

    I don't agree with this article. The democrats are not finished with their agenda until there is a 100% tax, government takeover of all industries, immediate death penalty for anyone who opposes government. We are slowly marching in that direction. It ain't over till it's over, baby.

  • Faceless Commenter||

    The Dems have lots of programs and plans and initiatives and target groups and benchmarks and such in mind, but their policy is the same old dust from forever: transfer power and wealth from private individuals and organizations so Our Betters in government can administer it. Designate and exploit "identities" to gather support for this goal.

    I'm not sure if that's what Suderman has in mind -- maybe he's talking about the old 60s battle cry of WASP culpability.

  • Tony||

    One party is completely insane, and another party exists, therefore the parties are equal. Conventional wisdom of the beltway media and independent minded libertarians. How amazing is that?

    There is plenty left on the Democratic party's agenda. But the Republican party's agenda has been distilled to its simplest grunts. "Government is bad. Obamacare is the devil." I think it's pretty crystal clear that we aren't in a "post-policy" era, we are in an era in which the Republican House does nothing but jerk itself off, and that's why no policy is getting done. Is it sinking in yet that if libertarians really want things to change in their direction, it would take an extremely activist Congress to do it?

  • XM||

    Of course libertarians would call the democrats completely insane, considering their long standing opposition to government ran healthcare. Obamacare is one of the largest expansion of government in recent memory. They can now make you buy things as long as they call it a tax.

    There's plenty left in the Democratic party's agenda, such as the push to increase the minimum wage to 15 dollars an hour. If you don't have good ideas of your own, then you stop the other side from doing something stupid. That what (some) Republicans are doing.

  • Rrabbit||

    Tony, being blind on one eye does not work to your advantage.

  • ||

    There is plenty left on the Democratic party's agenda.

    Tony you almost never waver from a status quo team blue cheerleader but when you do you say bat shit crazy things like "government mandated contraception"

    You really are no judge about whether the dems are "spent" agenda wise.

  • prolefeed||

    The truth is that both parties have largely achieved their long-term policy goals.

    Not at all.

    Dems goal: government runs everything in its entirety, with everyone a government employee.

    Repub goal: Warfare and police and NSA security state, but run by Team Red only.

  • Juice||

    Don't forget the realistic Repub goals of all schoolchildren, who haven't been aborted because it's illegal, reciting the Lord's prayer in homeroom.

  • msimmons||

    So you're for an activist Congress? Last I checked they were one of the branches of government and libertarians were against that. It's like you want an activist Congress to reign in an activist government. Instead, how about pols who promote competition among themselves to see who can sponsor the greatest number of bills to nullify existing bills?

  • Tony||

    Do you mean repealing existing laws perhaps?

    What is the virtue in that all by itself? See this is what I mean. Simple-minded nonsense. Government can be measured in terms of big or small, and smaller is always better. And that's all ye need to know.

  • triclops||

    You poor, dumb bastard...
    Many of the hacks you apologize for in Team Blue do exactly the opposite, bragging about how many laws they get passed, ignoring whether those laws worked as intended.

    You really are just another apologist hack.

  • MappRapp||

    That dude jsut does not have a cluue man, WOw.

    www.Tactical-Anon.tk

  • Gladstone||

    You mean Sudermann? Yeppers!

  • Troglodyte Rex||

    The stasis has not escaped notice.

    True, but the low-information huddled masses don't seem to care much.

  • ||

    I would way rather have politicians groping in the dark for an agenda and "doing nothing" than having a laser like focus an accomplishing lots and lots of policy that absolutely fucking sucks. When the government has a focused policy agenda and really puts its mind toward putting it into action, you get things like the PATRIOT Act and PPACA. Be careful what you wish for.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "Democrats have ridiculed Republicans for their limited agenda. "

    Neither party has limited their agendas *enough* for my taste.

  • AlgerHiss||

    The only difference between the two major political parties in the US is: One walks leftward while the other runs leftward.

    When voting, all you are doing is voting for the speed at which you want things to move leftward.

  • bassjoe||

    I disagree. The Republican Party is still focused on old ideas. For the first time, however, their base isn't allowing them to compromise an iota on them. This includes fiscal and social policy; just look at the anti-abortion madness happening in the states. This isn't a party doing soul searching or coming up with new policy; it's a party doubling down on its old tired ideas.

  • ||

    At the same time, the Democratic party is advancing economic policy lifted from the 1930's and the signature policy achievement of Obama's presidency is the health care system Hillary Clinton couldn't get pushed through congress in the mid 1990's. Obviously there are going to be certain issues each party stands by through time. There is, however, at least a small contingent in the Republican party advancing an agenda concerned with liberty (Rand, Amash, Cruz, et al). Teh War on Wimmins!!!one1!! notwithstanding.

  • Denan7||

    I disagree with Mr. Suderman on a key point: I don't think the parties "have largely achieved their long-term policy goals", I don't think that is germane. But I agree that "neither has a strong sense of what to do now".

    I think the leadership of both parties realized that their actions, lack of actions and threat of actions have set America into an irreversible downward spiral.

    And they have no idea how to reverse the destructive socioeconomic forces they set in motion - and hubris (perhaps fear in some) won't allow them to publicly admit it.

    I think the parties are in survival mode - their own survival as a ruling class. Their best chance for survival is to ensure they continue to be elected and re-elected even if the middle turns on them.

    And that means stuffing the ballot boxes with literally millions upon millions of easily controlled votes manufactured out of thin air by converting tens millions of unemployed, govt-dependent citizens of foreign nations into unemployed, govt-dependent American "pathway citizens".. who vote.

    Think about it: Given a very long list of far more pressing problems in America, why the insane "bipartisan" push on "immigration reform"? Because history tells us that the last thing this "immigration reform" is about is stopping mass illegal immigration and securing our borders.

    But it is about something... I believe it is about gaining and retaining power when things get ugly.

  • Paul A'Barge||

    Is this the agenda you seek:
    (1) defund Planned Parenthood
    (2) defund NPR/PBS
    (3) implement a national sales tax or a flat tax
    (4) close the IRS
    (5) close the Department of Education
    (6) convert all public schools to voucher-based / choice
    (7) close the EPA
    (7) gut the USDA
    (8) close the Department of Commerce
    (9) close the Department of HHS
    (10) close the Bureau of Indian Affairs

    how's that for an agenda?

  • mtrueman||

    It sounds like the agenda for the Libertarian Party. In a good year they can garner 1% of the popular vote.

  • Anonymoose||

    We have a Bureau of Indian Affairs??

  • OneOut||

    Yes but it's for the Feather Indians, not the Dot Indians.

    The State Dept. covers the Dot Indians.

  • Troglodyte Rex||

    You forgot to abolish the Patriot Act and NDAA as well as close DHS.

  • OneOut||

    You forgot the Dept. of Energy.

    Is that you, Rick Perry ?

  • trshmnstr||

    +1 pair of boots that stepped in it

  • Eric||

    It's a start, but you forgot:

    (11) close 90% of overseas military bases
    (12) unravel the Department of Homeland Security
    (13) reduce military entitlements
    (14) reduce the size of the DoD via spending cuts
    (15) remove tax-free status for religious institutions (part of the flat tax)
    (16) Begin repealing all laws infringing upon any of the bill of rights (start on the 1st, 2nd, and 4th amendments)
    (17) outlaw professional lobbyists (this one won't sit well with many libertarians, but I don't fucking care)
    (18) repeal the Patriot Act

  • triclops||

    Tony said the Democrats agenda of nationalize everything and always more taxes on the rich is a new and vibrant agenda!

  • JDsender||

    Such Silliness! The GOP agenda is simple: turn the US into a 3rd world country run by & for the uber-wealthy. Corporations are grossly UNDER-taxed, as evidenced by their obscene political spending. When the top rate was near 90% (under republican Eisenhower) corps had an incentive to re-invest in their business; now the only incentive is to drain the business (i.e. Bain/Romney raiders) to death.

    The dems are far (very far) from perfect, but at least they have a pro-America agenda of equal rights, fair taxation, and yes, access to health care for all Americans (a healthy work force for a better economy).

    BTW, can anyone explain the difference between a libertarian and an anarchist? If it's 'limited' government, then the only real issue is where to set the limit: a nit to pick rather than a deep philosophical difference

  • Eric||

    You broke the cardinal rule of this commentariat: Here the Democrats are ALL far left progressives who are worse than Hitler and must be burnt at the stake like the strawmen that they are. Comparing anything they do favorably to the Republican Party without an obligatory "...but I hate the fucking Democrats worse than an infected Hemorrhoid" will only bring you derision.

    God help your poor misguided soul.

  • XM||

    Um, the top rate was NEVER truly 90%. The deductions and such back in the day allowed the rich to pay around 40% of their income. Even without googling this subject, do you actually think it's logically possible for economy to run if the government took 90% of your income?

    What TA at your political science class told you political spending is a reliable indicator of whether the corporation is paying its share of taxes?

    I know where you get your information that corporations are under taxed . It's in the SEIU newsletter, my mom gets it every month.

  • XM||

    "fair share"

  • Ann N||

    The author fails to notice 1 gigantic difference between obama and bush. quality of supporters/media support.

    obama is at an alltime low with a 41% approval rating. bush was like 20%. there are twice as many conservatives as liberals, yet the staunch support shows the inverse.

    this is where you need to quit drawing parallels between the two. the left will destroy america if you give them power and leave them to their own sensibilities. the left will never stop supporting their politicians if they talk smooth and are popular. they cant make an unpopular personal choice and stand on principles their peers wont understand, since in their mind they wouldn't be a good little part of the collective. they belong.

    the greatest outrage of the obama years is the spying, but the support of the left in the face of all the scandals is a close second. Who can claim we dont deserve to be destroyed with wanton ignorance like that? they dont want facts, they want rhetoric and social acceptance.

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  • HenryC||

    I would suggest that any policies that the Republicans have are blocked by the Senate and the President. They are reduced to blocking the policies of those parties. It is two way street with a large jam in the middle blocking both lanes.

  • Rhino||

    this is true. obstructionism is being used by both sides. One side just cries about it more. But i'd say its a good thing. The government doesn't screw as much up when it's not legislating. And when they do come together, we see that they are really too sides to the same corrupt coin. Example would be the current establishment Republicans defending Obama in order to team up with the Democrats to fight the libertarian influences in the new wave of Republicans.

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