In the latest polls, just 14 percent of all Americans approve of the job Congress is doing.
You might think that number would inspire fear in people who stand for reelection every two years. You might hope that members of Congress would see in such numbers a mandate to do better — to stop playing games (hello, Ted Cruz) and focus on actually getting things done.
There are at least two reasons for this. First, most Americans draw a line between the institution as a whole — which they disapprove of — and their own representatives. Second, and no doubt related, most members represent "safe" districts in which one or the other party dominates; most members have more to fear from primary challenges by ideologues in their own party (hello, tea party), which means that reaching across the aisle is riskier than destructive partisanship.
But what is good for individual members is not what is good for Congress as an institution, or for the country.
Indeed, after watching Cruz's non-filibuster filibuster, after hearing John Boehner tie defunding Obamacare (which is simply not going to happen) to keeping the government open, it's hard to believe that even 14 percent of all Americans could possibly approve of the way Congress is doing its job. And if all these machinations should lead to a shutdown of the government or a default by the United States, the bottom line is that no one should approve of what Congress is doing.
I visited the Capitol for the first time decades ago as a Girl Scout. We had our picture taken with our congressman. We sat in the gallery and watched a vote being taken. I was awestruck.
How lucky I was, a decade later, to be hired to work for the Senate Judiciary Committee, to rub shoulders with the giants of American politics, Democratic and Republican. I could think of nothing, and nowhere, that I would rather be. A little more than a year later, the Democrats lost both the White House and the Senate. Nonetheless, Sen. Strom Thurmond, the ranking Republican and a man who, in terms of ideology, could not have been further apart from Sen. Ted Kennedy, the committee chair, agreed that the committee should move forward with the nomination of my boss, Stephen Breyer, to serve on the United States Court of Appeals in Boston. That would not ever happen today.
I used to think money was the cancer that was threatening to destroy Congress. For most members, the next campaign begins the moment the last one ends; raising money occupies more time than any other activity. The way you deter someone from challenging you, either in the primary or the general election, is to raise a huge war chest that you actually don't need. What could be more debilitating?
Ugly partisanship. A complete absence of respect. The dominance of angry ideology and vicious and personal attacks.
We live in such a dangerous world, where we have so little control. We are vilified by those who would destroy everything we hold dear. We are hated by people who reject all of the values we hold dear. We face challenges that I could not have imagined.
We have real enemies.
I hate al-Qaida. I do not hate Ted Cruz or John Boehner. I disagree with them. There is a huge difference. We are all Americans. Sappy, but so important. The enemy is not Obamacare. The enemy is a terrorist group that attacked an upscale shopping mall on a Saturday morning in Kenya, a group that sends children with bombs strapped to their bodies out to kill.
Vigorous debate is essential to a healthy democracy. But when civil discourse gives way to ugly demagoguery, we put at risk the miracle that is our democracy.
(Susan Estrich is a professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California Law Center. A best-selling author, lawyer and politician, as well as a teacher, she first gained national prominence as national campaign manager for Dukakis for President in 1988.)