Archive for August 2nd, 2011

Political Pragmatism

You want to make me dictator?  OK, here’s what I’ll do:

1) Slash US military spending, start an orderly but fast withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, leave the NATO alliance, and instead focus on enough military to defend the homeland, and a long range plan of intelligence sharing and operations to counter terrorism and other threats;

2) Abolish the current tax code and create a progressive fair tax that had marginal rates lower than the current ones, but wipes out almost all tax breaks and loopholes.   The new system would be a revenue generator, but would not place a greater burden on families earning less than $125,000 a year;

3) Restructure the health care system to guarantee care to every citizen through state run programs with federal benchmarks and requirements.   States will have considerable leeway how they do this, and we can learn from their different experiences.   Medicare as we know it will be subsumed in this new system.   Costly duplications and pharmaceuticals will not be covered unless absolutely necessary (and generics will be the only drugs covered where they’re available);

4) Social welfare programs would be restructured to be results-driven — not simply transfers of income but actual opportunity creators focused on jobs, education/apprenticeship, and community action.  This would be done with a focus of community organization rather than federal bureaucracy with the idea of building community solidarity;

5) A blue ribbon panel of economists will focus on economic investments that are designed to return the country to sustainable economic production to replace the hyper consumerism of the past thirty years (especially the 00’s).

Of course, I’m not about to be made dictator, and even if President Obama privately agreed with all that, he couldn’t do much to turn it into reality.

The US was founded on the core governing value of political pragmatism.   The founders knew that competing interests and ideals meant that conflict and disagreement would be at the core of the American political soul.   Moreover, they felt that such conflict and disagreement could be good — it could force people to have their beliefs critically challenged, and have to find common ground with people of different interests.   The only way the US can undertake major political initiatives is through compromise.

The right wing of the Republican party and the so called “tea partiers” (at least the radical ones) are the most virulent and dangerous wing of the current anti-pragmatists.  Using that old canard of “standing on principle” (which all too often means ‘calling my subjective beliefs principle and refusing to look at any evidence that might call them into question’) they enthusiastically and with the demeanor of a self-righteous crusader out to slay Satan’s hordes hoped to force the country into a crisis.   They lied to themselves that the US “wouldn’t really default” and that they could somehow bring back fiscal sanity.   They wanted to get their way completely.   If they couldn’t then they’d cause so much damage that the whole system would collapse.   One person equated it to an alcoholic whose life has to hit rock bottom before he changes.   The country needs default and a currency collapse before it will change its habits.

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner learned that if a large enough contingent of such radicals make it into Congress and refuse to play by the tradition of American pragmatism, they can make the entire government dysfunctional.   On the left, a lot of liberals want to reject the agreement for only slightly less insane reasons.   They’re mad that a radical cadre of Republicans could force this down their throat, and believe that they only way to respond is in kind.    The President should do what’s necessary to fight them — risk default, risk a constitutional crisis by invoking a 14th amendment not meant for this kind of case, and go the mattresses in partisan war!

In some ways this is typical for the House.  It’s always more partisan and rowdy than the stoic Senate.   The President, by comparison, is meant to be a unifying symbol and has to look out for the long term good of the country.   If the US didn’t raise the debt ceiling, and more importantly if the US didn’t show signs of making progress cutting the debt, our credit rating would have sunk.   That sounds bland, but the consequences would have been severe, perhaps catastrophic.   Pushed by their own core constituencies into a difficult situation, they realized they had to compromise.

The compromise is the essence of pragmatism.   No major decisions were set in stone — the cuts they agreed to were agreed upon early on in the process and were probably a minimum to avoid a downgrade.   A no-cut scenario was out of question, without progress on the debt a downgrade was virtually certain.  The bi-partisan commission who will report recommendations includes all the top players, assuring no one can get steamrolled by something like the “Gang of Six” Senate moderates who had true independence.   They rigged the deck further by making consequences for not acting on that bi-partisan committee report painful to both parties.     They had enough votes to allow the more partisan in both parties to complain loudly.  But they did what they had to do.

The left simply cannot get its way in this political environment.   Not only is there no chance for tax increases or a new stimulus, but not cutting deficits will lead to a downgrade with a further drag on the economy.   The right is simply out of touch with reality — they’ll never get entitlement reform and deeper cuts without tax increases and the closing of loopholes.  It cannot happen.

Little was decided with the debt ceiling compromise.  This was an opening skirmish in a political battle that will continue.   The 2012 election will be a war, followed by diplomacy to determine how the relative balance of power decides what kind of policy will prevail.  It’ll be slow, agonizing, and the advantage will shift from left to right quite often over coming years.  There will be emotion, anger, and new compromises and deals that will satisfy no one.

Leaders will be blamed for the political reality they inherit.   Populists will make it sound like an easy solution exists if only the politicians would grasp it.   I don’t know how the future will turn out, who will win in 2012, or where the economy is going.  I do know that if political pragmatism ever loses out partisan warfare of the kind we saw flashes of here, we may shift to a very destructive phase of America’s democratic experience.

The tradition of pragmatism is strong; it is the American way and has been for generations.   Tradition and political culture are resilient, especially in a country this stable and old (yes, in terms of functioning democracies we’re older than European states).   The spectacle was exciting, the anger on the left and right over a compromise neither like is palpable.   But pragmatism won the day, and assures that the battle over the future simply moves to another venue down the line.   That’s what the founders intended.

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