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A tale of two democracies: Harper steamrolls, Obama grinds gears

President Barack Obama discusses faltering efforts to reach a deal on reducing the U.S. budget deficit at a White House news conference on Nov. 21, 2011.


The word out of Washington is that after 10 weeks of intense efforts to agree on a plan to cut America's deficit, the Democrats and Republicans are empty handed. Their deadline expired and now it's off to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Just how miserable a failure this is can hardly be overstated. America's debt has passed $15-trillion. Governments owe almost $50,000 for every man, woman, and child. Everyone knows the problem won't solve itself and is getting worse by the hour.

This latest, not greatest effort was conceived out of the sad impasse that marked Washington politics earlier this year, which of course led to the Standard & Poor's decision to cut the U.S. credit rating.

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If American voters are presented with another failure, at least they won't be surprised. Public confidence in Congress is running at about 10 per cent. Only 13 per cent expected the so-called "super committee" to find a deal. Super indeed. President Barack Obama is hardly immune to the public's ire. His approval rating is down 30 points since he won office and he finds himself deep in Jimmy Carter territory. He's disappointed the left, enraged the right (okay, maybe not such a hard thing to do) and bewildered the centre.

From a Canadian perspective, one of the more striking things about this fiscal debate in U.S. politics is how it contrasts with the recent debate about the use of closure by the Harper government.

In Washington, no amount of time seems to be enough to put in place an economic plan because both parties can't agree or won't agree – but fundamentally need to agree for anything to get done. American politics has become a system of lots of cheques, but few balances.

Here in Canada, the Conservatives bridle at the amount of time it takes them to get their economic legislation passed. But there is no doubt it will be passed.

And that's not just because the Conservatives have a majority now. Even before the election result, there was more huffing and puffing than actually blowing the House down when it came to opposition resistance to Stephen Harper's economic plans. Compared to the dug-in, daggers-drawn phenomenon that is modern day Washington, here in Ottawa there really wasn't much daylight between the parties on the size of the stimulus program or the resulting fiscal issues.

If there is any excuse available for the failure of the U.S. political parties, it lies in the fact that public opinion is pretty rigid and polarized. Most voters want the debt and deficits addressed but aren't really prepared to contemplate cuts to social security and medicare. Democratic voters want higher taxes on the rich and lower spending on defence. Republicans are against tax increases and want to protect defence spending. These incompatibilities were generally reflected in the inability of their elected representatives to find common ground.

In Canada, voters on the right and those on the left disagree to be sure – but except for the hardest of hardcore partisans, the differences are more often questions of degree than direction. When Canada faced a fiscal crisis more than 15 years ago, there was pretty broad agreement around the kind of policies the country needed to embrace.

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For all of our sakes, and despite the flaws in our democracy, it's hard not wish that more of our Canadian-style pragmatism and belief in compromise would take root in Washington.

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About the Author
Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of the At Issue panel on CBC’s The National and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians but no longer does any partisan work. More

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