Danger­ous be­hav­ior by the po­lit­i­cal class

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Tony Blank­ley

In a world grow­ing more danger­ous by the week in this dark spring of 2009, Wash­ing­ton may be the most danger­ous city in the world. The city is safe enough for its res­i­dents — it is the rest of the coun­try and world that is en­dan­gered by what Wash­ing­ton is ca­pa­ble of do­ing. On a bi­par­ti­san, bi­cam­eral, bigov­ern­men­tal (ex­ec­u­tive and leg­isla­tive branches) ba­sis, rarely has so much pol­i­cy­mak­ing, world-econ­omy-trans­form­ing power been in harness to such un­steady po­lit­i­cal and pol­icy in­stincts.

What­ever one thinks of the Amer­i­can In­ter­na­tional Group’s bonus ac­tions, the per­for­mance two weeks ago by Wash­ing­ton’s po­lit­i­cal class should give us all pause. With the ex­cep­tion of pres­i­den­tial eco­nomic ad­viser Lawrence H. Sum­mers, one would have been hard-pressed to have spot­ted many other se­nior politi­cians in ei­ther branch of gov­ern­ment or ei­ther party who, if they spoke out, did not try to raise pub­lic pas­sion and fury be­yond its al­ready com­bustible tem­per­a­ture.

When I wrote last week’s col­umn, be­fore the AIG fury erupted, I ar­gued that we in Wash­ing­ton should dial back our rhetoric be­cause pub­lic pas­sions al­ready were dan­ger­ously high — and we have many hard de­ci­sions in prob­a­bly hard times ahead of us that we need to face as a united peo­ple.

Lit­tle did I ex­pect that within hours of my writ­ing those words, con­gress­men would be call­ing for the names and ad­dresses of AIG em­ploy­ees to be made pub­lic — even though the con­gress­men had been told that the lives of the em­ploy­ees’ chil­dren had been threat­ened as a re­sult of the up­roar. Con­gress­men who would risk the lives of in­no­cent chil­dren to save their own po­lit­i­cal skins are not likely to pro­vide noble lead­er­ship in the months and years to come.

Sound pol­icy is un­likely to be formed when the scream­ing voices of a mul­ti­tude are ric­o­chet­ing off the leg­isla­tive cham­ber’s walls. Yet, rather than speak to calm the anger and the pas­sion, many of Wash­ing­ton’s finest fig­ures fed it. Rather than stand athwart the on­slaught, they chose to lead it.

But Wash­ing­ton’s threat to the na­tion and the world is from more than acts of crass po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency — hardly an un­known phe­nom­e­non in any na­tion’s cap­i­tal.

I am struck — and chilled to the bone — by the fact that in the face of this per­haps un­prece­dented eco­nomic storm, both po­lit­i­cal par­ties (with of course sev­eral in­di­vid­ual ex­cep­tions) are re­flex­ively and un­think­ingly stick­ing to their nor­mal eco­nomic and pol­icy nos­trums.

The Repub­li­cans — feel­ing guilty for drift­ing away from their prin­ci­ples of fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity and lim­ited gov­ern­ment — have re­turned with a vengeance to those prin­ci­ples without se­ri­ously con­sid­er­ing their ap­pli­ca­tion to this strange eco­nomic mo­ment.

For ex­am­ple, on the ques­tion of whether to bail out fail­ing gi­ant fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions, too many Repub­li­cans ar­gue against it (which may or may not be the right pol­icy) not on a spe­cific anal­y­sis of the pol­icy’s con­se­quences, but merely with an ab- stract ide­o­log­i­cal as­ser­tion.

While the Democrats — flush with the ris­ing ex­pec­ta­tions of fi­nally hav­ing a chance to en­act much of their health, en­ergy, cli­mate, la­bor, trade, tax and ed­u­ca­tional so­cial poli­cies — are them­selves re­fus­ing to re­con­sider whether such vast leg­is­lat­ing ef­forts, ex­pen­di­tures and tax in­creases are con­sis­tent with pro­tect­ing us from eco­nomic catas­tro­phe.

For ex­am­ple, the ad­min­is­tra­tion as­serts we have to deal im­me­di­ately with health, ed­u­ca­tion and en­ergy is­sues be­cause those prob­lems caused the eco­nomic con­di­tion. Yet it re­fuses to present any anal­y­sis to sup­port such a propo­si­tion — a propo­si­tion re­jected by economists from right to left. Like too many Repub­li­cans, they sim­ply as­sert their ide­ol­ogy. Both par­ties, from dif­fer­ent an­gles, may be on a col­li­sion course with re­al­ity.

If ever we are in a non­ide­o­log­i­cal mo­ment, it is now. The mo­ment calls for prag­matic, care­ful, an­a­lyt­i­cal rea­son­ing. It may be that af­ter such a process, both sides — us­ing all their men­tal ca­pac­ity — would con­clude that their var­i­ous ide­olo­gies per­fectly de­scribe the poli­cies to fol­low in ev­ery in- stance. But I doubt it.

Al­though I am a free-mar­ket, lim­ited-gov­ern­ment con­ser­va­tive, I be­lieve there is strong case for gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion to strengthen our fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions (and then when the dan­ger is passed, quickly get gov­ern­ment back out of the pri­vate sec­tor). I have lib­eral Demo­cratic friends who be­lieve in sin­gle-payer health care who, in pri­vate, think it is fool­ish to deal with health care while the world’s econ­omy is aflame.

But what is hap­pen­ing is that, as na­tional fear and anger rise, the elec­toral bases of the two par­ties are pow­er­fully ral­ly­ing to their core ide­o­log­i­cal prin­ci­ples. And most mem­bers of both po­lit­i­cal par­ties are play­ing to their re­spec­tive bases — some out of sin­cere be­lief, many out of po­lit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tion.

Sci­en­tists call us homo sapi­ens — wise, in­tel­li­gent man. This would be a good time for the Wash­ing­ton po­lit­i­cal class to try to live up to our name.

Tony Blank­ley is the au­thor of “Amer­i­can Grit: What It Will Take To Sur­vive and Win in the 21st Cen­tury” and vice pres­i­dent of the Edel­man pub­lic-re­la­tions firm in Wash­ing­ton.

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