As part of a weekly opinion roundtable, On Leadership invited Governor Mitch Daniels, former Senate leader Tom Daschle, Harvard professor John P. Kotter, former Congressman Slade Gorton, Wharton professor Stuart Diamond, and Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein to analyze what’s wrong with the leadership in Washington that political leaders haven’t been able to solve the U.S. budget and debt ceiling problems.
What’s Washington’s main leadership failure that it can’t solve the budget and debt debacle?
Gov. Mitch Daniels says it’s political leaders’ lack of faith in the American public :
For all their fundamental disagreements, these disputing camps share an implicit, dangerous pessimism about Americans at large: a low regard for their capacity to make sound decisions, either personal or collective. Neither side seems to recognize how demeaning their outlook is toward fellow citizens, nor how fatal the implications are for our democracy if their negative assessments are accurate.
Former Senate leader Tom Daschle says one of the reasons has to do with a breakdown in the art of persuasion :
Dwight Eisenhower once described leadership as the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.
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.
Harvard professor John P. Kotter says it’s Washington’s complacency cancer :
The most common cause of complacency is past success. You might think, “But, no rational mind in Washington would call the events of the last three years a big success,” yet that's not the way complacency works. In the past 250 years, Washington has arguably been the most successful place on earth. It’s been the power center of a nation that created the biggest economy in the world, developed the only military superpower, led the way in promoting democratic capitalism, nurtured an environment of innovation, and produced more Nobel laureates than anywhere else. This is really big stuff when you stop to think about it. And this string of achievements, built firmly into the Washington culture, has kept people complacent, even in the wake of recent failures.
Wharton professor Stuart Diamond says it’s that political leaders made fundamental negotiating mistakes :
Impending deadlines like this increase conflict and actually reduce creativity, information processing and agreement quality. What Washington needs to do at this point is decouple the debt limit from the spending debate, increasing the debt limit until December 31. This will maintain a less intrusive deadline but provide time for creative problem-solving in a calmer environment.