There are no magic wands in American politics

As those who celebrate Christmas take down their decorations, some wonder how much longer the children in their lives will believe in Santa Claus.

While we all eventually put aside childhood’s mythological figures, a political version may persist for how government works — the magic wand theory of American politics, the idea that some politicians can make change oh-so-easily. Just, whoosh, wave that magic wand. Opposition will melt away, and no one will need to compromise.

An accompanying view is often that other politicians don’t do what the wand holder could do because they are corrupt or they’re wimps who refuse to do the right thing.

Belief in the magic wand theory isn’t partisan; it can be found among conservatives and liberals.

On the right, some conservatives see new House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, as the latest traitor. As The Hill newspaper put it on Saturday: “Conservative pundit Ann Coulter says Ryan, just seven weeks on the job, is ripe for a primary challenge. ‘Paul Ryan Betrays America,’ blared a headline on the conservative site Breibart.com. And Twitter is littered with references to the Wisconsin Republican’s new ‘Muslim beard.’”

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin. Gary Cameron | Reuters

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin. Gary Cameron | Reuters

If having a beard makes one a Muslim, there are many more Muslims in Maine than anyone ever thought. But more to the point, the reason why the very conservative Ryan is now what pundit Laura Ingraham calls “a declared enemy of the Base” is that he engaged in negotiations with President Obama to pass a federal budget.

In the real world, congressional Republicans can’t pass a budget by themselves. Under the American system of checks and balances, when the president is a Democrat and Congress has Republican majorities, there have to be compromises.

Yes, should a Republican win the White House, Republicans could pass a lot of what they want into law. They would be in a much better place to accomplish their priorities of defunding Planned Parenthood and climate change efforts, putting in provisions undermining unions, limiting LGBT and civil rights, cutting taxes for the wealthy and privatizing Social Security.

But even having unified party control of Congress and the presidency isn’t always enough to do everything some partisans want.

Take Obamacare and many progressives’ desire for a public health insurance option or a single-payer health care system. Here, some on the left don’t realize that, globally, single-payer is a actually a rare way of delivering universal coverage, and they miss the reality that there wasn’t and still isn’t a magic wand.

After Obama became president in January 2009, he had a fairly small window when there were 60 Democrats in the Senate, enough to overcome a filibuster. In late April 2009, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter switched parties, bringing Democrats up to 59 senators. It wasn’t until July 2009 when Democrats claimed their 60th seat — after Al Franken emerged victorious following a long recount process in Minnesota. Just six months later, Republican Scott Brown won a special Senate election in Massachusetts to replace the late Ted Kennedy, ending the Democrats’ filibuster-proof period.

Obama talked about a public option during his 2008 campaign but never endorsed single-payer. Moreover, not all Democratic senators ever supported single payer or even a public option. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut didn’t. Nor did centrist Democrats like Ben Nelson, Evan Bayh and Mary Landrieu, all of whom occupied seats that are now held by far-right Republicans.

Obama couldn’t wave a magic wand then, Hillary Clinton couldn’t wave a magic wand in the 1990s to pass her proposed health care program, and neither could Bernie Sanders, should he be elected president. Long-term, a lot would have to happen to get another major national health care policy.

States are often our laboratories to discover what works. Wisconsin, which cut taxes, for example, has a lower per capita income and smaller rainy day fund than Minnesota, which raised taxes. On health care, Oregon is finding some real success with its coordinated care model for Medicaid.

The American political system arose from compromise and requires compromise. And the same is true about Maine government.

Unfortunately, the first year of Gov. Paul LePage’s second term has seen him dig in his heels and refuse to participate in the budget process when his tax shift plan ran into bipartisan opposition. But like everyone else, Maine’s governor has no magic wand.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.