“SOMETIMES IT IS more difficult to learn to work together than to suffer individually,” Aung San Suu Kyi observed to a Washington audience last week.
Coming from a woman who has spent most of the past two decades in isolation, under house arrest, it was a striking statement. The Nobel Peace Prize winner from Burma was seeking support in Washington as her country, also known as Myanmar, emerges from a half-century of dictatorship. What seemed uppermost on her mind were the practical, human difficulties of making democracy work.
She talked about how people in her country, a Southeast Asian nation of 50 million or so, don’t really know how to ask questions of their leaders, a practice that hasn’t been much encouraged in recent decades. Similarly, she said, politicians aren’t used to the notion that they have “a duty to explain their policies.” She fretted that the Burmese fear of losing face makes it difficult for politicians to compromise.
All of which made us wonder whether Washington might not have more to learn from Aung San Suu Kyi than the other way around. No doubt Burma, like every nation, has challenges specific to its history and culture. But the allergy to compromise, the failure of leaders to explain their intentions — much of it sounded drearily familiar.
Here we have a presidential campaign in which both candidates are more eager to tear the other down than explain what he would do if elected. Since Republican nominee Mitt Romney has been on both sides of so many issues, the problem is particularly acute in his case. He offers platitudes about lowering taxes but refuses to say how he could make the numbers add up. He faults President Obama for having failed to achieve compromise with Congress, yet his dismissal of the half of the country that does not support him hardly seems the basis for a unifying presidency.
Having occupied the White House for nearly four years, Mr. Obama presents less of a mystery. But it is disappointing that he offers no second-term agenda beyond defending and completing the work of his first. He accepts no responsibility for the worsening gridlock that he had promised to alleviate; his only fault, he says, was to trust naively in the good faith of the other side. His takeaway is that “you can’t change Washington from the inside.”
There’s nothing wrong with a president going outside Washington to mobilize support; that’s what the bully pulpit is for. But Mr. Obama’s version of the past four years is incomplete. Republicans were often more intent on thwarting him than helping the country, even reversing long-held positions to do so. But at key moments, when compromise might have been possible, Mr. Obama lost his nerve or failed to lead.
More important than arguing over history is the oft-postponed challenge of repairing the nation’s finances. Even before Inauguration Day, the country, if its politicians cannot find a compromise, will slide over a fiscal cliff of tax hikes and spending cuts that will endanger national security and send the country reeling back into recession. What would President Obama do in a lame-duck session to head this off? What would a President-elect Romney counsel? We have no idea.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who won election to parliament in April, said her party refused to make “easy promises” that it could not fulfill. “Some people tell me this means I’m not a real politician,” she joked.
“Cut taxes.” “Preserve Medicare.” Those are easy promises. Righting this country will require more difficult measures — including Democrats and Republicans working together.