The Democrats and Republicans are both hobbled by elected officials remarkably unsuited to govern. The deficit of competent and constructive leaders has not only landed us in the shutdown mess, but portends for little progress on our bigger fiscal issues.
My colleague Ruth Marcus quotes former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as saying of the president, “You have to engage in the process. This is a town where it’s not enough to feel you have the right answers. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and you’ve got to really engage in the process . . . that’s what governing is all about.” But President Obama is entirely unable to do that. In every previous crisis, others had to come in to make the deal. Whether it was the 2011 Budget Control Act or the fiscal cliff or the current standoff, the president seems capable only of demeaning opponents and demanding terms to which they cannot agree. The zenith of his imperiousness occurred when he refused to “negotiate” with Republicans this time around; well, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Republicans and Vice President Biden did the negotiating and apparently have closed in on a resolution.
The president respects his opponents so little and considers his own positions to be so beyond reproach that he can dictate but not deal. That’s a fatal shortcoming in divided government, and in a democracy more generally. Even reelected presidents don’t get 100 percent of what they want. His, in a large sense, is a personal failure.
On the GOP side, you have a set of elected officials who consider dealing to be giving up matters of “principle.” Principle is what they really, really want — no matter how unattainable that is. Unlike the president, however, they don’t actually believe they can force capitulation on the other side. They are there for the antics, the red-hot rhetoric and the appeals to anger and resentment. They’ve morphed into what they despised about the 1960s protest movements. They don’t care what real Americans want. They don’t understand the need for bargained, incremental change. They attack the “establishment,” showing contempt for the experienced and accomplished elders, and they prefer political theater to actual progress. Their language is excessive and abusive (although not necessarily profane).
On the GOP side, like the president, they have come up with alternative negotiators to save the party and the country from disaster. Obama voluntarily stepped away while the House Republicans and the Senate shutdown squad had to be shoved aside. But, in the end, neither Obama nor the Cruz-ites can clean up the mess their intransigence has made. Less flashy, less condescending figures who do more than sneer at the opposition have to do that.
As a result, again we’ve made no progress on the drivers of the debt or reform of the tax code. Republicans missed a golden opportunity to make a simple and compelling argument: So long as Obamacare is a non-functioning debacle, Americans cannot be forced with threat of fines to obtain insurance. That’s logical and simple fairness. But only now have a few Republicans gotten around to that argument. And we have races, in Arkansas for example, in which an incumbent Democrat, Sen. Mark Pryor, who has taken multiple votes for a program hated by his constituents, is running even with a Republican challenger who should have staked out a big lead. The shutdown, however, is the great counterweight to Republican challengers.
On the House floor on Monday Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) made a compelling argument about the current status of his party:
There is too much pride poisoning this debate. The American people should be the winner, not one party or the other, not the administration or the Congress. Short-sighted political victories aimed at capturing the latest headline in the 24 hour news cycle will not stand the test of time, nor will they be viewed well through the lens of history, especially if on our watch the trust that must exist between elected officials and the electorate is frayed beyond repair.
For those of us who think Obamacare is a disaster – and that is a growing number of people in our country – its future will not be decided by shutting or opening of the government. In fact, the current failings of the system including the widespread glitches plaguing the Web site are not getting the news coverage they should because the “story” has become the shutdown. The public debate surrounding Obamacare, which will undoubtedly be at the forefront heading into the mid-term elections, will play second fiddle until the government is once again operational. . . . It is time to show some humility. It is time to govern. Let’s get the government back open, ensure we don’t default on our debt and then commit ourselves to curbing unsustainable entitlement spending.
He’s a “moderate” Republican, but this is one of the truest expressions of conservative temperament — personal humility, policy grounded in reality, focus on the threat to a vibrant free-market economy (debt and untrammeled government growth) and an appreciation for the views of his fellow citizens moderated by his own good judgment. These qualities are entirely lacking in the shutdown squad and in a new breed of radical right-wingers. It is made worse still by an unhinged right-wing media that view their job as to incite and attack, not to illuminate and analyze.
So we have a president uniquely unsuited to the times and a GOP in which too many are political hucksters and/or have lost sense of their movement’s foundational beliefs and habits. The Democrats will get a new nominee in 2016, but the Republicans have a far harder task. They need to rediscover what it is to be conservative and reject a political style that is self-destructive. In the meantime, we’ve just kicked this can down the road six months when we may be right back where we started: An arrogant president and a dysfunctional opposition.