He could have been talking about Congress. Having been on both ends of that definition of leadership in scores of policy negotiations over the years, it appears to be getting harder with each Congressional session and with each new freshman class. It is especially true regarding past and present negotiations on the federal budget and this year’s drama on raising the debt limit.
In at least four of the past ten years alone, Congress has failed to produce any budget at all. That is because, in large part, neither presidents nor congressional leaders were able to execute Eisenhower’s description and get the other side to do something because they wanted to do it.
At the very root of this failure is the two parties’ fundamental difference of opinion on the role of government in modern society. The Republicans’ view that we must severely limit its role has led them to pledge, almost universally, not to support new taxes that would fund an enlarged government at any level. Just last Thursday, the Republican congressional negotiators pulled out of the deficit reduction talks because of Democrats’ insistence that taxes be included as part of the final agreement. Meanwhile the Democrats’ view that government’s role is essential in making society fairer, especially during economic downturns, has led them to oppose any major change in our national health and retirement programs.
Yet, policymakers have very limited choices. Most realize that they can only marginally reduce the debt and deficit by cutting domestic discretionary spending programs. That leaves only three tough options: cut defense, cut mandatory spending (Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security) or raise taxes.
The result has been a political leadership standoff, exacerbated by four major factors.
First, both party bases have become more demanding and far more successful in maintaining a disciplined ideological rigidity in these debates. Republicans have been completely committed, for example, to taking off the table higher tax rates—even rates that would merely approach Reagan administration levels—despite the fact we’re seeing the lowest revenue as a percent of GDP in more than fifty years.
Second, special interests from all sectors have applied immense pressure on members of Congress to protect their priorities. Given the Citizens’ United ruling by the Supreme Court, the opportunity for money to inundate the policymaking process is now completely unlimited.
Third, most in Congress suffer from a Washington political reality that goes like this: Repeat something often enough and it becomes fact.