As this column is being written Thanksgiving Day is imminent, Christmas, Hanukah and Kwanza are approaching and the year 2013 is coming to an end. 2014 appears over the horizon but our vision of what it will look like is clouded by the events of 2013 as well as societal and cultural trends which began before 2013 but became more noticeable after being reinforced this year despite our individual, if not collective hope, that they would disappear in 2013 after the 2012 election.
I refer to the continual political gridlock in Washington, D.C. which many more optimistic and renown pundits had predicted would at least dissipate as a result of the “will of the people” being expressed one way or the other in the last presidential and congressional election. That did not happen! Instead the level of public approval, confidence, and most important trust in both the institutions of government and the individuals who we elect to manage those institutions deteriorated even further.
Why? – Well, the disastrous roll-out of “Obamacare” (both the Website and the implementation of the policy itself) and the resultant mea culpas in the form of The President acknowledging “not getting it right” and “unintentionally” misleading those citizens who were promised that “if you like your health insurance and your doctor you can keep them” without question reinforced if not intensified the general cynicism about the ability of government to function efficiently as well as the honesty and integrity of our leaders who promised to “change the way Washington works”, “end gridlock”, and provide “affordable healthcare” all at once.
That coupled with the obvious ideological and partisan attempt by Tea Party Republicans to undermine the operations of the executive branch of government by shutting it down completely for about two weeks and then by keeping key positions in the executive branch from being staffed by putting arbitrary “holds” on the confirmation of key appointments to these positions by the U.S. Senate. This cynical, ill-advised, and arguably unpatriotic ideological and partisan warfare was even extended to the judicial branch of government by refusing to confirm indisputably qualified judicial nominees to preserve the ideologically driven partisan and philosophical composition of certain courts particularly of the D.C. Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.
This hyper-partisan method of operation by the Republicans was reluctantly and belatedly addressed last week by a change in the rules of the U.S. Senate labeled by its opponents and even some of its supporters as “the nuclear option.” The “nuclear option” in a nutshell reduces for certain executive appointments and judicial nominations (not including the Supreme Court) the number of votes from 60 to 51 needed to invoke cloture which halts a filibuster on these nominations. Even the conservative “Distinguished Panel” on “Fox News Sunday” conceded that despite they’re being aggrieved by this action and their predictions that the U.S. Senate as an institution has now suffered a “mortal blow,” most of us mere mortal non-politician pundits will not be discussing the Senate Rule Change over our Thanksgiving Turkey. In fact its effect will probably go unnoticed except perhaps to improve the efficiency of government if you believe that government functions better if it is properly staffed.
All of this is now coupled with the recently agreed upon “Interim Agreement” on Iran’s nuclear program with the backdrop of the turmoil in the Middle East particularly at this moment in Syria, Egypt, the Palestinian Territory. At a time when the people we elected to lead our country and manage the branches and institutions of government should be making every effort at least in foreign policy to “speak with one voice,” the early reaction appears to be more of the same “Talking Points” inspired by an instinctive desire for more partisan rhetoric and attention-getting headlines instead of honestly and intelligently assessing the realities of our national interest and those of our allies in the best of a series of less than perfect interim options.
If the result of that process is intellectually honest opposition based on the merits of the Interim Agreement, that’s one thing. If on the other hand it is more of the same pandering to the distrust of our government and the leaders we elected, that is something we ought to resolve to change in 2014 as the new year approaches.
All of this points to what seems to be missing in our current leaders on both sides of the aisle and on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The missing and essential attribute is as pointed out by Michael Ignatieff, a former professor at Harvard, a contributing writer for The New York Times, and now a member of Canada’s Parliament and Deputy Leader of Canada’s Liberal Party is “good judgment.”
Ignatieff clarifies what “good judgment” in a politician looks like by referencing the work of philosopher, Isaiah Berlin. Berlin in turn describes “what is called wisdom in statesmen” by writing with the reference to figures like Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Berlin explains that “what is called wisdom in statesmen is understanding rather than knowledge — some kind of acquaintance with relevant facts of such a kind that enable those who have to tell what fits with what; what can be done in given circumstances and what cannot, what means will work in what situations and how for without necessarily being able to explain how they know this or even what they know.” In plain English this means wise politicians don’t confuse the world as it is with the world as they wish it to be.
That means that the criticism of President Barack Obama for not personally managing the roll out of the Obamacare website as well as appearing not to know what was going on at the National Security Agency as it was collecting massive personal data is at best unfair and uniformed and at worse cynical and sleazy. On the other hand the criticism of him and his Senior Staff for not listening with an open mind to those whose concerns and even opposition the Affordable Care Act was based on what they considered politically unacceptable trade offs inherent in the legislation as well as the risks both technical and administrative involved in implementing such a large scale change on the peoples’ lives that would be affected. These risks included the possibility of a failed second term presidency. Criticism of the President and his Cabinet Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for obviously not picking the right people to perform government functions and then not effectively supervising them and holding them accountable is also very legitimate.
As Michael Ignatieff points out in practical politics and running a government “there is no science of decision-making.” The vital judgments a politician makes every day are about people —- whom to trust, whom to believe and whom to avoid. Having good judgment in these matters and having a solid perception of reality requires trusting some very unscientific instincts and intuitions about people. That means a president or any executive should talk to different people about different things. He or she should also talk to more than one set of advisors about some thing. Furthermore the structure of how the President receives his or her advice should be designed in a way that insures that even if he or she is naturally conflict- averse, as most successful politicians are that all ideas including those with which the leader and his staff disagree are considered fully and completely in a timely fashion and in the framework and atmosphere where the leader is not unduly pressured in a particular direction because of who is in the room at the moment.
Ironically, on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, many former colleagues and friends of President John F. Kennedy remembered that he instinctively knew when to disregard the advice of “experts” including the Generals who advised him to launch a “limited nuclear attack” in response to the “Cuban Missle Crisis.” Our fond memories of JFK crisis are in no small part due to that limited but impressive historical record.
So lets give Thanks for the fact that, we have people who are thinking about the needs of the people and willing to study history to improve the voters’ personnel management choices. Happy Thanksgiving and Best Wishes for a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah and Happy Kwanza.