Political Horizons: Watergate leaves a polarized nation

Friday marked the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation, one of those landmark days in American history.

A lot of the run-up to the anniversary revolved around pundits pontificating on how much more politically polarized the nation has become since Nixon ducked impeachment proceedings for covering up the dirty tricks his aides played against his opponents.

A national poll commissioned by CNN and released Friday found that only 13 percent of Americans say the government can be trusted to do what is right always or most of the time. That’s down from 36 percent in 1974 and 53 percent at the start of the Watergate scandal in 1972.

A 2-year-old University of Michigan study showed what many political professionals intuited years ago: “Anger leads citizens to harness existing skills and resources in a given election. Therefore, the process by which emotions are produced in each campaign can powerfully alter electoral outcomes.”

But a lot of voters these days are voicing frustration at the confrontational style of politics that is popular — at least that’s what many of the 16 most active candidates for two competitive Louisiana congressional seats report hearing while out hustling votes at Kiwanis Club lunches and church socials. The candidates are being asked to explain, again, how the public is better served by ultimately winning some philosophical fight rather than focusing on addressing specific problems.

Even locally elected officials took notice when talking last weekend to potential gubernatorial candidate U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La.

Abbeville City Councilman Brady Broussard last week passive-aggressively linked Vitter with what he called the most dysfunctional Congress in history. “Gridlock, deadline, heels dug in the sand,” Broussard told Vitter at a “town hall” meeting organized by the Louisiana Municipal Association.

Broussard said it had stopped progress toward practically addressing problems and needs regardless of political dogma.

“Our people are suffering because of that,” Broussard said. “How do we justify the deadlock, and what solution do you see for it?”

Vitter responded: “I hear you loud and clear.”

The wannabe governor who made his bones as a scorched earth partisan argued that reaching across the aisle and working with serious people on the other side was the best way to open communications and move meaningful solutions through the process. He underscored his own bipartisan efforts, such as revising the unintended consequences of the effort to save the flood insurance program and crafting changes to regulatory structure to better address environmental concerns, while not stifling the chemical industry’s business.

“I work in that spirit,” Vitter said.

“That being said, part of what you describe is not just the Congress, but the country is very polarized these days — very, very polarized. I honestly think that is not a Washington thing; that’s a country thing,” Vitter said. “Some of these big issues I think we need elections on to really come to a consensus.”

Vitter reminded the local officials that his office, too, is all about helping constituents thread their way through bureaucracy.

Constance Johnson, a member of the Thibodaux City Council, said she understands the political strategy demanding the complete overturn of the federal Affordable Care Act and starting over on health care. But, when coupled with the move to privatize the administration of Louisiana charity hospitals, it leaves many working people with no alternative but to show up in emergency rooms, she said. And when the care is given, they’re discovering that these private businesses are garnishing wages, often sucking up most of their monthly disposable incomes. That’s when they start calling their elected officials.

“We need to improve and dramatically reform health care, including for the poor,” Vitter said. “Within the state, as I prepare for next year, I am looking very carefully and very hard at all these health care issues.”

Johnson later said she was grateful for Vitter’s empathy and his promise to focus on solutions in the future. “I kind of heard him saying, ‘When I’m governor, I’ll fix it.’ But, what about the people now?”

Her phone then chirped like a drummer’s rim shot. She smiled and showed the display, saying another one of her constituents was calling.

Right before pressing the answer button, Johnson added: “It’s become really difficult to answer people, to help constituents and answer their questions.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@ theadvocate.com.