Paul Jacob

Something has changed in the last 30 years, so let’s praise outgoing New York Congressman Gary Ackerman, Democrat, for recognizing that change. We’re used to saying that politicians are out of touch. It’s refreshing to see one still cognizant of everyday reality.

But that’s as far as we can go. For Rep. Ackerman, in his exit interview with Josh Tyrangiel of Bloomberg Businesweek, didn’t just recognize the obvious. He espoused a theory about that change . . . and a more complacent, self-serving, self-justifying theory could hardly be imagined.

What’s changed is today’s political polarization, which has led to a lack of comity in Congress. Well, yes. We see less go-along/get-along today; partisanship has revved up, ideological disagreement, increased. “It used to be you had real friends on the other side of the aisle. It’s not like that anymore,” says Ackerman. “Society has changed.” I’m not at all certain this is a horrible development, but Ackerman assumes it is. But hey: Let’s agree to disagree on how bad the situation is. For a moment. What’s the cause?

Well, Ackerman’s “society has changed” line tips his hand to where he’s going with this:

I think the people have gotten dumber. I don’t know that I would’ve said that out loud pre-my announcement that I was going to be leaving. [Laughter] But I think that’s true.

Yes. Blame the people. They must have gotten dumber, because fewer and fewer people seem to respect the boffo job Ackerman’s been doing all these years.

There’s been a big shift in political opinion, and that’s the nose-on-your face-obvious reality underlying Ackerman’s complaint. In his early days in Washington, there was ideological disagreement, sure, but “the right” made deals with “the left” (which was, in a sense, merely the establishment — the real left wasn’t in power). The famous case was Ronald Reagan’s entente with Tip O’Neill: Reagan would get to spend oodles more on the military, and O’Neill could keep “social” spending levels up. Sure, the social spending growth rate tapered off a bit, but there was little actual “cutting.”

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.