Relationships, trust and fruitful negotiation all missing
For the first time in two decades, much of the federal government has ground to a halt. Perhaps it was inevitable. While the current debate is centered around the future of Obamacare, government spending and the debt ceiling, I believe there are larger forces at play than the mere breakdown of legislative discourse.
Divided government is not unusual. In the 32 years since Ronald Reagan was elected, only eight years have seen Congress and the presidency controlled by the same political party. Reagan himself always contended with a Senate controlled by Democrats. So how did he accomplish so much, when the current administration and Congress have accomplished so little?
I believe we are witnessing the predictable effects of:
• A lack of relationship building. Presidents and their political opponents are going to fight — vigorously and often. Good politicians know that this makes their opponents passionate people with different insights and wisdom — not enemies. Democrats and Republicans don’t talk to each other much anymore outside of chambers. They don’t know each other’s personalities, hobbies or interests — and they fail to appreciate the strengths that their opponents have to offer. Without these relationships, it’s impossible to influence the people you are trying to lead. This has been a tremendous weakness of President Obama, who lacks the charm that made Reagan, as well as Clinton, effective.
• Closed communication. How can you possibly reach an accord if you don’t understand and respect the point of view of the person you are negotiating with? Reagan approached his congressional opponents — and friends with whom he disagreed — not as fools or petty-minded simpletons. He was always willing to have a genuine conversation, which is the first step toward negotiation.
Now, let me be clear about the current shutdown: I believe that the president and Democrats in Congress believe in the moral righteousness of their position to not allow any changes to Obamacare, just as I know that Republicans are willing to go to the mat to stop, delay or at least amend a law that is causing so much damage to small businesses and Americans. Fighting for what you believe is not a flaw — it is a moral imperative. The failure comes from a complete unwillingness to listen to what your ideological opponents have to say about the law, its flaws, and how it can be fixed or replaced. That’s a discussion that President Obama and Democrats in Congress refused to have while pushing the law into existence on strict partisan lines, and it’s a conversation that President Obama and Democrats in Congress are refusing to have now, even as the law’s flaws are becoming obvious. As predicted, the law is costing jobs — forcing companies to move employees from full-time positions to part-time positions in order to keep cost structures in line with what their businesses can support. As predicted, the law is already looking like a bureaucratic nightmare, with a non-functioning sign-up website that taxpayers have paid more than half a billion dollars for. We will be exceedingly blessed if that remains the biggest outward sign of incompetence in the law’s administration — but I don’t think we’ll be so lucky.
Many, perhaps most, of these problems could have been avoided if the president and Democrats had demonstrated a willingness to sit down with Republicans to share ideas and negotiate on ways to make health insurance available for more Americans. Instead, on the occasion when Republicans were allowed into the room, they were lectured about what would be done, why it would be done, and why they couldn’t do anything about it. Is it any surprise, then, that Republicans have chosen to make a last stand, however ill-advised it might be, in an effort to have their voices and those of their constituents heard?
• Seeing politics as a zero-sum game that ignores the American people. Politicians are supposed to work together to hammer out solutions for the benefit of the American people. Instead, they are too busy trying to win the argument of the day, to deliver the strongest sound bite, and to show that they are right and the other side is not only wrong, it is either ignorant or evil.
How can trust possibly flourish in that environment? How can we possibly begin to have negotiations that are a win-win for the American people when our supposed statesmen have devolved into this win-lose view of politics?
The first step is to acknowledge the value of other people’s ideas. President Obama may not agree with John Boehner, and Ted Cruz may not agree with Nancy Pelosi, but if they refuse to consider each other’s thoughts, they miss out on valuable perspectives that may shine new light on whatever issue is being debated.
A leader values ideas and realizes the importance of expanding one’s horizons. Abraham Lincoln famously said of a political foe, “I do not like that man. I must get to know him better.” Thomas Jefferson and most of our founding fathers read voraciously, allowing them to benefit from the wisdom of Greeks and Romans, medieval philosophers and contemporary thinkers.
They read, and they listened.
A man who insists on navigating the world with only his own thoughts and insights to guide him is doomed to blindness and ignorance. That’s what the current administration has consigned itself to by refusing to see its political opponents as equal partners in government. This intellectual arrogance has made President Obama a weak and ineffective leader and has left him to stumble blindly while crafting new laws and regulations, oblivious to the damage being caused. This arrogance has also deprived him of voices that could remind him of the heritage we share of free markets, free people and free enterprise, which has empowered Americans to work together to build a nation capable of producing so much success for so many people. Without dialogue to balance out his own ideas, this president seems to be suffering amnesia about what makes America great in the first place. Republicans are trying to force his eyes open with the shutdown. I hope they succeed.