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Washington seems to bring out the worst in would-be statesmen

By SUSAN ESTRICH Creators Syndicate

So the economy, it turns out, is better than it's been since Barack Obama took office. We are better off today than we were five years ago.

Who knew?

Oh, I guess we knew that the housing market is recovering and unemployment is down, and some baby boomers are actually beginning to retire. But it hardly feels like morning in America.

The economy may be better, but the president isn't getting much credit. The number of Americans who approve of the way he is handling the economy has dropped below 40 percent - the kind of numbers that were giving his advisers heartburn during the fiscal fights of 2011.

Of course, as awful as the president's numbers are, Congress and the Republican Party are doing even worse. It's not just the president we disapprove of; it's the whole small-d democratic government.

How can the best system of governance ever created by men and women produce such a bunch of incompetent bums?

Now, it doesn't help that the key to getting elected these days is raising money. If I asked you with which of your friends and family members would you entrust your family's future, you probably wouldn't base that decision on who has the most rich friends, or who is best at getting folks to part with their money, much less invest it in 30-second ads. So there's that problem, to be sure. When I first started teaching, many of my best students really did want to change the world through public service. Then there was the period when they all wanted to "go Hollywood." Now, they just want jobs, and the government isn't hiring.

But that's not the whole story. There are good and decent people on both sides of the aisle - or at least they were good and decent before they got to Washington, and hopefully they will be good and decent when they go home. But when they set foot in those hallowed halls that gave me the shivers the first time I entered them as a Girl Scout so many years ago, something goes very wrong. Instead of calling on their best selves, these great institutions turn would-be statesmen and women into poorly behaved hellions.

Everyone knows that no matter how much voters claim to hate Congress, they return their own members with stunning regularity. So they must be pleased with something. Right?

Quite the contrary. All those safe districts have created new dangers. Instead of worrying about how to hold onto the "moderate middle," the only worry is holding onto your party's nomination - which is to say, beating back the ideologues who consider John McCain to be a "liberal."

Compromise? No reason to. One of my old friends described his experience as a member of the Democratic minority in the House as like a high school football player sentenced to the same Groundhog Day ritual of humiliation: Get up, suit up, lace up, head to the field/floor where you already know you will fight and lose, and then, when it's finally over and nothing has been done, go back and do it again the next day.

It does not bring out the best in people.

So on the night of the State of the Union, we all pay lip service to the idea that our elected officials should work together, work for us, unite us and not divide us.

And then, the next morning, every member of the House and the incumbent senators seeking six more years will go back to focusing on how to head off a primary challenge from the tea party, how to raise more money and dig up dirt on anyone who might take them on, how not to make the sort of mistake that could turn the hard core against them, and how to ensure that they will be here next year, same time, same place, to complain about how it's all the other side's fault that nothing gets done.

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