About this Blog
About The Author
Email Me

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« On the Objectivity of the Press | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | Pitfalls of Presidential Punditry »

Consensus, Not Courage

I must admit that I am a fan of Joe Klein. His politics and my politics are not really in sync, but he seems to "get" much of the big picture of American politics. I like that.

This was on display in his new Time column. This is what he writes about Bush's second inaugural address.

These days Bush's inaugural oratory seems, at the very least, a tragic overreach. It was foolishly messianic. It didn't reflect the reality on the ground, or even the reality of U.S. policy, which still supports oppressive regimes around the world. It came after years of grandiloquent sloganeering: "the war on terror," "the axis of evil," wanton talk of crusades and evildoers and an ill-conceived war with Iraq. Furthermore, the President's speech was based on a simplistic vision of America's role in the world, one firmly rooted in American infallibility. And finally, there was a fundamental mismatch between the grandness of Bush's oratory and his unwillingness to summon the nation to an actual war footing, in which real sacrifice was required. "I think the American people are sacrificing now," the President said. "I think they're waiting in airport lines longer than they've ever had before."

Still, if Bush's sense of national greatness has been misguided, his impulse is perfectly American: the U.S. has always thought of itself as something special, has always sought new national challenges in order to "form a more perfect union." It is a frontier impulse firmly rooted in the American DNA, subtly essential to the nation's growth. The mere "pursuit of happiness" can never be enough; we must also go to the moon. Ten years ago, the political writer David Brooks decided that there was a need for "national greatness," for larger national goals, but as a conservative, he had trouble responding to a very basic question: What are those goals? "It almost doesn't matter what great task government sets for itself," he wrote, "as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness."

I think there is a lot of truth to this, though the idea of government being the agent that accomplishes this great American thing is a 20th century innovation. Nevertheless, this is what I like about Joe Klein. It is a rare feat among columnists these days to offer some insight that is not reducible to one party or another's talking points. Mr. Klein can do that, which is why I enjoy reading him.

Unfortunately, Mr. Klein makes a major analytical mistake later in the article. He goes on to list several policy initiatives that are at the top of his agenda. When implicitly posed with the question of why our system has not yet accomplished much at all on any of these initiatives, Mr. Klein blames the politicians for their lack of courage. He writes:

None of these goals are impossible; some may even be achievable. All that's required is some political courage, which is not a natural commodity in an election year. Indeed, there is only one sure way to inspire courage in politicians. We must demand it. If they choose to avoid these and other serious issues, we should make it clear that we are going to avoid voting for them.
This is where he loses me. Lots of people like to view politicians through the lens of courage vs. cowardliness. I do not.

Courage is the ability to face danger without backing down. The idea that I think that Mr. Klein is reaching for is that of a great man or woman who leads the nation through these problems without fear of opposition. Somebody who can pick us up, and carry us across to the other side despite the dangers involved in such a rescue operation.

This is a quality that our system usually renders irrelevant.

Regardless of our politics - most of us believe that there are entrenched interests that prevent substantive change for the general good. [The ironic feature of our politics is that the right is convinced that the left is the entrenched interest and the right is out for the general good, and the left is convinced that the right is the entrenched interest and the left is out for the general good!] This is indeed the case. There are entrenched interests - i.e. interests who will have to be overwhelmed if the greater public good is to be accomplished. If they cannot be convinced to pursue the greater good, change will have to come against their wills. This requires courage on the part of our political leaders.

The problem with this narrative is that these entrenched interests possess vetoes. This is what federalism implies. By dispersing power, our system makes it so that you really cannot accomplish much of anything without the assent of most all of the entrenched interests. If you cannot convince enough of these interests that your way is the best course of action, you are not going to accomplish your goal. So, courage is quite irrelevant for success. You can be as courageous as you want; you still are not going to accomplish what you wish to.

What Klein is reaching for here is the "great man" theory of political progress - he wants a great leader who can move us toward a greater good. It was a theory that our Framers explicitly rejected as a basis for sound Republican government. They thought that great men would not always be in steady supply, and that - even when great men are around - they are not always going to succeed. They cannot be relied upon. Thus, the system must be designed with the thought in mind that less-than-great men would possess the mechanisms of power. They instituted a system that effectively thwarts would-be great men from accomplishing what they could accomplish in an action-oriented system.

It is not coincidence that our truly great presidential heroes - Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt - governed at periods when the normal functioning of our system had broken down. Lincoln had a Congress that was essentially bereft of opposition. Roosevelt governed a nation that had, at least for a moment, achieved an unparalleled unity in its demand for systematic change in the relationship between the government and the citizen. Both men could succeed because they governed at what might be called non-Madisonian moments. This is when the courage of great men can be effective - when there is an absence of entrenched oppositions with decisive vetoes.

At the heart of Klein's argument is a fallacy of division. He argues that our inability to accomplish great things is because nobody has the will to accomplish something. While I would agree that our system as a whole lacks this kind of will, it does not follow that no person in this system has such a will. Rather, the lack of a will on a national level speaks to the fact that, on a "sectional" level, there is a multiplicity of conflicting wills. Our system was designed to resolve these differences by making it so that no will trumps another.

This is not an assertion that our government never actually does anything. Not at all. Obviously, our government has done quite a bit. The point is that - if we are interested in accomplishing great things, we need to build consensus. We need to develop some kind of common ground that unites us. Without that, we can expect our system to thwart our efforts, and to sustain the status quo. Consensus, not courage, is the key that ignites our lumbering, awkward, 18th century political system.

-Jay Cost