The renewed outbreak last week of open political warfare over the federal budget called to mind a photo hanging on the wall in my office of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands with Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat in 1993. Their handshake signifies their successful negotiation of the Oslo Accords as a first step to Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. In the middle stands a beaming President Bill Clinton, drawing the two old enemies together with his arms.
The reason the return to a climate of partisan recrimination recalled that photo is that it shows what real leadership looks like — two leaders taking a shared leap of faith over the objections of their followers to bring their two sides reluctantly into a common future. I found myself thinking of the time last summer when President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner sought in intense negotiations to resolve their differences over the federal budget deficit and national debt. Why was their handshake never to be?
Matt Bai, writing in the New York Times magazine (“Obama vs. Boehner: Who Killed the Debt Deal?” April 1), has provided an exhaustive account of these negotiations, based on interviews with participants. And while we may never know exactly what went on, it is clear that both leaders were under intense pressure to hold their ground, not just from their respective parties, but from their respective colleagues in the party leadership.
What Bai’s analysis reveals is that at the point in the negotiations where the two sides were closest, they were within a few hundred billion dollars of an agreement. It would have included both spending cuts and revenue increases amounting to over $ 4 trillion in debt reduction over a 10-year period. Contrast this with the present situation. Both sides are now fighting over a gap of trillions of dollars and trading accusations of “social Darwinism” and “class warfare.”
That climate does not bode well for prospects of debt and deficit reduction. Instead of placing ourselves on a path to fiscal stability, we are headed down a road of increased indebtedness, ballooning interest costs, loss of control over fiscal policy, surrender of discretionary spending power, and a future mortgaged to China. In short, we have lost control of our financial future.
No doubt both leaders imagined themselves to be doing the opposite when they chose to walk away at the 11th hour from the negotiations. They were in all likelihood thinking they had preserved their freedom of action. But can either side really say, in retrospect, that their freedom of action has been preserved, much less enhanced? Or have all of us — Republicans and Democrats alike — lost some measure of control over our future?
It all brings to mind the observation of the late political philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, that when we agree to submit to the rule of law, we choose to give up some piece of our freedoms in return for a greater degree of freedom for society as a whole. But the reverse of Berlin’s idea of “positive liberty” is also true: when we refuse to relinquish any part of our liberty, we diminish the margin of freedom of action and control for us all.
There may yet be time to avert the impending collision with reality. Perhaps after the election, passions will have cooled sufficiently to allow leaders to make one last effort to avert the oncoming crisis. Perhaps it will not be too late for the leaders of both parties to bury their differences, quell their respective followers, and get on with the business of bringing the nation’s finances under control.
But that will happen only if we have leaders like Rabin and Arafat who are willing, despite great obstacles, to talk and reason with each other. Electing those leaders, in turn, is the responsibility of “We the People.” Our job, as citizens, is to turn a deaf ear to candidates who poison the political waters for the prospects for dialogue after the election. We can cross that bridge to dialogue when we come to it; our job for the next seven months is to make sure we don’t burn it.
David Wendt is president of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs.