The root of the rancor and gridlock in Washington was on vivid display this week: a failure of leadership by a Democratic White House and a Republican House of Representatives.
President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner got together Tuesday for what the New York Times described as “the first publicly known meeting of its kind since Obama took office in 2009 that was not aimed at avoiding a looming fiscal crisis.”
Think about that. The president and the top GOP officeholder on Capitol Hill sat down to discuss some routine business of government for the first time — five years into Obama’s presidency.
Aside from a meaningless 2011 golf outing that failed to generate camaraderie between them, Obama and Boehner have met only when at loggerheads in an economic crisis. Such stressful, high-pressure faceoffs are hardly the type of encounters that build a working relationship for the good of the country. The confrontations generated only acrimony, with the two camps afterward pointing fingers at each other.
There’s blame on both sides, each playing to his base, but the onus falls on Obama. He’s the one figure in Washington elected by the whole country and uniquely situated to provide national leadership. But in 2009, Obama was gifted with overwhelming Democrat majorities in Congress and abandoned his campaign promise to bridge the bitter partisan divide. He passed the first entitlement expansion without a single vote from the opposition, sparking the Tea Party movement, and Democrats lost the House in 2010.
While memories of the relationship between GOP President Ronald Reagan and Democrat House Speaker Tip O’Neill may be inflated through the rose-colored lens of nostalgia, they did work together.
By coincidence this week, the Republicans demonstrated their own woeful failure at leadership. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman David Camp produced a worthy plan to reform the nation’s hopelessly complicated and economically unfriendly tax code. But Camp briefed only Republicans members of his committee about the legislation. He didn’t even accord the Democrats on the panel the courtesy of a letter giving them a heads-up that the draft bill would be coming out Wednesday.
Rewriting the tax code is a complex, daunting challenge — and impossible to do without bipartisan support. Camp gets the policy right but the politics foolishly wrong.
Any discussion of failed leadership in Washington can’t omit Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He refuses to bring up for a vote bills passed by the House. The media focus on the many Republican filibusters but mostly ignore Reid’s deployment of parliamentary obstacles that give the GOP no alternative. Even the Times called Reid’s rule “brutish.” Latest example: Some Democrats who see some Republicans open to a deal on raising the minimum wage asked Reid if there was a path to compromise. He replied, “Not with me.”
Yes, polarized political parties limit the choices of elected officials. But that doesn’t eliminate all choice. Some say Washington’s partisan stasis reveals defects in our system of government. Nonsense. The truth is we have leaders not up to the job.