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Op-Ed

Washington doesn’t listen? Nah. Maybe politicians listen too much.

At a Brookings Institution panel that I moderated Monday on economic issues in the 2016 campaign, Neera Tanden interjected an interesting bit of political analysis about the widely noted phenomena of polarization and gridlock in Washington.

“I don’t think there’s a failure of political leadership,” said Ms. Tanden, a veteran of the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations who is now president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress and an adviser to Hillary Clinton. “The reality is that the parties are farther apart than they’ve ever been on really core fundamental issues.”

The usual pattern is this: When one party has held the White House for eight years, the other party to moves toward the center for that “third-term election,” such as 2016. In 1968, for instance, Richard Nixon moved the Republican Party leftward–at least domestically–from the party of Barry Goldwater, she said. (Armchair political analysts can argue over beers whether this always holds: Jimmy Carter in 1976 was definitely closer to the center than George McGovern was in 1972. Was George W. Bush in 2000, the “compassionate conservative,” closer to the center than Bob Dole was in 1996?)

In any event, Ms. Tanden argued that this time is different. “The 2012 Republican Party moved to the right of 2008, and the 2016 debate is to the right of 2012. It is an unusual occurrence.”

“Everyone in Washington wants to say political leaders just don’t listen. They are listening too much. The bases of the parties are moving in opposite directions,” she said.

The root cause, she suggested, is 15 years of wage stagnation. “The parties are responding in different ways. Republican base voters are more anxious about ‘the other’–immigration, Islamophobia. Democrats are more concerned about rising inequality than at any point in the past 20 years.”

“I would say to the next president: You are going to have to solve this problem because the politics of the country will get more and more destructive until you do.”

That is a message that few candidates want to hear now, but one that may determine the likelihood that the winner will have a successful presidency.

Watch Ms. Tanden’s argument in this video. It begins at 1:11:30 and is about three minutes.


Editor’s Note: this piece first appeared in The Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire.

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