Column: There’s chaos in the capital, with plenty of people to blame

Democrats are arguing with Democrats, Republicans with Republicans, and extremists are demanding their way or no way.
The exterior of the U.S. Capitol Building
Photo by Alex Edelman of EPA/EFE.

Washington, D.C. is in chaos. And the hyper-partisan politicians in our nation’s capital cannot find their way out of it.

Acceptable solutions to difficult policy dilemmas are hard to come by when those with differing views see every choice as binary. Either you are with me or against me. In reality, answers are always somewhere in between.

For the Democrats, the divisive issue is clearly the war between Israel and Hamas. Immediately after Hamas’ terrorist attack on innocent Israeli citizens, President Biden issued a strong statement backing Israel’s right to self-defense. He has never wavered.

Most Democrats — and virtually all Republicans — agreed. Condemning an unprovoked attack that killed approximately 1,400 civilians, many of them children and the elderly, raping, maiming and beheading victims, was an obvious step; that 240 individuals, again almost all civilians and including some Americans, were taken as hostages only added to the outrage. The few Democrats who opposed the resolution condemning Hamas were marginalized within their own party. 

But then the Israelis responded with rockets and bombs that have killed approximately 10,000 Palestinians, including 4,000 children, according to Hamas. Progressive Democrats, including some in Congress, claim the response is too strong, that the Israelis are committing war crimes by indiscriminate bombing, punishing the innocent.

As the Palestinian death toll mounts, the rhetoric has become heated, with some members of “the Squad,” the Democrats’ most left-wing House members, calling the attack genocide and appearing with the Palestinian banner “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free,” a slogan Hamas has used to call for the eradication of Israel and, by implication, the death of Israeli Jews. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the only Palestinian-American in Congress, was censured by the House on a resolution proposed by Republicans but supported by 22 Democrats, including Jared Golden of Maine, over her statements on the war.  

Two seemingly opposite propositions can both be true: Israel was brutally attacked and has the right to self-defense, and the Palestinians in Gaza are suffering from Israeli bombing, with the unacceptable loss of thousands of lives and the displacement of nearly three-quarters of the population.

Palestinians deserve humanitarian consideration, but Hamas is using innocent civilians as human shields and will take advantage of any cease-fire to regroup; it has not stepped back from its stated goal of destroying the state of Israel and reclaiming its land.

And thus the Democratic Party is split and in chaos, with no one posing the nuanced middle ground. Impassioned rhetoric might make the speakers feel virtuous but does not help those on the ground.

Only when the critics of Israeli policy acknowledge the terroristic actions of Hamas and its role in causing the damage to Palestinians in Gaza, and only when strong supporters of Israel acknowledge the need for extensive humanitarian efforts to aid the Palestinians, can any progress be made.

The Republicans are equally split over two separate issues.   

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and most Senate Republicans favor President Biden’s national security funding request that links aid to Ukraine, aid to Israel, humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza and border funding, but quibble over the amounts.

The House Republicans want to separate the bills, fund aid to Israel only with a cut in spending elsewhere — their proposal called for cutting enforcement money for the Internal Revenue Service, a proposal that the Congressional Budget Office said would cost money, not save it. They say they will vote on Ukraine funding later, only after border policy has been changed.

And so the party long known for its hawkish views on the Cold War now boasts many members who no longer think the U.S. should aid Ukraine.

That split was on full display in Wednesday’s debate among the five Republicans vying to be runner-up to Donald Trump for their party’s presidential nomination. Vivak Ramaswamy derided Nikki Haley, a former U.N. ambassador, as a super-hawk out of touch with reality; she countered that the leaders of Russia and China were salivating at the thought of someone with his views in the White House.

The new Speaker of the House, Michael Johnson (R-La.), demonstrated how he sees the issue, saying “Their borders are important, but so too is our southern border.” 

The wave of illegal immigrants across our southern border is not acceptable, but no invading army is occupying nearly one-third of our territory, as the Russians are in Ukraine.

And of course, all government funding runs out Friday. If a bill is not passed, the government will shut down with great hardship for many citizens. Senate Republicans are doing the hard work of negotiating with their Democratic colleagues on a bipartisan bill to keep the lights on; House Republicans are presenting their wish list of items to cut, few that can get through the House, and none that would pass the Senate or survive a presidential veto.

Why? The same Republicans who brought down Speaker Kevin McCarthy and undermined the candidacies of two potential successors because of disagreements on tactics, not goals, are holding Johnson’s feet to the fire. He has seen the fate of McCarthy and other experienced legislative leaders who tried to do the hard work of governing, and has chosen to sacrifice a chance at compromises to preserve his position. At least for now. And chaos is likely to result.

Washington is in chaos because in a closely divided Congress, a small number of people believe they were elected to fight to the end for their extreme positions, even though those positions do not command majority support.

Washington is in chaos because those with extreme views on domestic or foreign policies do not accept that ours is a diverse country, with citizens holding a wide variety of views, and progress comes only when nuanced views replace extreme positions as the basis for moving forward and governing.

To end chaos, hyper-partisanship and extreme politics must give way to negotiation and compromise, requirements for an effectively functioning democracy in a country as diverse as ours.

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L. Sandy Maisel

L. Sandy Maisel is the Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government (emeritus) at Colby College, where he taught for fifty years and served as the founding director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs. He is the author or editor of more than twenty books, including From Obscurity to Oblivion: Running in the Congressional Primary, which chronicles his own unsuccessful campaign for Congress in Maine's first district. He and his wife, Colby professor Patrice Franko, live in Rome, Maine.
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