Heretical Thought: The System Is Working

Paul Greenberg

7/30/2011 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

Walking by the bank of television sets out in the old-fashioned, wide-open, sunlit newsroom here in Little Rock, I just had to stop for a minute to see what the panel of distinguished commentators were saying about the latest capital-C Crisis. That's how it is in Teeveeland. No broadcast out of Washington or anywhere else is complete without a Crisis of the day, maybe hour.

The talking heads were wearing expressions even more solemn than usual. When I turned up the sound, it took only a ponderous phrase or two to realize they weren't being authoritative in the old Walter Cronkite, Brinkley-Huntley style at all. They were in their Sincerely Mystified mode.

You got the feeling that David Gergen and Co. were about to scratch their heads in genuine wonderment at the latest standoff in Washington. They couldn't seem to understand it, even after all the years they'd spent watching politicians in action, or inaction, in the nation's capital. They kept asking: Why? Why? Why? Here's what had them collectively gobsmacked:

After all these high-pressure weeks of intense negotiation between the executive and legislative branches, between the two parties in our two-party system and the two houses of Congress in our bicameral system and sausage factory, how was it that no agreement had been reached?

You could see the question marks in the pundits' eyes and hear the puzzlement between the lines of their comments: Doesn't anybody here know how to play this game? The deadline for a deal was fast approaching. Only a few more days and hours were left before the sky would fall. The bond markets were waiting. Yet no budget had been agreed on, no face-saving measure for both sides had been patched together and waved in triumph just in the nick of time. What was going on here?

These were experienced journalists on the tube. Yet they sounded stumped. The only thing that seemed beyond their comprehensive knowledge of The Process, it turns out, is . . . honest disagreement. One in which both sides have their principles, or at least prejudices, and are sticking with them, and aren't out just to score talking points.

To our sophisticates, this standoff was a novelty, a strangeness they hadn't encountered before in Washington -- even after all their years covering national politics. They were clearly struggling to get their minds around it.

Allow me to help: What we have here is a difference not just of opinion but of convictions. Going from left to right, let's start with a president who believes no deal, no compromise, and especially no tax -- excuse me, Revenue Increase -- is fair unless it raises the taxes the rich already pay. It's part of his political DNA.

The additional amount to be collected from the highest earners might be negligible in terms of balancing the federal budget or easing the national debt. Such an approach may even further hinder a still sputtering recovery by taxing away the venture capital it very much needs just now. But none of this matters to liberals of the kneejerk variety. It's the principle of the thing: The rich must be punished. Mainly for being rich. Hence it's no deal unless it includes a tax increase for those in the uppermost brackets. End of negotiations.

On the other, starboard side of the political spectrum, there are all the Republican congressmen elected in 2010 who promised to oppose any tax increase at all -- on anybody. And not increase the national debt unless maybe government spending is cut by at least a like amount. They seem to believe -- mirabile dictu! -- that a promise is a promise, their word is their bond, and all that. That kind of naivete may still be common out here in the sticks but it mystifies our sophisticates in Washington, where everybody who's anybody knows political promises are made to be broken.

Talk about the Spirit of '73: These tea party types in the House are proving as uncontrollable as the original bunch in Boston Harbor. End of negotiations.

Adherence to principle always scandalizes the respectables in both parties, the whited sepulchres of all persuasions, the tories of any era. But these unruly congressional types weren't compromising their principles on schedule. They needed to get with it.

But for some of us out here in flyover country, the spectacle of politicians whose word is their bond is actually refreshing. We didn't realize any were left.

Yes, we know, refusing to play the game according to the well-established rules in Washington is supposed to prove that the system is dysfunctional, to coin an overworked cliché. All the TV commentators on this highly regarded panel were just reflecting the conventional wisdom, which as usual is more conventional than wisdom.

But to a few of us simpler types, this little impasse in congressional halls demonstrates that the system is functioning, and not functioning, just as the writers of the Federalist Papers and the framers of the Constitution designed it. It's called a system of divided government, and by design it is supposed to work against itself as power checks power till somehow this Rube Goldberg treadmill clanks out the Will of the People.

A heretical thought: The miracle at Philadelphia in 1787, which the sophisticated told us even then wouldn't work, is still working. That sound you hear is just the friction of its unevenly moving parts. But they are moving. Even if none too fast, which is just the way the generation of Hamilton, Madison and Washington preferred it. Maybe those 18th-century gentlemen knew something that today's sophisticates have forgotten. Or never learned.