Forfeiting Today for a Political Tomorrow

A persistent problem with the political process is that many politicians focus on what they believe needs to be said and done to insure reelection sometime in the future, rather on what they should be saying and doing to govern well today. Recent developments on both sides of the aisle relative to the current contentious budget debate highlight that destructive tendency.

Relative to the “grand bargain” that President Obama is pushing for, that will include both significant cuts in expenditures and increases in revenues through tax reform, a recent publication suggests that “Democrats fear a ‘grand bargain’ will undercut the party’s ability in the 2012 campaigns to use Republicans’ support of deep cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security against them” (Carl Hulse and Jackie Calmes, “Boehner and Obama Nearing Deal on Cuts and Taxes,” The New York Times Reprint, July 21, 2011).

The proposal launched by Republican leader Mitch McConnell, and now supported by Democrat leader Harry Reid, exemplifies the same problem. They propose giving President Obama authority to increase the debt limit in a very clever manner that enables members of Congress to then vote to express their disagreement, thereby placating their constituents who have the power to return them or not, to office some day in the future.

This political strategy of positioning oneself for reelection in place of addressing the problems of today so cuts across the grain of what I believe and who I have become, that I hardly know where to begin my expressions of concern. I think it reflects a clear abdication of the responsibility of politicians to govern – today, not just later. But more fundamentally, it violates my understanding of how you ought to engage someone with whom you disagree. Let me explain, with the caveat that I once got “fired” for following the advice that is implicit in what I am about to say (as I describe in chapter 14 of my book Learning to Listen, Ready to Talk: A Pilgrimage Toward Peacemaking).

In my work in the academy (which is also a political arena, of sorts), when a problem arose that needed to be solved, and couldn’t wait until the President decided whether or not to renew my contract, I went to great lengths to gather diverse input (background information and opinions) from those who disagreed on how to address the problem. This process included numerous conversations intended to identify where we had some common ground and where we just needed to “agree to disagree” (albeit respectfully). If the authority to make a final decision was vested in me, I then processed all this input, and made a decision, letting the future chips fall where they may. If the authority to make a decision rested with a faculty committee, I encouraged the committee to process the input as carefully as I had before reaching their decision. In either case, we didn’t “kick the can down the road” until we were convinced that out future employment would not be jeopardized. We governed.

In other words, we didn’t forfeit today. We took our best shot at solving the problem at hand, now, not at some unforeseen future date. This required the courage to express our true convictions now, and the patience to listen to the convictions of others, and seek for that measure of common ground that is required for governing, which called for “compromise” (in the good sense of that word – see my first musing on this web site, titled “ Compromise: A Good or Bad Idea in Politics?”). This mode of engaging those with whom you disagree reflects a willingness to embrace that rare combination of deep commitment to one’s own present position on the issue at hand, and openness to the possibility that those who disagree with you can help you to improve upon your present position.

A possible rejoinder to what I have just said is that there is a segment of Congress, those in the Tea Party movement, that exemplifies deep commitment to their position relative to solving our present budget problem, apparently, for some at least, independent of the effect that it may have on getting reelected. Although I disagree with much of the substance of their commitment, I applaud them for having deep commitment to their beliefs, especially if it isn’t driven by a desire to get reelected. But one-out-of-two is good only in baseball. A “grand bargain,” now not later, will be possible only if Tea Party members, as well as those on the other side of the aisle who are equally committed to their views about solving our budget problems, will exhibit greater openness to listening and talking to one another to find the common ground that reflects the best insights from both sides of the aisle.

I heard a pundit say the other day that President Reagan couldn’t get elected today as a dogcatcher, given that he enacted eleven or so tax cuts during his presidency. I suspect that given what I have said above, I would have trouble getting elected to any political position anywhere, and if perchance I were so elected, my chances of getting reelected would be virtually nil. But being true to oneself is immeasurably more important than the results of any election.