Nothing better exemplifies this than the often repeated assertion that if waste, fraud, abuse, out-of-control spending, subsidies and foreign aid were simply eliminated, we could easily bring our federal budget back into balance. The truth is that two wars, the Bush/Obama tax cuts and a recession the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Great Depression, in addition to the highest health and military costs in the world, are largely responsible for the debt we have incurred over the past decade.
The fourth and final factor undermining our chances for success in budget negotiations has to do with political control of the federal government. In the past two decades, the presidency has swung back and forth three times; the Congress, four times. In recent decades, every election has offered the party out of power a good chance and hope of coming back. As a result, very few decisions are made without some recognition of the impact they would have on prospects for either gaining or retaining the presidency or the majority in Congress. Party caucus meetings have become little more than pep rallies. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell’s early revelation that his most important goal is defeating President Obama in 2012 is merely one of hundreds of examples of the consequence of this political and legislative environment.
Tom Daschle, now a senior adviser at DLA Piper and a cofounder of the Bipartisan Policy Center, was one of the longest serving Senate Democratic leaders in history, and the only one to have served twice as both majority and minority leader.
Given these factors, leaders on both sides are forced to use brinksmanship as their trump card to move the other side–which is exactly what we see playing out over the necessity to raise the debt limit. This is the ’gun to the head’ version of Eisenhower’s leadership approach: it’s one that instead says, “Want what I want done, or the consequences will even be worse.”
Of course, all of this affects the quality of governance in profound ways. Our inability to find common ground on these central policy questions—not to mention on energy, health care, education and trade—undermines the quality of our democracy as well as the quality of life of every American.
The stakes now could not be higher. Our leaders at the highest levels, from the president to the speaker to the House and Senate majority leaders, need to demonstrate that they fully understand the grave risks of failure by personally entering into intense, non-stop negotiations immediately.
There have been times in the past when our national political leaders have done exactly that. They have demonstrated courage and a willingness to compromise even under the most extraordinary of circumstances. President George H. W. Bush was relentlessly criticized and ridiculed for showing such leadership in the beginning of the ‘90s. Some even have suggested that he lost the following election because of it.
But in so doing, he set a standard that would be repeated at least twice in the next five years. In those cases, both sides walked away believing they succeeded in getting the other to want what they wanted, too. And by the end of that decade, we had a balanced budget for three years in a row.