- Parallel political universes reflect the deep partisan divide
- The health care debate shows how the two sides talk past each other
- Analyst: "It's worse now than it's been in years"
- The result is competing claims that confuse voters
Even in an election year, the current dysfunction in Washington reflects a worsening partisan divide that has created what amounts to parallel political universes seemingly unable to comprehend or deal with each other.
In one, President Barack Obama and Democrats battle Republican obstruction that they say stunts their plans for economic recovery and advancing equal opportunity for all Americans.
In the other, Republicans fight to restore conservative principles of free markets and less government through what they call common-sense proposals rejected by Democrats.
With less than four months until the November election, the dueling realities will only become more starkly divided.
"It's worse now than it's been in years," said Darrell West, the vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. "Our leaders are deeply polarized, and 'compromise' has become a dirty word."
Instead of negotiating, West continued, political leaders "are talking past one another because they are playing to their particular base."
"They seem less interested in actually solving problems than in presenting some doctrinaire view that's not getting anything done," he said, adding: "We now have parallel political universes that don't connect to one another, and it leaves voters confused."
This week has brought further evidence of the polarization.
Democrats and Republicans continued to squabble over whether to extend some or all of the Bush tax cuts from 2001 and 2003 in a legislative dance involving competing proposals but little prospect for real progress.
Meanwhile, a House debate on a GOP measure to repeal Obama's signature health care reform law devolved into opposing claims that caused only confusion and rancor.
The House had voted more than 30 times previously on measures to repeal, defund or otherwise undermine the law known as Obamacare, so any arguments for or against the latest repeal effort were well-known. Nevertheless, those arguments were repeated over and over in debate Tuesday and Wednesday.
Republicans railed against what they called socialized medicine and called the health care law the biggest tax increase in U.S. history, a claim rejected by the independent website Factcheck.org.
"There's no way the (law's) tax and other revenue increases come close to being the largest in U.S. history," according to a Factcheck.org posting.
Democrats say a giant public pressure campaign by insurance companies and conservative groups during the debate on the health care bill in 2009 and 2010 created a false narrative that persists today.
"They spent over $200 million mischaracterizing the bill, saying that it was public funding for abortions, which it was not, and is not; saying it was death panels, which it was not, and isn't," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, told reporters Wednesday.
A review of Factcheck.org and Politifact.com, another nonpartisan website, shows both sides have been guilty of false statements about the health care law.
For example, it labeled false the claim by Pelosi that under the health care law, "everybody will have lower rates, better quality care and better access."
Politifact also cited as false a statement by certain GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney that Obamacare "puts the federal government between you and your doctor."
The result of such dubious claims is that voters "don't know which facts are true and which ones have been made up," West said.
A recent CNN/ORC International poll reflected such public confusion on the health care issue. The survey conducted June 28-July 1 showed 52% of respondents favor all or most provisions of the health care law, while at the same time, 51% want Congress to repeal the entire measure.
On both issues, Democrats were strongly in favor of keeping the law intact while Republicans were equally supportive of repealing or dismantling it. Independents reflected the conflicting findings of the poll, with 56% favoring repeal while 51% support all or most of the law's provisions.
To West, a Republican shift "far to the right" has made finding common ground in the political center "very difficult." He also said the news media contribute to the problem because news reports "reinforce political polarization and hyper-partisanship."
"The media encourage shouting, as opposed to problem-solving," West added.
The renewed tax cut debate has been another example of a complex issue reduced to political posturing.
After the weak June jobs report Friday, Obama chose Monday to revive his call to hold down tax rates for a year on income below $250,000 for families and $200,000 for individuals while letting the rates return to higher 1990s levels for the rest.
He and Democrats contend the nation needs the additional revenue from ending the tax cuts on the rest, while the middle class needs continued help coping with the sluggish recovery. The problem, Obama says in his campaign stump speech, is that Republicans refuse to consider any kind of tax hike, even for millionaires who can easily handle it.
Republicans want to maintain the lower rates of the Bush tax cuts for everyone for a year, arguing that raising anyone's taxes in a weak economy will harm any chance for stronger recovery. They also oppose increased taxes on grounds that government needs to shrink, rather than receive more revenue that would allow it to keep growing.
Both parties say the ultimate goal is comprehensive tax reform to settle a dispute at the center of deficit reduction talks throughout the Obama presidency. However, when Senate Republicans called for an immediate vote Wednesday on each side's proposal, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said no.
A Democratic leadership aide said the delay was to prolong the tax cut debate through July, but another reason may be the difficulty Reid faces in holding together his caucus to support Obama's plan.
Some Senate Democrats propose that the cutoff for extending lower tax rates should be $1 million in order to restrict higher taxes to the most wealthy, while backing the president could be difficult for those facing tough re-election battles.