And so a new year begins, and we are haunted by some of the old questions. But before Congress returns to the Capitol and before the White House creaks back into action, we might pause to examine the state of our politics. This is an election year, the contours of the 2016 presidential campaign will begin to take form, and vital budgetary, military and diplomatic questions will need to be confronted.
The year will open with a blast from the past, the memoir of former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who, because he served in the Pentagon under both a Republican and Democratic president, ought not to be dismissed as a cranky geezer befuddled by memories of rosier good-old-days. This is a serious man, with a history degree from William and Mary and a Ph.D. from Georgetown, service under eight presidents and experience as the director of central intelligence and as president of Texas A&M University.
Mr. Gates’ book will salute both George W. Bush and Barack Obama for their personal chivalry but criticize many of their decisions. It also will excoriate Congress as “[u]ncivil, incompetent in fulfilling basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotisti-cal, thin-skinned, too often putting self (and re-election) before country …”
That is a searing, but not a daring, assessment. A McClatchy-Marist Poll released last month showed the president and Congress with all-time low ratings, with about two-thirds of the country viewing the nation as being on the wrong track. So much for the glad tidings of the holiday season.
It may seem wearisome to read about governmental dysfunction and public disapproval, they being such hardy perennials. Indeed, two generations of Americans have come to maturity with the conviction that the government is bad, that politics is worse, that things are deteriorating at an ever quickening pace and that hope should be abandoned at the exit door of the maternity ward.
This is the legacy of (hold your breath, for this will be a run-on sentence for the ages) Vietnam, the credibility gap, Watergate, the pardon of Richard M. Nixon, the Mayaguez, inflation, stagflation, high interest rates, the Iran hostage crisis, the debacle at Desert One, the savings-and-loan crisis, Iran-Contra, Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky, a presidential impeachment, terrorism, financial collapse, growing partisanship, congressional paralysis and much, much more.
But each presidential administration, and each new Congress, has the chance to start anew, and there have been moments of great hope in the past third of a century. They came on the right with the election of Ronald Reagan and on the left with the elections of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. These were times when young people and even wizened old veterans longed to be in Washington, to breathe the new fresh air and to shape the new fresh outlook.
We do not have such opportunities in 2014, but Congress and the president need to find a way to freshen the air and freshen their outlook. The country simply cannot continue the “decay in the quality of American government,” as political theorist Francis Fukuyama puts it.
The prospects for revival-tent conversion are dim, to be sure. In a widely discussed essay published last month, Mr. Fukuyama took aim at the role of interest groups in American politics, with a side swipe at Congress, and this part of his critique is especially worth examining:
“It is commonly and accurately observed that no one in the U.S. Congress really deliberates anymore. Congressional ‘debate’ amounts to a series of talking points aimed not at colleagues but at activist audiences, who are perfectly happy to punish a legislator who deviates from their agenda as a result of deliberation or the acquisition of greater knowledge. This leads then to bureaucratic mandates written by interest groups that restrict bureaucratic autonomy.”
Embedded in that one paragraph are several great truths. The Senate, which describes itself as the world’s greatest deliberative body, is no such thing. Politicians’ views are shaped for, and shaped by, special-interest groups. Ideological rigidity and foolish consistency — more proof that Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in the wrong century — are celebrated rather than deplored.
Maybe what America needs is a little less consistency from its politicians. This is probably not an attractive view for a columnist to promulgate, but it may provide a fresh breeze in that cave of wind on Capitol Hill.
What is meant by less consistency?
Start with the notion of making congressional debates and White House negotiations actual debates and actual negotiations. Perhaps the presence of so many lawyers and the lure of the closing argument has warped our politics, but if politicians viewed their scripted talking points only as opening arguments rather than as the last word, if they listened to the views of their rivals and if they then evaluated their own views against their opponents’, they might actually find a middle ground, or scoot out of their corner into another corner, or at least learn to respect views that clash with theirs, and the men and women who express them.
Nearly a half-century ago, Richard Nixon hired professor Jeffrey Hart as a speechwriter, telling him, as Mr. Hart, an expert in English poetry, liked to say, to add a spot of Tennyson to Nixon’s remarks. Here’s a spot of Tennyson that might jolt our convictions about conviction: “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”
Anyone who took public speaking in college knows that the principal purpose of speechifying is persuasion. Yet our politicians believe that the speech (and the negotiation, or the House-Senate conference committee) is less for persuasion than for exposition. Let’s consider celebrating the politician who changes his or her mind — not for mean advantage but for principle.
It’s time to heed the wisdom of Isaac Asimov: “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”
So let’s scrub the windows of our politics. Let’s not abandon our principles, but instead let’s consider whether we might abandon our positions, especially if they were furnished on memos prepared by the special interest groups that govern our politics — or if they were conjured by politicians hoping to appeal to those interests.
Politicians: Heal thyselves. Politicians: Think for thyselves.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890).