Thursday, October 17, 2013

As Government Reopens, So Should Governing

The events in the past weeks reveal that for all the talk of direct democracy and public leadership that have become the hallmarks of the modern era, the central features of the American system of government remains resolutely and stubborn as the framers created it. Ours is a republic in which representatives of the people vote and make decisions on behalf of the American people. The voice of a movement can and should be heard, but parliamentary skills still matter. The framers of the Constitution intended that the raucous waves of democracy be tempered by representatives in government, charged to distill reason from passion.

One lesson the Tea Party needs to learn is empathy, or a capacity to imagine the possibility that not everyone thinks like them. Over the last three years, members of the movement have dug in their ideological heels because they could not conceive of the possibility that their understanding of the American Founding may not be in sync with the majority of their fellow citizens. The media environment of echo chambers has, of course, reinforced this tendency. The result has been sub-optimal strategies by the movement's leaders. Senator Ted Cruz, relying on grassroots instincts, directed his fire at the policy sub-set -- defunding "Obamacare" --  of the Republican's general set, which is the larger goal of reducing government spending. By placing all his chips in one basket, and pushing the particular agenda so hard, he weakened his party's bargaining position on the bigger goal.

Democrats should not, now, adopt the same hubris that eventually humbled Senator Cruz. President Barack Obama must now talk to Republicans, not the faction within it. There is never any time for victory laps in Washington. Every moment is a precursor to the next; every game is a pre-game, not an end-game. Congress has set up yet another deadline for the next potential shutdown and default, and another game of brinkmanship has already been set up.

Some Democrats in the electorate and in Congress are gloating. They should stop immediately. The key to successful bargaining in Washington is that when one wins, one acts like one didn't. In fact, concealing a victory is more important than having one. Losers must be given graceful exits. To help save your rival's face is to make more likely a cooperative outcome in the next game. Republicans will be out for blood early next year when the negotiations for the debt ceiling enter -- always at the eleventh hour, of course -- into high gear. A magnanimous legislative gift or two by congressional Democrats and Obama in the meantime will help set up a more constructive negotiating environment.

Budget conferences legislate budgets. Not public grandstanding, not political movements. It isn't yet time to campaign; it is time to govern.

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