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MAY 19, 2010 9:56PM

The Polarization of America

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In 2009, Barack Obama made numerous, very public attempts to reach across the aisle and enlist the support of Republicans for his initiatives. His attempts at appeasement were fruitless.

At the very least, I think we are seeing that, even if Obama and the Democrats are successful in holding slim majorities in Congress this year, bipartisanship is not going to be a realistic goal for them to pursue in 2011 or 2012. That canyon the parties have created between them is too far for either to reach across.

America has been growing more and more polarized over the years. And, in spite of the protestations from Obama's supporters that he has been uniting the nation, I believe the opposite is true.

It isn't Obama's fault. The polarization of America did not begin with him. But I believe the situation has grown worse since he took office.

It isn't really surprising, I suppose. I mean, if one is a member of a political party, it is because that person has a very definite world view, and there seems to be less and less room for competing views in either party. It was not always this way. There was a time — a fairly lengthy time, actually — when there was a "liberal wing" of the Republican Party and a "conservative wing" of the Democratic Party.

Laugh if you will, but it's true.

In fact, the liberal Republicans exerted considerable influence in their party, as did the conservative Democrats. And each party had quite a few centrists as well.

But the Republicans ran off most of the liberals, and the Democrats ran off most of the conservatives.

Now, centrists are becoming an endangered species in both parties. One left the Republican Party because he believed he would be more welcome with the Democrats, but he lost the primary yesterday. Another has been forced into a runoff against a liberal, apparently MoveOn.org type — who probably will beat her in three weeks but then seems likely to lose in the general election.

Many centrists, including myself, have concluded that there is no place for them in either party today so the ones who wish to remain active in the political discourse are choosing to become independents.

But some centrists have insisted on sticking it out in their parties. I wish them well because I really believe that both parties need to move to the middle if they are to be acceptable to mainstream Americans. As things are now, both parties are positioned too far to either extreme to make consensus–building a genuine possibility.

And Tuesday's primaries just provided more proof (to me) that I am right:

  • In Pennsylvania, for example, 30–year Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched parties last year (apparently, at least in part, due to speculation that he could not win a Republican nomination battle this year), lost the Democratic primary to Rep. Joe Sestak.

    Some of Sestak's supporters have characterized him as a centrist, but Specter was the real centrist in the race. In 2008, the ACLU gave Sestak a 91% rating. The American Conservative Union gave him a 0% rating. Meanwhile, Specter got a 43% rating from the ACLU and a 42% rating from the ACU.

    Ratings from other liberal and conservative groups were similar.

    So ideology trumped anything else that Specter brought to the table — seniority, for example — and now Pennsylvanians must choose between an extremely liberal Democrat and an extremely conservative Republican in November. Recent polls have shown the Republican, Pat Toomey, leading by a few points but still short of a clear majority.

    I guess, with Democrats and Republicans tending to favor their own by wide margins in polls, the independents will have to decide the winner — but which side will they choose? They've been gravitating to the center — but there's no one there.

    One thing that seemed clear from the results in Pennsylvania was that Obama's coattails are very short — if they exist at all. Actually, "coattails" probably isn't applicable in a midterm election since that is a term that generally refers to a president's influence on other races when he, too, is on the ballot. Technically, Obama won't have "coattails" until 2012.

    But the concept does seem applicable to a president's influence on races in which he becomes an active participant — although it seems to need a different name. And, when Specter switched parties, Obama pledged to support him this year in gratitude for Specter's support for Obama's agenda. Specter counted on Obama's influence with the Pennsylvania electorate to smooth over his transition.

    Apparently, though, Obama didn't help Specter any more than he helped Martha Coakley in Massachusetts four months ago — or the Democrats who sought the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia last November.

    I guess the big difference is that Coakley and the unsuccessful candidates in New Jersey and Virginia lost to Republicans, which is bad enough for a Democratic president. But Specter lost to a fellow Democrat, which raises questions about Obama's ability to influence the voters in his own party.

    Or does it?

    I suspect that the reasons for Specter's defeat are more complicated. He spent most of the last three decades in the Senate as a Republican — during which time he never really seemed to build a base of support in either party — and 2010 doesn't look like a good year for a Washington insider like Specter to try to reinvent himself in a different party.

    I'm guessing that any efforts he made to persuade lifelong, activist Democrats that he was one of them proved to be a mountain too high.

    Because of Specter's many years in the Republican Party, Obama's support for his unsuccessful campaign in a Democratic primary doesn't seem to be as politically devastating as was his support for a Democrat who lost Ted Kennedy's seat in a Massachusetts special election.

    But winning a party's nomination in Pennsylvania is not the same thing as winning the general election. When I was growing up in Arkansas, winning the Democratic nomination was tantamount to victory most of the time — but not anymore. I don't know if it was ever true in Pennsylvania.

    Anyway, for Sestak there is more work to be done. He is not a senator–elect yet. So, if I were Obama, I think I would have a chat with the vice president and tell him to cool it on that Sestak "will make ... a wonderful United States senator" talk.

    Meanwhile ...

  • Remember Ron Paul, the Libertarian who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008? He is said to have the most conservative voting record in Congress in the last 73 years.

    Well, yesterday, the Republicans in Kentucky nominated Paul's son, Rand Paul, a noted Tea Partier, to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Jim Bunning.

    Given Obama's recent track record, it doesn't surprise me that Paul told CNN today that he and his supporters are "licking their chops" at the thought of running against Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, particularly if Obama comes to the Bluegrass State to campaign for him.

  • Finally, my home state of Arkansas, where Sen. Blanche Lincoln was hoping to avoid a runoff against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.

    Lincoln was widely regarded as the centrist in the race while Halter was seen as the liberal. But, instead of taking a majority of the votes, Lincoln narrowly finished ahead of Halter and must defeat him in a runoff in June. A conservative businessman also was in the race, but he finished third with about 14% of the vote.

    Last night, I observed the Facebook exchanges between my friends in Arkansas, many of whom are Democrats who support Halter. They rejoiced that there would be a runoff and gleefully anticipated that most of the third–place candidate's votes would go to Halter. The momentum, they all said, was with him.

    Actually, that brings me to something I wrote on Saturday. I theorized, in essence, that any voter who votes against an incumbent in a primary is more likely to oppose than support that incumbent in a runoff.

    And, if most of the third candidate's voters do vote for Halter on June 8, he will win the runoff. It's simple mathematics.

    Except it isn't so simple. I'm not completely sure about that momentum thing. And I know that participating in a primary does not compel someone to participate in a runoff as well.

    In fact, I know from my own experience of covering Arkansas primaries and runoffs that voter participation typically drops in a runoff.

    But this will be a good test for my theory, as I said the other day, because:
  1. we don't know how many of the third candidate's supporters will be motivated to return to the polls;

  2. we don't know if his supporters — who, it can be logically assumed, are conservatives — are particularly anti–Lincoln; and

  3. if the third candidate's supporters are angry at Lincoln, are they angry enough to vote for a liberal instead of a centrist?
Well, anyway, there are a lot of factors at play here.

And I'm sure there will be a lot of attention paid to the Arkansas runoff in the next three weeks.

I don't know what will happen in Arkansas in June, but I think the centrist would have a better chance of beating the conservative there in November than the liberal would. The problem for centrists is that most don't seem to have a base in their own party.

Like Republican Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, who got kicked out by a bunch of extremist delegates to the state's Republican convention. He's a conservative, but apparently not enough of one for Utah's red–meat right–wingers. Remember those ACLU and ACU ratings I mentioned earlier? In 2008, Bennett got a 14% from the ACLU and a 64% from the ACU (by comparison, his colleague, Orrin Hatch, got a 21% from the ACLU and an 80% from the ACU).

By Utah's Republican standards, I guess that makes him a centrist.

All of which leads me to conclude that incumbency isn't really the problem in 2010 — centrism is.

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I think the fact that Joe Sestak -- a career military man able to maneuver his way to the top of the navy, who spent his life as an unaffiliated voter and has no history of political activism, is now labeled "very liberal" shows that it is the center that needs to move back to the center.

But nothing will stop every pundit from finding confirmation of their own ideology in whatever happens. Here's the actual numbers from Pennsylvania. In the so-called "Year of Anti-Incumbency": out of 226 General Assembly seats up only 28 were contested. Out of that 28, 1 incumbent lost. Two incumbents currently on trial for corruption were among the winners. The predicted, party favorite candidates won the governor race. So if you want to see the defeat of a lifelong Republican in a Democratic primary as evidence of a huge shift in politics, go ahead. But what really happened on Tuesday was that nothing really changed.
The real test of most incumbents will be in the general election.
But the primary is where the parties make their nominations, and your post is about the parties becoming more radical. If that were true, wouldn't there be more "centrist" incumbents losing to "radical" opponents?
How many centrist incumbents are there? Compared to how many extremist incumbents?

I don't know the numbers and would appreciate a reliable resource for that, but my impression is that there aren't that many centrist incumbents as it is. And I believe there will be fewer when this year is over.
America is polarized, the reason being, the politicians, all of the incumbents especially, are a pack of criminally insane terrorists. Riding the back of America's War Machine, like ticks on a rabid dog, the leadership rejects the foundations of civil government.
Barry Obama is going to screw America to the wall for his military masters, much like his daddy George Bush.
That's my explanation of the true polarization here in Amerika.
The military versus the taxpayer.
The military is winning, because they are authoritarian traitors.
The political system governing this nation is fucked. Freedom is a distant memory, a pre "patriot act" event.
It's the military that's running the show here.
The politicians are just for show.
The prison owning Generals of the American slaving New World Order, are in charge.
The republicans and the democrats are both coerced with military force.
The polarization you post about is an illusion. Political theatre the military hides behind.
I reject the left-right paradigm imposed on this society.
We are ruled by our blood soaked military.
Centrism is overrated. Halter and Sestak were a victory for Democrats who want their Democrats to be Democrats and not watered down Republicans. Paul is just some more Tea Party crazy. The Republicans are the ones who have moved so very far to the right that anything not them SEEMS very liberal. Specter so deserved to lose. And I am thrilled he did.
Gooners really said it well: the center needs to move to the center. The language has become ridiculous - Congress vomits out a gigantic giveaway to the insurance industry, that was litereally written by that industry with Republicans under Clinton, and yet the plan is a liberal, socialist, communist takeover.

If we're going to have a "center" then we need a "left" - which outside of Dennis Kucinish and Bernie Sanders and maybe three or four others, pretty much does not exist.

Obama's "legal framework for indefinite detention" is not a liberal idea - it's Bush on steroids. Where is this "left" you imply is one side of the polarization? The right is a schoolyard bully crying because the pencil neck managed to hide 10% of his lunch money and not give him everything.
It Really Isn't Complicated, Nor Are Those Who "Can't Understand"

TO WILLIAM B. GILES, Monticello, December 26, 1825

,,,I doubt whether a single fact, known to the world, will carry as clear conviction to it, of the correctness of our knowledge of the treasonable views of the federal party of that day, as that disclosed by this, the most nefarious and daring attempt to dissever the Union, of which the Hartford convention was a subsequent chapter; and both of these having failed, consolidation becomes the fourth chapter of the next book of their history. But this opens with a vast accession of strength from their younger recruits, who, having nothing in them of the feelings or principles of ’76, now look to a single and splendid government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions, and moneyed incorporations under the guise and cloak of their favored branches of manufactures, commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry. This will be to them a next best blessing to the monarchy of their first aim, and perhaps the surest stepping-stone to it.

Thomas Jefferson

Mr. Jefferson was a prophet of the one G-d, Creator of the universe.

Same G-d, then; same G-d, now.

Whig/tory then; whig/tory now.

Whigs believe in the individual sovereignty of “Novus Ordo Seclorem,” The New Secular Order,” which in 1776 established American Exceptionalism – which kindled a volcano under the thrones of Europe – the “Ancien Regime” of king and pope, the “Old Sectarian Order.”

Tories and their lickspittles are fascists. The Fasces is the symbol of Rome.

Death for Treason
When all the centrists are gone, who will hammer out the compromises that will be necessary to achieve anything?

If you believe the conservatives will reach to the left -- or the liberals will reach to the right -- I have some swampland I'd like to sell you.
I would argue that as a centrist you have a far better position in the Democratic party--unless you are a "no new taxes centrist," which really isn't a centrist at all--yet it seems to be a touchstone for a lot of people who define themselves as being in the center, but have approached it from the right.

If you are an anti-health care reform centrist, well, that one is hard for me. I think health care reform is a centrist position. I felt, and argued, that the German model, which does involved a "public option," was a centrist position.

And I don't pay much attention to ratings from special interest groups on either side.

I didn't have a problem with Specter as a Democrat. I'd rather have him in my tent than theirs. But party-switching weakens one at the polls, and I think that explains a good deal of the lack of loyalty going his way.

Good post.
The failure of the American Constitution (political system) does not lie in the polarizations of the Democrats and Republicans. It is that the various interests of the American voters have no means of being expressed. We have what the founders sloganed against: taxation without representation. What they actually produced in our Constitution was a political system that favored the wealthy elite and gave little representation to the "mob". Not all can be blamed on the Constitution. We have recently seen how the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) keeps power in the hands of our ruling-class, the corporations that finance political campaigns. These faceless tyrants were granted human political rights by SCOTUS in the 19th century, and only months ago SCOTUS decided that Congress could not place limits on their control of election campaigns through funding.

No, our problem is just the opposite of the article's assertion: it is not that our politics is too polarized. It's that Americans of differing political opinions have only two parties to choose from when they vote AND both of the parties serve not the voters but the corporate sponsors of our wars, environmental destruction and increasing economic decline.
Where are these liberal democrats? I feel like the party has done nothing but move to the center in my lifetime, while the Republicans have gone off-the-rails batshit crazy.

What would a move to the center mean for Democrats? Serious question. Obama has picked up the war and the bailout. His education policy seems on track to privatize and corporatize [eviscerate] our public schools. The health care bill is 20% good, liberal stuff and 80% handout to insurers.

And I'm speaking as someone who volunteered for the Obama campaign! I like the guy, but reality is what reality is. I just don't recognize the world alluded to in this post, where Democrats and the administration are liberal. Where is the evidence, other than in the rabid ravings of the talking heads on Fox?
"All of which leads me to conclude that incumbency isn't really the problem in 2010 — centrism is."

Interesting essay, but I disagaree with your conclusion. Take, for example, the election results in PA-12. The democrat winner sounded more "conservative" than his republican opponent. Together with a 2-1 democrat/republican registration, along with decades of bringing home the bacon, the win there was not surprising. The questions is coming up for renewal again in November and the "actions" of Murtha's guy in Congress will tell the tail. If he had campaigned with Obama, if he had campaigned as a liberal, he would be history today.

"Centrists" like beauty, is in the eys of the beholder. The democrat definition of a republican "centrist" is a politician who compromises his principles more than a liberal to achieve a result. McCain, Graham, et al qualify....as centrists...

The tide is not against "incumbents" as much aas against "liberal incumbents". The tsunami coming is from the right, both democrat and republican voters, ...not the left or center. There is no center in politics..only winning.
Actually, wildmarjoram, I never watch Fox. I reached my conclusion on my own, based on congressional voting records and public statements.
I didn't mean to imply anything about your post by mentioning Fox.

But I am genuinely curious. What is the evidence that Democrats are liberal, non-centrist? What are the policies or votes that you think are evidence of that?

My off-the-cuff take is that voters aren't paying much attention. They see what they want to see and believe whatever the zeitgeist is at the moment (Obama's a socialist.) What a politician does isn't important - it's their marketing.
The congressional record is quite extensive, and I do not confine my study of it to the period since Obama took office.

I could run down an entire laundry list of issues in which Democrats clearly have been the liberals -- many social issues, of course, and spending priorities -- but let me be clear here. Because a position is liberal does not make it bad. I agree with some liberal views. I also agree with some conservative views.

But most of my views are middle of the road. They may not seem that way to some, but they are often my attempt (feeble though it may be) to find some common ground. I see few such attempts from either party.
You make a good point about marketing, and you're probably right when you say many voters don't pay attention.

But how does any of that make 2010 different from 2000 -- or 1990 -- or 1980, for that matter?

The difference (in the words of an old saying) is whose ox is being gored.
In a word, blah, blah, blah. One would thing people still get paid by the word. In another word, economics, since we're now an appendage of China, isn't it time to start paying attention to reality?
No fence intended, David, but really! All this verbiage to perpetuate a myth that was killed in 1963 and is walking around like a zombie? What for? All politics is still local.
I stopped reading at: ".... a "conservative wing" of the Democratic Party.
Laugh if you will, but it's true."

There's a bunch called the "Blue Dogs"; I don't recall any "Red Dogs".

If there were no "conservative wing" of the Democratic Party, there'd be a public option, or more likely, outright single-payer. Guantanamo would be closed by now, and not replaced by Guantanamo North; indeed, all detention without trial of people captured far from military battles would be ended. And the banking crises probably would have been fixed by temporary nationalization and massive restructuring.

Co-option of the Democratic party by military, energy, finance and insurance industries doesn't make their issues "left wing", it makes large numbers of Democrats "right wing" to the frustration of their supporters who find nobody to vote for.
Answer wildmarjoram's question now. Do this or you shall be considered ill-fit for honest discourse.
Sincerely, The Internet
I answered the question.

I still believe centrists are endangered in American politics. This week, in Alabama, a black man named Artur Davis was defeated in the Democratic primary for governor. He was considered the centrist in the race.
No, you did not. wildmarjoram asked, "What is the evidence that Democrats are liberal, non-centrist? What are the policies or votes that you think are evidence of that? " You replied, "The congressional record is quite extensive, and I do not confine my study of it to the period since Obama took office." You did not cite one example from the Congressional record. Neither did you refer to a previous posting where you might have done so. You added, "I could run down an entire laundry list of issues in which Democrats clearly have been the liberals -- many social issues, of course, and spending priorities", but you did not cite any issue from said laundary list. Like I said, the Internet awaits your answer.
Very well. But some clarification first.

The point of my post was not that either liberalism or conservatism was bad or good -- and I apologize if anyone mistook anything I said.

My point was that centrism is in trouble. I believe the parties have become increasingly polarized. And the examples I will cite clearly show that the members of each party tend to march in lockstep.

As for centrists, the evidence that they are being squeezed out of the process continues to accumulate. Arlen Specter lost for other reasons, but he was the centrist in his race in Pennsylvania. Blanche Lincoln, the centrist candidate in Arkansas, appears to be having problems in the runoff against the left-leaning candidate.

And this week, the centrist candidate for governor in Alabama's Democratic primary, Artur Davis, was beaten decisively.

I am not going to review the last three or four decades. But here are a couple of examples from recent votes:

1) In 2007, the Senate voted to withdraw most troops from Iraq by March of 2008. Democrats favored the measure, 48-0. Republicans opposed it, 45-2. The two independents (one was the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000, the other was a Socialist in the House but ran for the Senate as an independent) were split.

The House approved a similar measure that called for troop withdrawals by August 2008. Democrats favored, 216-14. Republicans opposed, 198-2.

2) The day before the seventh anniversary of 9/11, the Senate voted against increasing federal funding for missile defense systems. Democrats were opposed to increasing the funding, 48-0. Republicans were in favor, 38-10. Both of the independents voted against increasing the funding.

3) I guess abortion is always going to be a demarcation point between the parties. In 2007, the Senate voted on a bill that would define a fetus as an unborn child. Democrats opposed, 43-5. Republicans favored, 44-5. Both independents opposed.

About six weeks earlier, the House voted on legislation retaining the "Mexico City" policy barring abortions in certain foreign aid programs. Democrats opposed, 206-25. Republicans favored, 180-12.

4) The House voted on whether to repeal the D.C. law prohibiting firearm possession. Democrats opposed, 151-82. Republicans favored, 178-9.
Thanks. First of all, #4 clearly proves that Democrats are quite split on gun control. I think Obama would have voted with the Republicans on that one.

Next, the problem with looking into the Congressional record for evidence of partisanship is that the major parties regularly set up symbolic or "safe" votes ( votes that everyone knows will have no real consequence), like your example #1. You will notice we have not yet withdrawn from Iraq.

About #2, any vote that peels off 10 Republican senators is not liberal. Plus, there are third variables involved in weapons systems votes-- namely, questions of pork and military necessity. Therefore, these votes rarely expose dove/hawk divisions.

About #3, I think the abortion concensus is pretty strong in this country. Defending this consensus is liberal, but it is in no way extreme.

For the record, I believe an anarchic financial system, environmental and workplace regulatory failure, two disastrous wars, eroding civil liberties, and many, many tortured and dead Muslims prove that we are governed by a reactionary, imperial cabal that delight in our suffering. The last thing any of us should be worried about is partisanship.
I just realized that on your point #2, you might have been referring to the partisanship of the Republicans? And the cynicism of scheduling a vote like that on the 9/11 anniversery? If so, I agree.
Both parties have been partisan. I have never given either one a free ride on that.
P.S. How Obama "would have voted" on any measure that was brought before the House is irrelevant because he never served in the House, only the Senate.
David Goodloe:

Are you really a centrist?
To review, in 2007 over 60% of Americans wanted us to end our involvement in Iraq as quickly as possible. The centrist position would by definition be to do so.
A majority of Americans don't see a need to modify our existing laws on abortion nor gun rights, which allow localities to create their own gun laws (prior to the Supreme Court decision). In both cases, Democrats took the position of inaction which is the general consensus. All the heat for modification to those laws come from the right, not the center.
The missile defense vote isn't as easily classified, but you basically choosing three instances of conservative backed policies that are not widely popular being opposed by Democrats to suggest that Democrats are as extreme as the current crop of Republicans, and that doesn't wash.
HCR is an excellent example of "where the Democratic Party" is at ideologically. While acknowledging that the fact that 30% of the richest country in the world is unable to afford health care do to the cost of a private system, they still want to use that private system to extend benefits to that 30%, even though the runaway costs of our system are not being adequately addressed by the legislation. That's Democratic legislation that got no Republican support, even though it's about as "half a loaf" centrist as any real centrist could wish for.
dijetlo,

Yes, I consider myself a centrist.

I was asked to provide examples of polarization. I did.

You're the one who chose to label the positions and draw conclusions from the the examples that were provided.
Hey again. Wildmarjoram originially asked, "What is the evidence that Democrats are liberal, non-centrist? What are the policies or votes that you think are evidence of that?" In my estimation, you believe you have answered this question by providing examples where all or most of the Democrats vote one way and Republicans vote the other. This is inadequate evidence to prove that one side in particular, the Democrats, are partisan liberals.

In order to prove that Democrats are growing increasingly partisan liberal, you must first prove that they are partisan liberals. This is what most of the people commenting here want you to support with actual evidence. So here's what you have to do: first prove that the Democratic leadership has a coherent liberal platform that they are pursuing, not undermining. Are they actually doing what a partisan political party should be doing? Namely, are they out in front of the electorate, pushing them in a liberal direction? Or are they simply poll-watching? I do not believe that the Democrats are pursuing a liberal platform at all.

If the Democrats were liberal partisans on the economic front, they would be countering conservative efforts to shift focus to the deficit. They would counter the deficit hawks with strong, Keynesian language about stimulus and relief for our most vulnerable. They would be directing everyone's attention to the plight of the homeless and those who are hopelessly looking for work, and they would make it clear which policies were responsible for this suffering and which policies would make people less worried about joining the ranks of the unemployed. Finally, they would be kicking conservatives while they were down, accusing them of trying to dismantle social security, medicare, and not to mention HCR, if they ever got back up.

If the Democrats were liberal partisans on the foreign policy front, we would be out of Iraq and on our way out of Afghanistan. Hell, if they were centrists, we would be ending those wars. But they are not. If they were liberal partisans, they would be pointing out that the most wasteful sector of government is the DoD. They would be constantly reminding people of what one trillion dollars of war money could have paid for and what it can pay for.

If the Democrats were liberal partisans on social policy, DADT and DoMA would be finished. They would have taken advantage of the fact that social conservatives are apparently out of power, and they would be defying them and the policies they left behind at every turn. Obama did not have to enforce DADT, at all. If he were a liberal partisan, he would not have.

If the Democrats were liberal partisans on environmental policy, Obama would not be regretting his stupid decision to surrender the East coast to oil company rapists in some foolish attempt to gain conservative support. If the Democrats cared at all for our environment, they would link our economic recovery and our environmental recovery together, creating an Apollo project to end fossil fuel use in the next decade.

This is what liberal partisan governance would look like. It would counter the exploding heads on the Right with daring optimism. To borrow the empty words of our meek, hapless President, it would truly be audacious.