Saturday, April 4, 2009

“Divided We Stand, United We Fall!”

Can we get a 'do-over'?

Remember how in your youth there always seemed to be one person in a game who wanted a “second chance”, a “do-over”, or in golfing parlance, a "mulligan” to make things right?

If you don’t recall who that annoying person was, chances are it probably was you.

It was usually after something ‘disastrous’ had happened like missing a short putt on the golf course or making an “F” on a test…..there was just something that seemed so fair and American to ask for a second chance.

Can we do that with the election of 2008?

And no, this request is not because of the policies of the Obama Administration or the Democratic-controlled Congress in and of themselves.

The reason why this was ‘disastrous” is because we do much, much better as a nation with ‘divided’ government than we do with monolithic control of Washington. Divided government means no one party controls the White House and both Houses of Congress by substantial margins.

We have already proven the axiom of Lord Acton as true several times over: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. From 2001 to 2006, Republicans held the 3 keys to the kingdom of American politics for much of the time; President Bush in the White House and significant but not total domination of both the House and the Senate. During the Carter Administration years from 1977-1981, even though the Democrats controlled everything in DC, those years might have been as close to being as dysfunctional as this latest period has seemed to be. The first two Clinton years from 1993-94 were so terrible that it ushered in the first Republican-controlled Congress since the election of 1952.

Patrick Henry used the issue of unity in his last public speech on the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions in 1799. His original spin of the phrase, “United we stand, divided we fall”, is derived from the biblical passage Matthew 12:25 and served a rallying point for the new young Republic; it was only 12 years old at that time. It was a theme Abraham Lincoln ran with in his 1858 “house divided” speech in a failed Senate campaign against Stephen Douglas of Illinois.

But I can’t for the life of me find a time in our lifetimes when total control of the federal government by one party of the other actually worked well for the nation.

The best Divided Government combinations I can think of are the Reagan years from 1981 to about 1986 before his administration began to stumble over the Iran-contra scandal and the Clinton years from 1995-2001. Reagan had the support of a Republican-controlled Senate a couple of times during his presidency but never the House. After the ill-fated “Hillary Health Care, Part I” was crushed in 1994, Bill Clinton was forced to work with (fight?) new big R majorities in both the House and Senate.

Hillary Health Care Part II, “The Sequel” is coming to a movie theatre near you this summer so get your check books out.

But the truly amazing thing about divided government is that it works. Idealists on both sides stake out positions but then the pragmatists in the middle on both sides compromise and work together to get things done. Our nation was founded on the principles of freedom and liberty but the mortar that built the walls of our republic consisted of compromise and negotiation.

We have lost that sense of “compromise is a good thing” ideal that our forefathers cherished.

In 1993, a pack of 15 'idiotic' Republican Members of Congress and their staffs on the House Budget Committee, still then deep in the minority, put forth a budget spending package that consisted of $500 billion of spending reductions (from the ‘baseline’ projections…more on that later) over only a 5-year period (now it is typically a ten-year window you read about). It didn’t pass that year, or the next or the next or even the next.

But when Erskine Bowles became chief of staff in the Clinton White House, magical things started to happen: Trust was developed and nurtured; bills were introduced in bi-partisan ways and the crème-de-la-crème for budget aficionados, at least, came when the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 was passed and signed into law. Three years of budget surpluses ensued, $800 billion of debt was retired and paid off and the national debt at the end of the Clinton regime in 2001 was only $3.2 trillion.

Doesn’t that sound nice, safe and comforting nowadays?

Our chance for an electoral ‘do-over” comes in about 19 months so get ready for it. Hopefully, it won’t be too late to make a difference.

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