“Leadership isn’t just legislation,” President Obama told 60 Minutes this week. “It’s a matter of persuading people, and giving them confidence, and bringing them together, and setting a tone, and making an argument that people can understand. And I think that we haven’t always been successful at that, and I take personal responsibility for that.”
A great deal of post-election analysis, including that of Obama himself, has focused on the Democrats’ supposed inability to communicate their legislative achievements to the public. Such a discussion assumes, of course, that they have achieved as much as they claim – a point of contention for many on the political left.
For the sake of argument, however, let’s accept the idea that a communication gap really was a key part of their electoral defeat. If so, I believe this failure was heightened by something larger that is undermining our politics generally and sapping public confidence in the political process. It’s something which can be called “parallel play politics,” a political reality that President Obama pledged to end, but hasn’t. Its persistence has allowed both misinformation and cynicism to thrive. Parallel play politics has has been deeply detrimental to the administration, but it’s bad for the country as well, regardless of who is in power.
Waiting for My Turn to Speak
Then-Senator Obama began his best-selling 2006 book The Audacity of Hope with a lament. Describing the all too frequent spectacle of “a lone Senator” addressing an empty chamber, Obama reflected ruefully, “In the world’s greatest deliberative body, no one is listening.”
The official proceedings of the House and Senate are indeed far from being deliberative. Discussions – real discussions – don’t take place in either. Instead, both chambers feature a parade of monologues, first from one party, then the other, referencing opponents when necessary, and ignoring them whenever desirable.
This reality is mirrored by American political discourse generally. Politicians routinely deliver speeches and issue statements as if in complete isolation from one another. Commonly, political journalism records the opinions of a Democratic politician, and then a Republican one, as if they are two separate but equal sides of the same argument. Debates during the election cycle follow the same pattern, with 30 second statements taking the place of genuine dialogue.
And it is indeed dialogue that is the issue. Any one of us can remember discussions we’ve had in which we were genuinely open to opposing points of views and new ideas. Those are the talks that usually lead to new insights concerning our own perspectives, and can yield common ground reveled by reason. By contrast, we’ve all been in fights or debates where we’re just waiting for our turn to speak. Those are often frustrating affairs, and lead only to a heightening and strengthening of divisions.
I have always felt that President Obama’s commitment to the idea of “bi-partisanship” has been misrepresented. He wasn’t talking about splitting the difference legislatively between the two parties. That interpretation was turned into a convenient talking point by Republicans during the past two years, who accused him of ignoring their ideas. Similarly, the press would often look at party-line votes as evidence of Obama’s failure to commit to “post-partisan” governance.
But what Obama was actually talking about during his campaign was something different. He was reflecting on the fact that the latter kind of interaction described above – the one in which everybody talks past one another – has come to dominate our politics. In its place, Obama suggested that he wanted to create a political environment in which ideas were exchanged sincerely and publicly. That’s why he so often called for a change of “tone” in Washington: if you’re genuinely interested in what someone has to say, you’re not going to spend your time thinking up pithy ways to attack them.
The Change Will be Televised
Obama’s talk of bridging the partisan divide, however, hinted at something beyond changes in tonality. There was a clear procedural alternative being advocated as well. The idea of smoke-filled back rooms on Capitol Hill is one of the oldest and most pervasive cliches concerning our political process, and yet it maintains its place in the public imagination because in practical terms, it’s accurate. The average citizen feels, and is, stunningly removed from the decisions made by their elected officials, as well as the procedures that lead to those decisions. People want to know who spoke to whom, and with what effect, but more often than not, they can’t name any of the players involved, let alone understand what they did and why. This is at times our own fault – we all have a personal responsibility to increase our civic awareness. But it’s also the result of an unnecessarily opaque political process and a political culture that prizes secrecy over transparency. As a result, citizens commonly speak in general terms when reflecting on the workings of D.C. Expressions like “the government” or “lobbyists” – far too vague to be useful – reveal the sense of alienation Americans feel from those in power.
This is why Obama made a point during his campaign of promising that debates concerning health care reform would be on C-SPAN. The implication was obvious: the door to the back room would be opened, the spoke would be lifted, and everyone would be allowed to see inside. No surprises. No secret deals. Better legislation.
Simple changes like these would, Obama insinuated, have profound consequences: politicians, faced with cross-examination in the light of day, would be forced to back up their assertions with facts. Lies, falsehoods, or misunderstandings would be exposed and vanquished. And the policies produced as a result of such deliberations would be better for the country.
(It’s worth noting that a strong and obvious contrast to such a state of affairs is presented by Sarah Palin. The issue here isn’t her policies. Rather, it’s the public deliberation black-out she’s been in for nearly three years. Ms. Palin only speaks to overtly supportive media figures, and her vice-presidential debate with Joe Biden was the only debate she’s taken part in on the national stage. She is attempting to take parallel play politics to its logical extreme, and may even try running for president while speaking only to who she wants, when she wants to, and on subjects of her own choosing. By doing so, she’ll force voters to form opinions of her on mere impressions. Such an actuality would obviously render small-d democracy a moot point: people can’t consent to something they don’t understand.)
We Don’t Have the Votes
But Obama’s pledge has thus far been unfulfilled. First, the back-room deals have continued. A clear example was provided by a leaked memo detailing an agreement formed between the administration and drug companies during the health care negotiations. Whenever evidence of private arrangements such as this one have come to light, Obama has lost credibility as a leader seeking to promote transparency.
More confusing still has been the Democratic Party’s adherence to a mathematical approach to politics that has come to define the domain of the “possible.” It’s the tyranny of Congressional vote counting, resulting in the often-uttered phrase, “we don’t have the votes…” It has been the Party’s inability or unwillingness to bring the power of open dialogue to bare on that kind of calculus that has left voters both unsure of where the White House and Democrats stand on key issues and permitted baseless attacks and assertions to flourish.
Mr. Smith and His Filibuster
Frank Capra portrayed the filibuster as a tool used in defense of democracy, a means of preventing corrupt legislation from being passed into law. Today, however, it is used in less democratic means, a way of thwarting the will of the majority party. As a result, Democrats had critical bills held up in the Senate for months, and cut unappealing deals in order to get over the dreaded 60 vote threshold in the Senate. (Concessions granted to Ben Nelson and Mary Landreau, for example, allowed opponents of the health care reform bill to claim it was tainted.) At other times, the party has chosen to pre-emptively compromise their position in the hope of attracting Republican support.
Without discussing whether the filibuster rule should be changed, is there a different way, politically, to approach the problem? Here’s one: “Make them filibuster,” advised Governor Ed Rendell in January of 2010 when the fight over health care appeared deadlocked. “Make them go before America people. Make the American people look at a modern day spectacle of what a filibuster would entail. I think it’s time to call their bluff.” In other words, the Governor was calling for a real public debate, one in which Republicans and Democrats would be forced to defend their positions before an increasingly riveted public. But allowing a filibuster to go forward was never treated as a serious option by the White House or Democratic leadership. Why?
Finding the Votes
The question only becomes more confusing when we look at the broader context in which political battles are waged. Social policy is complicated. There is often a lot of gray in the picture. But that’s not how politicians discuss the issues before them. The images they conjure are always drawn in black and white.
Let’s stick with the question of the best way to reform our health care system. If you ask analysts like Dr. Atul Gawande – whose previous health care writings were required reading in the Obama White House – they’ll tell you that nobody knows. In fact, Gawande wrote an entire article last year arguing that no “master plan” to fix health care exists because it can’t exist, that the problem is simply too complicated for a one-time solution. Rather, Gawande has advocated for a trial-and-error approach that phases in fixes incrementally.
But that isn’t the message Obama delivered during the year that Democratic reform legislation struggled through Republican opposition. Recall the president’s proclamation during his September, 2009 address to Congress: “I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.” In other words, Obama was claiming the moral high ground on the issue, and telling the country that his approach was the right one. “Now is the season for action,” he said during the speech. The subtext was loud and clear: those standing in the way of the bill were wrong. And yet, in the ensuing months, a handful of Democratic Senators were allowed to do just that, as were, of course, the Republican leadership that continued to stridently oppose the bill, even embracing the increasingly outlandish and fact-free claims of the fringe elements of their base. The public, therefore, heard one thing and saw another: they heard a President argue for the obvious legitimacy of his legislation, and then they watched as his party tried to find a way to sneak it through Congress.
I believe that such dissonance is deeply confusing to both voters and activists. They’re left to wonder why the White House is unwilling to engage in a sustained, detailed, and public dialogue – filibuster-induced or not – concerning the legislation it theoretically supports so stridently. And they’re right. Such exchanges would expose flawed arguments and eliminate the necessity to cut deals in exchange for support.
We were given a taste of such an approach earlier this year when President Obama spoke to and with the members of the GOP caucus.The event was so riveting that it immediately produced an online petition demanding that such exchanges be made a regular part of our nation’s political dealings. The proposal was flirted with by top White House communications hands, but it was ultimately dismissed, and hasn’t been spoken of since.
An Irresponsible Approach?
There’s an argument to be made against such an approach to governance: specifically, that it is unrealistic, and would result in irresponsible and damaging deadlock, benefiting no one and hanging those in need of timely government action out to dry. In June of 2008, the Emanuel brothers – Rahm, Ezekiel, and Ari – appeared on the Charlie Rose show. Ezekiel, a doctor, outlined a plan to radically restructure how medical care is provided to the American people, one largely in line with single-payer models. Rahm quickly explained why it wasn’t worth discussing. “OK, so that’s Zeke’s point of view,” he told Rose. “I live in the real world. I have a responsibility to get something done.”
Such logic seems to have pervaded the workings and statements of Democrats thoroughly, as they have consistently reminded voters that they’ve past the best bills possible under “real world” constraints. But this is a rationale which assumes that debunking baseless opposition is too difficult to be done swiftly. It also implies that all politics is relative: there’s no right or wrong, only what can “get done” at any given time. And it suggests that the confines of what is politically possible can be determined just as easily by falsehood as fact.
I believe that as a candidate, Obama was speaking out against just such an approach to politics. In Obama’s mind, I think, the “real world” limits Emanuel spoke of were the result of close-minded partisanship and a lack of genuine, public dialogue that would bring accountability to assertions and accusations. But things didn’t have to be this way. If politicians started talking with each other, encouraged by both a change of tone and structural mechanisms – such as televised hearings – that promoted real, public discussion, unprovable assertions would no longer be able to compete with grounded ones. Rational policy, regardless of its partisan affiliation, would prevail, and the perpetual partisan gridlock which had rendered Washington incapable of taking on big challenges would be made a thing of the past.
But it didn’t happen. Instead, the White House adopted what famed organizer Marshall Ganz described in a recent editorial as a “transactional” style of politics, one defined by “horse-trading” and “operating within the routine.” (Ganz also applies his analysis to Organizing for America, an assertion worth examination but not one I’m endorsing here.)
The results were obvious: Obama’s highly motivated opponents, allowed to attack as if from a parallel universe defined by its own facts and truths, were empowered, and misinformation wasn’t effectively exposed. The White House struggled to push back and establish the validity of its arguments. And the public struggled to understand why what it was seeing looked so much like that other cliche, “politics as usual.”
Since Tuesday, Obama has suggested that he will adjust his goals to the new make-up of Congress. I would suggest, however, that he should adjust his approach to Congress itself. Republican leaders are now in a position of responsibility. They control the House’s agenda and proceedings, and can dictate the legislation that emerges from it. As such, they should be made to engage with Democrats in a sincere, public manner. Republican and Democratic leaders should trade ideas in sustained, detailed ways, and do so in front of their constituents and the country. When arguments are made, they shouldn’t be allowed to take the form of prepared remarks and carefully-curated “fact sheets.” They should, rather, face rigorous, real-time cross-examination at the hands of other politicians and members of the press. And this is a fray that Obama should be all too eager to enter – including, if necessary, taking his case to the districts represented by Congressional Members – on both the left and right – who oppose his approach. This wouldn’t constitute bullying. Yes, the president has the loudest megaphone in the country, but by engaging political opponents publicly, he would simply be giving them a chance to make their case once and for all. Congress shouldn’t simply fall in line behind the president – its independence is sacrificed at great peril, as we learned during the Bush years. But that doesn’t mean Members should feel insulated from national scrutiny. Their votes impact everyone in the country, and as such, they should be prepared, and have the opportunity, to make their case before the nation when called upon to do so.
While many are predicting political paralysis over the next two years, our nation can avoid such a fate by demanding real dialogue between our leaders. The result will be better legislation, greater transparency, and increased public faith in the workings of government. To paraphrase Senator Barack Obama, it’s time to end parallel playtime.