Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Presidents lead because others don’t have to.

If you ever read a one-pager on the division of powers in the US Constitution and halfway accept the theory that Washington is the Establishment’s water-boy, you’d think Obama’s office has been swamped with outside advice on how avoid the “Fiscal Cliff”. 

You’d think his job was straightforward: make tolerable compromises out of clear proposals—proposals other politicians, eminent Americans, and powerful interests are championing, in public or in correspondence.

Yet, Obama has effectively been working alone since the November election.

Republicans pleaded to voters: “Choose America” and now they plead: “You choose, Mr. President”. They complain that Obama won’t flesh out what Republicans meant when they promised to “save” Medicare and Social Security, and “reform” the Tax Code. 

The only hint of precise thinking from John Boehner’s side of the “Fiscal Cliff” negotiations was a leak last weekend in the Wall Street Journal. It suggested that he’d accept higher taxes on those who take home over one $million annually—in return, of course, for a little restraint on future Social Security payments and healthcare entitlements.

Boehner’s concession could satisfy those who assume that the top 0.0l percent of income earners have all the cash the President needs, that Social Security is a military euphemism, and that ‘entitlements’ are for the privileged. Most everyone else, unfortunately, might think Mitt Romney actually won the election.

Nevertheless, we can still be hopeful, and cynical about the leadership of the Republicans at the same time. After all, there are plenty of other smart, experienced, tough people out there—in the real world—telling the President what has to be done, what they will help him sell.  Aren’t there?

Not writing in yesterday’s New York Times.

An entire page in the governing class’s must-read newspaper was purchased by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation to convey the advice of eight distinguished, retired giants of US public service. They acknowledged, in the first sentence, that they’d served eight presidents. They know how to be useful and still like being heard.

Under the headline: “Addressing Our Debt is a National Security Imperative”, they called on Washington to make a three-part deal to eventually balance the budget and avert the “Fiscal Cliff”. Here’s their message on taxes:

“◊ Tax reforms to raise more revenues, encourage growth and enhance progressivity — and it must be decided how much should be done through eliminating deductions, increasing rates and/or more fundamental changes to our tax code.”

If you find this rather vacuous, at this late date, imagine what Obama thought.

The “longer document” on their website offered no further details. They didn’t volunteer how much new revenue they think is needed, let alone exactly how that money would best be raised. They didn’t endorse Obama’s proposal to raise $1.4 trillion in new taxes; or say whether it’s too much or too little. They didn’t press conservatives in Congress to be precise about any of their generalities either.

Eminent Americans are very worried, but not enough to cause offence. They love their country, but aren’t responsible.

It’s possible that Gridlock in Washington will not be resolved by the ‘grown-ups’ taking collective responsibility for solving the problem.

There is, ultimately, a rather ugly nuclear scenario: The crisis gets big enough for Obama’s coy adversaries to just get out of the way.

Are Boehner, McConnell and the other debt-fighters just waiting for one of those glorious American emergencies that allow Washington’s stout survivors to give the President of the day what he wants?

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