Thursday, October 3, 2013

Vacuous Leadership & Modern American Politics

As I write this the Federal Government in Washington, D.C. has begun the third day of what could be a very long shutdown that disrupts government services for hundreds of millions of people.  Millions more may either lose their jobs or suffer a crippling blow to their income.  I'm not just talking about the civilian workforce but those who depend upon tourism to national parks or payments to hospitals, for example.  Already we've heard reports of a significant drop in tourism along the Virginia coast leading to restaurants closing their doors, half empty motels, and layoffs.  The saddest part of this present shutdown is that it is completely unnecessary and pointless.  It is the result of mindless, ideological leadership in Washington, D.C., if we dare even to call it that. 

James Madison, it is said, believed that limited government (a phrase found nowhere in the constitution) required the separation of powers into the judicial, the legislative, and the executive in order to function well.  American children are taught this mantra from the earliest days of their civic education, so much so that it may as well be an edict handed down from God above.  However, as the late Richard Neustadt argued, American government is not so much a case of separated powers as it is 'separated institutions sharing power.'  Because of that power sharing arrangement good leadership depends far more upon the cultivation of individual interpersonal skills than on positions and titles alone.  In his classic book, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan, Neustadt makes the claim that true power is not the power to issue an order to do something but the power to persuade others to do something because it is in their own best interests to do it.  In fact, when leaders must resort to an order to get something accomplished Neustadt argues that it indicates a failure of leadership.  Sadly, that is the state of modern American politics. 

Whether it is the Democratic leadership in the Senate, which has failed to persuade the House to pass a clean continuing resolution that would fund the government, or the Republican leadership in the House that has failed to round up what Devin Nunes (R-CA) has referred to as the 'lemmings with suicide vests' in the House Republican conference, or the President of the United States, who has failed to build the kind of rapport with either congressional Democrats or Republicans that might allow him to engage in serious bargaining, it is clear that a leadership vacuum exists in Washington. 

Take, for example, Speaker John Boehner's (R-OH) inability to persuade his caucus that passage of a clean CR, which funds the government at essentially the level that the House agreed to in passing the Paul Ryan budget (see chart below), has precipitated this completely unnecessary government shutdown.  The insistence of a small faction of tea-party Republicans to an incoherent, destined to lose position, reflects not only poorly on the Speaker's leadership but also on the weakness of the modern GOP.  It is, essentially, a party in the midst of a not-so-civil war that threatens to destroy it from within. 

On top of the war amongst Republicans in the House, we now have Senate Republicans claiming that a leadership vacuum exists with the GOP caucus there.  Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has claimed that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has effectively delegated leadership of the party to Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT), as well as the outside interest groups enabled by Citizens United who are promoting challenges to Republican Senators with well-established conservative voting records by redefining what it means to be a conservative. 

We've also now got evidence that Speaker Boehner has been less than genuine in his effort to eliminate subsidies to congressional staffers to help pay for their health insurance on the new healthcare exchanges...something Boehner apparently lobbied hard to keep in the healthcare bill, even going as far as a secret meeting with Harry Reid (D-NV) and President Obama to make sure the subsidies were preserved. Reid's staff has now leaked an email exchange of the discussions between Reid's spokesman and Boehner's spokesman.  These kind of failures in leadership lead only to further  entrenchment and an unwillingness to bargain, as well as deeper distrust between the so-called 'leaders' of their respective caucuses.

President Obama himself is not beyond reproach in any of these failures either.  His own leadership style has left much to be desired.  In his 4+ years as president, Obama has failed to reach out effectively to those in the opposition.  Granted, Republicans were never going to 'like' him but there are steps one can take to at least earn the respect of those with whom one disagrees.  Neustadt maintained that for a president to truly have power and be able to bargain with others, two things are essential.  The first is public prestige, for without the support of the public any president is doomed to failure.  In spite of frequent public addresses and even being reelected to a 2nd term, Obama has failed to move the needle when it comes to public opinion.  The second thing necessary for presidential power is a good professional reputation.  In other words, the president must work hard to earn the respect of those whom he depends upon to accomplish his agenda.  Like the first, the president has failed to cultivate such a reputation, leaving a vacuum in leadership in the White House as well as in Congress.  In a new book by Chris Matthews called Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked, Matthews romanticizes about the good old days of the 1980's when two fierce adversaries, Speaker Thomas P. 'Tip' O'Neill (D-MA) and Republican President Ronald Reagan would go at each other publicly but then share drinks together after hours and celebrate each other's birthday.  Perhaps the stories Matthews tells are caricatures or overstate the relationship between O'Neill and Reagan, but it is telling that after Reagan was shot in March of 1981, the Speaker was one of the first to arrive at Reagan's bedside and held his hand while praying through the 23rd Psalm.  One thing is clear from all this:  Reagan and O'Neill had the ability to develop a working relationship with each other despite their personal differences.  Obama and Boehner have demonstrated a complete and utter inability to do the same.  One can only wonder how Republicans would react today if such a misfortune were to befall President Obama. 

For their part, Republicans set out to discredit Obama's presidency from day one, beginning with the infamous meeting in Washington by Republicans distraught over his election recounted in the book Do Not Ask What Good We Do, in which GOP members establish a strategy to delegitimize Barack Obama in any way possible, including personal character attacks, innuendo, and outright lies.  From Mitch McConnell's infamous 2010 statement that Senate Republicans "... single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president" to Joe Wilson shouting 'You Lie' during a joint address to Congress to the birther nonsense to current claims by right-winger Jerome Corsi that the president is a closet homosexual who frequented gay bars in Chicago in the 1990's, it becomes clear the conservative Republicans not only dislike Obama, in fact, they hate him. Reagan, for his part, was never subject to that kind of bitter hatred by those with whom he disagreed.  
The bottom line is simply that what passes for leadership in Washington these days is, in fact, anything but leadership.  It is vacuous, bitter, and destructive.  Unfortunately, we the people are the ones who put these self centered morons in office so perhaps we are getting the very leadership we deserve, which is to say none at all.

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