A few years ago, Carolyn and I visited Cambodia. After a stay in Phnom Penh, the capital, we flew to Siem Reap. Angkor Wat, the huge 12th-century temple complex, was breathtaking. But something else also caught my attention. The roads we traveled on made San Francisco look like a third-world city.

I often say that life is maintenance. On a personal level, we (well, not all Americans) take care of our bodies. We wash. We trim our nails and get haircuts. We also try to eat healthy food and exercise.

On a communal level, we seek to maintain our physical environment. But infrastructure projects don’t come cheap, and Washington is the prime mover. Shamefully, we’ve long neglected our roads, bridges and tunnels, and school buildings. Fortunately, the economy has generated more government revenue so more work has taken place. It hasn’t always been efficient, but that’s a problem of politics rather than engineering. Witness the attractive east span of the Bay Bridge pushed as a legacy by former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown and present governor Jerry Brown. Politically mismanaged construction often stalled. Costs soared. Grave questions remain about the bridge’s structural integrity.

In my neighborhood, the news is mostly good. The Doyle Drive project connecting the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marina District and downtown, as well as to San Francisco’s west side and the Peninsula, will be completed in another two years. Hopefully. In August, crews replaced our street’s sewer lines, part of a huge citywide project. Three weeks of dust and noise proved a small price for those needed repairs. Last month, other crews repaved our street. Nearby Park Presidio, a major boulevard badly in need of repaving, waits.

Infrastructure-wise, we’re catching Cambodia. But another type of infrastructure is crumbling down to the level of Cambodia, a dictatorship under Prime Minister Hun Sen: Washington. Last Tuesday’s election, which gave Republicans control of the Senate and expanded the GOP majority in the House is a symptom. So is a lack of leadership and candor coming from President Obama whose reserved, seemingly disengaged manner has worn thin with many Americans who voted for him. Our system of government—brilliant in its conception—has lost its way. Big money and the shrill ideology from extremists on both right and left have paralyzed Washington’s ability to advance the cause of ordinary, “purple” Americans.

In an age when citizens have huge caches of information at their fingertips, Washington’s ability to get things done has slowed beyond a crawl. It’s at a virtual standstill. Yes, powerful interests always have impacted elections, legislation, even war. Once, machine politics and backroom compromises—and yes, hands got dirty—moved the nation forward by passing the riches around. The system was imperfect but effective. Now, it’s dead.

We have the capacity to span bays and rivers, dig through mountains and construct inspiring buildings that serve the common good. We also have the capacity to build bridges across the aisle in Congress and down the Hill to the White House. If we’re intent on not catching Cambodia in political respects, we won’t need a new constitution. We’ll need integrity, courage and will. What are the odds?

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  1. Carolyn Perlstein on November 7, 2014 at 6:55 pm

    Bipartisan cooperation rarely happens; perhaps in another universe.

  2. Tracy on November 8, 2014 at 4:58 pm

    A paraphrase of Alexis de Tocqueville seems appropriate here: “Americans don’t get the government they want; they get the government that they DON’T VOTE FOR.”

    The system is just fine, the populace is broken.

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