No of­fense, I’m just say­ing

Jour­nal­ist Alec Macgil­lis on how Washington fights by agree­ing to dis­agree

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - out­look@wash­ Alec MacGil­lis is a se­nior ed­i­tor at the New Repub­lic.

How po­lit­i­cal fights got pas­siveag­gres­sive.

Pres­i­dent Obama and House Repub­li­cans are al­low­ing the March 1 dead­line for the bud­get se­quester to creep nearer — as if as­sum­ing that the other guys will bear the brunt of the blame for the havoc the spend­ing cuts will wreak. They seem a bit like the Se­nate Repub­li­cans, who at first de­clined to al­low a vote on Chuck Hagel’s nom­i­na­tion for de­fense sec­re­tary, forc­ing a week’s de­lay, but then said they didn’t mean any­thing per­sonal by it. Mean­while, some gov­er­nors op­posed to the Af­ford­able Care Act are sim­ply hold­ing back from im­ple­ment­ing its main el­e­ments, rather than con­test­ing it out­right.

If things get any more pas­sive-ag­gres­sive around here, we may need to bring in Lena Dun­ham to write the script.

For all the talk about the po­lit­i­cal par­ties be­ing at each other’s throats, what we are pre­sented with th­ese days is some­thing more nu­anced and more frus­trat­ing: con­flict that is sub­li­mated into feints, withheld co­op­er­a­tion or phony good­will rather than ex­pressed as con­fronta­tion. It is, taken as a whole, pas­sive-ag­gres­sive be­hav­ior.

That di­ag­no­sis was first ap­plied by the mil­i­tary in 1945 to en­listed men who weren’t ac­tively chal­leng­ing author­ity enough to merit the brig but were be­ing in­sub­or­di­nate in their own Bartle­byesque fash­ion. It’s now time to slap the tag on our po­lit­i­cal class.

As it hap­pens, one side has been wield­ing the la­bel for some time. Sev­eral con­ser­va­tive crit­ics have gone on record ac­cus­ing Obama of be­ing pas­sive-ag­gres­sive. John Yoo, a light­ning-rod lawyer in Ge­orge W. Bush’s Jus­tice De­part­ment, wrote an elec­tion-night col­umn for Fox News warn­ing that an Obama win would “usher in the pas­sive-ag­gres­sive pres­i­dency” — a re­sult, he ar­gued, of a cam­paign in which Obama had of­fered only “odd gri­maces” and “nasty glances” be­cause his lib­eral pol­icy agenda had been ex­hausted.

Asked to elab­o­rate, Yoo told me in an e-mail that he saw pas­sive-ag­gres­sive ten­den­cies in Obama’s an­nounce­ment last year that he would stop en­forc­ing im­mi­gra­tion laws against un­doc­u­mented young peo­ple who’d been brought to the coun­try as chil­dren — “not be­cause the laws are un­con­sti­tu­tional, or there are too few re­sources,” Yoo wrote, “but be­cause he wishes im­mi­gra­tion laws were writ­ten dif­fer­ently.”

Yoo also saw pas­sive ag­gres­sion in Obama’s ap­proach to the “fis­cal cliff ” de­bate in late 2012, when he “threat­ened to al­low a dis­as­ter to oc­cur through in­ac­tion, un­less Congress agreed to his pro­pos­als to raise taxes.”

To be fair, the pres­i­dent’s ap­proach in that in­stance was the ob­vi­ous one to take: Since all of the Bush tax cuts were sched­uled to ex­pire no mat­ter what, in­ac­tion tilted at least slightly to his ad­van­tage, as­sum­ing he was will­ing to bear the eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal risks of go­ing over the cliff. But Yoo and oth­ers are right to note that Obama, who ran for pres­i­dent with no­tions of post-par­ti­san tran­scen­dence, has of­ten pre­ferred to ad­vance his agenda in sub­tle ways that don’t call un­due at­ten­tion to the po­lit­i­cal com­bat in­her­ent in his job.

That said, it’s even eas­ier to iden­tify pas­sive ag­gres­sion in the con­gres­sional re­sis­tance to Obama. You can see it in the block­ing of count­less pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nees by fil­i­buster or quiet sen­a­to­rial “holds,” both of which al­low Repub­li­cans to stymie the ad­min­is­tra­tion with­out hav­ing to vote against the nominations, all the while coat­ing their op­po­si­tion in a patina of cor­dial­ity. You can see it in the re­luc­tance of House lead­ers to al­low the cham­ber to vote on bills that do not have ma­jor­ity GOP sup­port, such as, say, leg­is­la­tion for new gun re­stric­tions. And you can see it above all in Repub­li­can brinkman­ship on the debt ceil­ing — in 2011, the coun­try came within inches of a credit de­fault as Repub­li­cans de­clined, un­til the last minute, to raise the na­tion’s bor­row­ing limit.

To some ex­tent, pas­sive-ag­gres­sive pol­i­tics have al­ways been with us, a byprod­uct of a Washington cul­ture that places high value on main­tain­ing a ve­neer of bi­par­ti­san comity and a sys­tem of checks and bal­ances all but de­signed for pas­siveag­gres­sive ma­neu­vers. Scott Wet­zler, a pro­fes­sor at Yeshiva Univer­sity’s Al­bert Ein­stein Col­lege of Medicine and the au­thor of “Liv­ing With the Pas­sive-Ag­gres­sive Man,” notes that the fil­i­buster is the “clas­sic” form of pas­sive ag­gres­sion in pol­i­tics. “If you’ll lose the vote . . . you don’t let it go up for a vote. You sti­fle it. It’s a more covert way,” he said. “It’s a way to thwart some­thing rather than do­ing some­thing you want.”

But past pe­ri­ods of par­ti­san ran­cor

For all the talk about the po­lit­i­cal par­ties be­ing at each other’s throats, what we are pre­sented with th­ese days is some­thing more nu­anced and more frus­trat­ing.

fea­tured less covert be­hav­ior of this sort. Take the 1990s, for in­stance. Newt Gingrich’s House revo­lu­tion­ar­ies ac­tively pressed their own agenda — the Con­tract With Amer­ica — and even im­peached the pres­i­dent rather than just try­ing to block him with grudg­ing in­er­tia. And Bill Clin­ton rel­ished the open joust­ing of the 1995-96 fight over a government shut­down.

For to­day’s Repub­li­cans, though, pas­sive ag­gres­sion has been ef­fec­tive as a way to op­pose Obama while ob­scur­ing the roots of that op­po­si­tion, says Norm Orn­stein, an Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute scholar and co-au­thor of a 2012 book on Washington dys­func­tion. Take GOP re­sis­tance to the new Con­sumer Fi­nan­cial Pro­tec­tion Bureau: In­stead of mak­ing an ex­plicit case against the new agency, an ar­gu­ment Democrats could cast as de­fend­ing abu­sive lenders, Repub­li­cans have sim­ply de­clined to con­firm a di­rec­tor, with­out whom the bureau can­not op­er­ate.

“It’s made it eas­ier for Repub­li­cans to get away with it if you do it in a pas­sive-ag­gres­sive way as op­posed to an ag­gres­sive way,” Orn­stein says. “If you just deny an op­por­tu­nity to put some­body into a po­si­tion, you find it gets much less press cov­er­age.”

As Orn­stein per­sua­sively ar­gues, the GOP’s pas­sive ag­gres­sion is a nat­u­ral re­sult of hav­ing a party that has come to act like a uni­fied par­lia­men­tary-style op­po­si­tion in a government that was not de­signed for such a thing. In a par­lia­men­tary sys­tem, the op­po­si­tion would make an ex­plicit case against the gov­ern­ing ma­jor­ity’s poli­cies and hope that vot­ers shift their sup­port in the next elec­tion. But in a non-par­lia­men­tary sys­tem such as ours, a uni­fied op­po­si­tion can try some­thing dif­fer­ent; it can keep those poli­cies from be­ing im­ple­mented, of­ten through means that leave few fin­ger­prints.

“In a par­lia­men­tary sys­tem, the government can still act and carry out its poli­cies. They’ll still be im­ple­mented, and vot­ers will have a chance to judge them in a clear fash­ion — maybe they work, maybe they don’t work,” Orn­stein says. In our sys­tem, a par­lia­men­tary-style mi­nor­ity can sim­ply “bol­lix up the works.”

Our sys­tem also en­cour­ages pas­sive ag­gres­sion on a whole other level, by virtue of its fed­er­al­ism. At first, Repub­li­can-gov­erned states ex­pressed their op­po­si­tion to the Af­ford­able Care Act by chal­leng­ing the law in court. But when the Supreme Court up­held the law last year, many GOP-dom­i­nated states took a dif­fer­ent tack — they dis­re­garded its edicts. Twenty-six states have de­clined to set up the health in­surance ex­changes where peo­ple with­out em­ployer cov­er­age are sup­posed to buy plans, leav­ing it up to the fed­eral government to run them.

Even more sig­nif­i­cant, more than a dozen states have de­clined to ex­pand Med­i­caid as called for in the law, de­spite the fact that the fed­eral government would cover nearly the en­tire cost. This ab­sten­tion, which the Supreme Court’s rul­ing al­lowed, will leave sev­eral mil­lion peo­ple with­out cov­er­age who would oth­er­wise have been in­sured. “The states can do, and are do­ing, a lot of dam­age to that law just by de­clin­ing to co­op­er­ate,” said Michael Can­non, a health pol­icy ex­pert at the lib­er­tar­ian Cato In­sti­tute who has been urg­ing states not to par­tic­i­pate in the law.

Wet­zler has a the­ory about why such be­hav­ior has be­come more preva­lent. “Pas­sive ag­gres­sion is a way that peo­ple who per­ceive them­selves in a po­si­tion of rel­a­tive weak­ness deal with peo­ple who they see as be­ing in a po­si­tion of rel­a­tive strength,” he said. “In­stead of di­rectly chal­leng­ing the author­ity, they try more in­di­rect ways to sti­fle that author­ity. . . . It can be an ef­fec­tive way of un­der­min­ing a group that you see has more power than you.”

In the 1990s, con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans and their state-level coun­ter­parts could still make a strong case that they had some­thing close to half the coun­try on their side of the ar­gu­ment. To­day, the de­mo­graphic and polling num­bers fac­ing the party are bleaker. And this makes it more tempt­ing to op­pose with­out ac­tu­ally hav­ing to, well, make the ar­gu­ment.

As Wet­zler sees it, such pas­sive-ag­gres­sive be­hav­ior is not al­ways bad. “It can be a very healthy way of deal­ing with im­bal­ance of power,” he said. “It’s not nec­es­sar­ily a sign of pathol­ogy.”

But it could get to that point, he added. “The ques­tion is, where do you draw the line be­tween some­one try­ing to thwart the other per­son be­cause they want to thwart some­thing they don’t agree with, as op­posed to just want­ing to thwart him — when the strug­gle is an end, not just a means to an end?”

Wher­ever that line is, our politi­cians may have crossed it. No of­fense.


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