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Allan Powell: The inside story of divided government

January 11, 2013|By ALLAN POWELL

In the early 1970s, two rookie investigative reporters at the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, burst onto the public stage with daily revelations about a peculiar burglary at the Watergate Hotel. In time, their discoveries brought down a president. The story in book and film, “All The President’s Men,” made them famous. Since then, Woodward has written an amazing number (15) of fine books.

His latest, “The Price of Politics,” lists 43 prominent political personalities in the legislative and executive branches of federal government who played some role during the first term of Barack Obama’s presidency. This, at first, seemed to be too big of a bite to be useful or interesting but I decided to “tough it out.” This turned out to be a good call when a host of insights about the inner dynamics of personal politics surfaced. What at first seemed to be mere chit-chat became an important element showing how idiosyncratic personality traits advance or impede the political process.

These very personal snippets are usually known from biographies penned at a later time. However, due to Woodward’s proven experience, ability and integrity, he was admitted to meetings and given interviews and documents so that we now have direct and reliable reports as they happen. One story tells of Obama’s attempts to reach out to a suspicious business community early in his first year. He sponsored dinner meetings and parties during football games in order to become acquainted with some of the giants of business and industry.

“There are natural and inevitable tensions between the business community and a Democratic president,” Woodward writes. “Both sides know it, and it was to the benefit of both sides to find channels of communication and mutual interest.”

Woodward suggests, however, that these events might not have served their purpose.

It is certainly proper to ask if any goodwill dinners and parties set aside the fact of a clash of interests that are “natural and inevitable.” What business will welcome regulations, some of which are bound to be costly? We cannot forget the wisdom in James Madison’s Federalist No. 51 when he reminds us of the human propensity to join factions. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” he wrote. After the parties, different interests still see things their way.

For those who wish to understand how very important and needed legislation fails passage and takes our country to the “edge of a cliff,” Woodward’s book is the source to go to. Here they will find a day-to-day exposure, covering almost two months of intensive, even nerve-wracking, negotiating aimed at creating a “grand bargain” on debt management satisfactory to both parties. Beginning on May 5, 2011, a very high-level committee of 25 political leaders from both parties, led by Vice President Joe Biden, tackled this almost insurmountable task.

The challenge was made clear by the president, whose plan called for a $4 trillion reduction in the debt over a 12-year period. More specifically, the plan called for $3 trillion in cuts and $1 trillion in new tax revenue.

This suggestion was sliced and diced, suffered from paralysis of analysis, was debated ad nauseam and was cursed by Republicans who simply could not stomach the idea of imposing higher taxes on the upper 2 percent of citizens. They preferred to reduce the debt by cutting or ending a host of benefits important to the survival or well-being of many in the lesser ranks of society.

Not even the election of 2012, which added several more seats in both Houses for the Democrats, was enough to alter the objections of the House Republicans. The recalcitrant House decided it had had enough and on Dec. 20 packed its bags and went home for Christmas. A stunned public was dumbfounded at this turn of events.

President Obama made an early exit from his vacation in Hawaii to compel Congress to return to resolve the debt crisis before the New Year’s deadline. Their solution reduced the “Grand Plan” from a shout to a whimper and “kicked the can down the road” to be faced again in 21013. There is general agreement that not enough new revenue was raised, spending was not sufficiently reduced and the long-term debt was not faced.

This takes us back to where we started. Woodward began with anecdotes about  Obama’s failed attempts to warm up to several major interest groups and to Republicans and his hope it would set a friendly atmosphere for his new administration. What followed made it clear that “what we have here is a failure to communicate” — the now-famous words in “Cool Hand Luke.” We had 3 1/2 years of two divided parties, two divided branches of government and two colliding views of governance. We can only hope that our basic good sense and our traditional political values get us through this debt crisis.


Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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