Dysfunction and disorder: Who’s to blame for gridlocked Congress?

Phil: U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s abrupt retirement is still reverberating across America, and analysts continue to correctly opine on the dysfunctional U.S. Senate. Her departure, based on exasperation with partisan gridlock, is a reminder that cooperation applies not only to the House and Senate, but to the presidency. The person elected president in November must find a way to work with lawmakers.

Ethan: Make no mistake, Snowe left Congress not because of the White House. She left because Congress is dysfunctional. “Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change,” she said. She understands that in order for America to work, Congress has to start working together. If President Barack Obama wins re-election, it will be a clear and convincing affirmation of his agenda. Congress should heed that call, regardless of which party rules, and start getting this country back on track.

Phil: While it’s a nice thought that everyone in Congress will roll over for the president just because he won an election, it won’t — and shouldn’t — happen. The battle is in the specific policies. For example, Obama’s goal to raise taxes on the top 1 percent won’t solve any of our problems.

Ethan: If a Republican-controlled Senate tries to carry forth your belief that trickle-down economics works, their approval ratings will plummet below the 16.3 percent the current body receives.

Phil: Ethan, regardless of ideology, voters understand that the party that can garner support from the other party should be leading, like President Ronald Regan did with a Democratic-controlled Congress.

Ethan: You mean like President Bill Clinton did with the Republican-controlled Congress. But you forget the most important distinction between those times of bi-partisan bliss and today: Both presidents had opposition parties that were willing to negotiate on the big issues. From social security to taxes to domestic spending, the opposition was willing to compromise. Republicans today stated flat out that they wanted Obama to fail, before he even took office.

Phil: Reagan and Clinton succeeded because they had the support of Main Street, and they set the tone for compromise. Do you know that Obama has not spoken to Snowe since she voted to bring the healthcare debate to the floor two years ago? So where’s the desire to compromise in that? If Obama can’t talk to Snowe, there’s something wrong. Obama sends the clear signal that it’s his way or no way.

Ethan: Come on now, Phil! You sound like New Gingrich when he was whining that he had to de-board out the back of Air Force One. Republicans walked away from the three most important issues facing the country: economic stimulus, health care and finance reform. They decided it would be more to their advantage to use these issues to win votes at the ballot box than it would be to actually help America solve these problems. There is no excuse for that.

Phil: Obama took the oath of office with Democrats in complete control of Washington. Did they eliminate the Bush tax rates they decry? No. Did the stimulus borrowing keep unemployment under 8 percent? No. Did the healthcare bill they rammed through lower costs? No. The result was Americans voted in the Republicans to lead the House. The president said that the Democrats “took a shellacking” in the mid-term elections. Did any of these realities change the tone and style of the Obama administration like Clinton’s tone changed when Newt Gingrich won the House? No. Clearly whoever is the next president must accept that Congress is a partner and that building consensus is job one.

Ethan: Democrats did take a shellacking (both nationally and here in Maine), and I give credit to the Republican Party’s decision to put electoral politics over the health of the country. Instead of negotiating to improve legislation, they simply doubled the number of filibusters used when Democrats were in the minority. Doubled! Republicans chose sandbox tactics that won them an election but hurt America.

Phil: Give Americans more credit. They elected new House leadership because Congress reflects what we the people have for priorities. When we feel misunderstood we make a change. That’s not sandbox tactics. It’s Americans exercising our right to a government of, by and for the people. The next president must connect on Main Street, but that didn’t happen over the last four years, which is why we’ve seen gridlock. In fact our founders designed it that way to protect the people from an over-reaching government.

Ethan: I don’t think our founders designed the Senate so that the leader of the minority party could abuse the rules to make sure the president didn’t win re-election: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one term president,” U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell said. If that doesn’t tell you all you need to know about why we have gridlock, and why Snowe decided to retire, I don’t know what will.

Ethan Strimling and Phil Harriman are former state senators. Their column appears online every Friday and in print on Saturdays. They are also political commentators on your local NBC affiliate and WGAN Radio.