Oh, sure, they couch what they are doing in terms of “what’s best for the country,” or “the health of the economy” or “the well-being of future generations.” Don’t fall for it for a minute. At this point, it’s all about prevailing in what the key players have come to view as a holy war. It’s the same mindset that lead to the War of the Roses, the Civil War, World War I or the unending violence in the Middle East.
What we are witnessing is the very opposite of leadership, which is the ability to solve seemingly intractable problems by getting above them and redefining them.
You may recall a few weeks back when the details were released of the budget deal that allowed the country to avoid, at least temporarily, throwing itself over the fiscal cliff. Immediately, everyone’s first instinct—the politicians, the media, the interest groups—was to analyze it in terms of who won and who lost. In fact, that was precisely how the deal was crafted, to ensure that neither “side” would be seen as gaining much of an advantage or the war could be said to be on a path to being resolved. It was all about the optics, and living to fight another day.
From a policy perspective, the outlines of economically sound, politically balanced compromise have long been visible to anyone who cared to see them. But at every turn, one side or the other felt it had enough political wind at its back that it was unwilling to accept anything other than near total victory. If only we can just hold on a little longer, they tell themselves, dig our heels in a little deeper and wait until the next election when an energized base will hand us the keys to the kingdom.
But that day never comes.
Genuine leaders know when a competitive dynamic has been played out to a stalemate, and are willing to change that dynamic to produce a more satisfactory outcome—satisfactory for the country, that is, not for the politicians.
And there’s the rub. You would think incumbent politicians might realize they are better off agreeing to a grand budget bargain that makes voters see them in a more positive light. But party leaders aren’t interested in improving the re-election prospects of incumbents. For the party, success means winning even more seats in the next election, and what they have “learned” in recent years is that the best way to do that is to energize your base and demonize the opposition. Nothing about a grand bargain furthers that goal.
All of this becomes obvious to any modestly intelligent and sophisticated outsider who takes the time to peer into the current Washington process. But nearly all of our political leaders have been playing the game so long that they are now trapped by it. Their egos and sense of purpose and self-worth are totally tied up with winning the trench warfare. Their motivation at this point has more to do with revenge, or righting a past wrong, than it does with putting the country in a better place. They are unable to get enough altitude to see that nobody can or will win, and that either side would be better off with an “imperfect” resolution.