Friday, October 19, 2012
THE ABOMINABLE CENTER In the waning days of the American Presidential campaign, former Governor George Romney has moved toward the center by adjusting his fluid positions. The recent Conservative Party gathering in the UK had Prime Minister Cameron doing a soft-shoe dance trying to straddle the center of his party’s increasingly fractious factions. He might have had the sympathy of former Governor Romney who had sailed far right during the increasingly fractious primary campaign In both cases the Party leaders were following conventional wisdom. The middle is where the deciding vote is in all but a runaway election. The Abominable Center. Abominable because in the USA the country is saddled with a breakdown in the core concept of compromise in the political system. Democrats should neither complain nor cheer; it could just as easily by their party that plays the blocking game. Both sides with great help from a sophisticated use of legislative rules have perfected the art of gridlock. In the UK PM Cameron’s problem is not only with a gradual descent in popularity, the resulting sharks who always circle the center of power see a vulnerable PM and move in to push and pull the PM in their direction. Short of that they will eat him. The center once worked. The center worked when there was a soto voce understanding that you give it your all defending or attacking policy and legislation. When positions have been established and two or more sides recognize the arguments have gone as far as they can go, there was – more often than not – compromise. The negotiating rhythm was understood and accepted. Signals of willingness to compromise were not difficult to give. “Run it up the flagpole” was a common expression that is heard less frequently now. More often than not the song in the House of Representatives is “never”. Forget the issue, forget the merits, and forget the comity. “Never” There is only victory and defeat. In wartime that is a concept that last worked in WW II, and later in Nicaragua and Grenada. One great victory and two nonsensical wars. Increasingly military commanders go to great lengths to avoid what might be their natural inclination: fight. Fighting gets you nowhere is the lesson of the last 50 years. And fighting between the political parties is even less productive thanks to hardened positions. That leaves the center unattainable, because to get there you need compromise. Thus the Abominable Center. The result is that for Mr. Romney, whatever his real position, no one believes him anymore in any of his positions. The President has fudged so often, twisted this way and that in an effort to straddle the middle, he has little credibility and has left behind the promise that got him to the White House. And still the candidates race to the middle in the closing days of the campaign. Conundrum. Is there any other choice? Political suicide by standing on principle and speaking truth is not inviting when you throw away a billion dollars of OPM (other people’s money) who count on you to win. Yet there may be truths that are worth the risk. Had President Obama countered Governor Romney’s attack on the mishandling of the Libyan terrorist attack by saying: “We handled that poorly Governor. There were mistakes made. I take responsibility, but I assure you I was more upset than you are and I will stay that way until I can report to the American people exactly what went wrong and why and how we intend to keep it from happening again. But I can also assure you that one thing I have learned in my first four years, in a government with xxx departments and xxxxxxx workers; there are no perfect days. I don’t ever have a perfect day, perhaps you day, but I like President Truman’s approach: When I make a mistake, I recognize it and make decision to correct the mistake and keep it from happening again.” You smile. You dismiss the naïveté. You may value the idealism but you laugh at the thought of ever hearing this from any office holder. Senior executives have learned this lesson. The best of them handle their pechees in exactly this manner. They standup before we the howling mob of journalists, and admit error, take responsibility and say what they intend to do about it…including resignation when the error warrants it. The time wasted on Libya is not an honor to the four who lost their lives. The discussion continues to be a petty political game without a principle at its core, other than “if you lose, I win”. There are issues that may worth a win0lose approach, if there is a hope for compromise at the other end. Gun control, equality in all respects, racism (that no one mentions but remains alive and sick), gender issues, health, education. It is hardly a short list. But in that now-crowded middle there is a muddle, a meaningless muddle because neither candidate stands above the fray. No one believes the candidates because they do not have the courage of their claimed humanity, their flawed perfection. How many examples of personal courage are needed before politicians generally (there are sporadic examples) dismiss their attackers by saying: “You are right, I/we blew that one. Not my finest hour, but here is what I learned and why it won’t happen again.” None of this would poll well. Would focus groups buy it? We may never know because the “professionals” who shape and guide these campaigns have even less courage than the candidates. Go ahead, run the negative ads if you remain convinced they work so well, and likely they do with your vaunted base that delights in eviscerating the other side. But when you debate show your humanity, it will so shock the opposition that you might win a close one.