Stillwater News Press

May 20, 2010

Harold Sare: Is the United States governable?

By Harold Sare
Stillwater NewsPress

STILLWATER, Okla. — Conflicts over important policy issues such as health care, banking regulations, defense, and other issues are in the news every day. 

The sheer volume of problems and the complexity of those problems are weighty on all of us. Certainly they must be especially weighty at the top. 

President Obama was elected as our president in 2008 and he has been attempting to carry out a legislative program based on his campaign promises and also to function with awareness of myriad problems.

We have to be realistic, as does he, about the specifics of a political platform. Once in office unexpected events and simply the reality of the office may cause a candidate who wins office not to perform as he promised and to modify his approaches. 

The office of the president is extremely challenging but, as many of us know, even offices at much lower levels confront winning candidates with surprising challenges not anticipated and which require modifications of approach.

President Obama, upon taking the oath, faced a powerful recession that required his immediate attention and also required the expenditure of public monies that all of us would have liked to be used to reduce the public debt or taxes, or for other useful public programs. 

The president inherited an immense public deficit - $1.3 trillion - from the previous administration. He confronted military obligations in the Middle East, which are extremely complicated and costly. In addition, he was confronted by an opposition party that has articulated in many different ways that it was not going to cooperate, but was going to try to bring about Obama's Waterloo.

Sen. Jim Demint of South Carolina, speaking of President Obama's national health care program publicly promised this. At the same time, Democrats in Congress had their own ideological positions that they adhered to that further complicated a complex Congressional program. 

The TARP program under President Bush and the stimulus program dealt with in Congress after President Obama's inauguration brought on highly negative charges of a government moving our system directly into socialism - even though socialism as a viable economic approach has been recognized as a failed system and has been dying since the 1970s.

U.S. political leaderships simply have not been willing to settle down to tough and real issue discussions. and aggravating, politically charged propaganda has filled the news channels and stirred up the public. 

Many outright lies have been dumped on the people - for instance, Congresswoman Foxx's charges that the health bill provided for death panels.  That false assertion was picked up by Sen. Grassley of Iowa and others and used in several political meetings aired on TV.

We cannot help but recognize that political agendas and specific ideological issues have taken priority over critical national issues. In the past, Republicans and Democrats have worked together better to focus on critical national issues, even though they differed on particular points.

 Both parties are functionally needed in the policy processes of our constitutional democratic system. In the 1980s our system functioned fairly well under Republican presidential leadership, but the 1990s witnessed a critical change.  

In the 1990s another election brought in a Democratic president who made a major effort to generate a broad-based national health program. Former Vice President Al Gore's roommate at Harvard University proposed a strategy that surprisingly was picked up by respected political leaders in his party. 

That former roommate of Al Gore's, William Kristol, a conservative strategist and commentator, wrote a memo recommending that absolutely no Republican cooperation in policy discussions be rendered in developing a health program.

The Republicans shifted from a responsible opposition political leadership to a brutal, uncompromising partisanship against the Democrats on that issue and others that followed.

Kristol, as quoted in Newsweek  (4-28-10), argued in 1993 for the Republicans to pursue “an aggressive and uncompromising counterstrategy designed to de-legitimize…” any proposals of the Democrats. 

This strategy was followed back then, and the astute observer can see also is being followed now.  Such a strategy, of course, is done at great cost to the basics of our constitutional democratic system.

Restrictive and uncompromising ideological posturing by members of both political parties generates animosity and complicates the legislative process and can put it into a gripping deadlock.

If we are witnessing major strategy changes for loyal opposition parties, and a rising intensity of ideological purity among groups and individual legislators, we will complicate the capacity of any party to provide critical leadership for our nation. Let's hope that the pragmatic elements and the legitimate ideal of a loyal opposition in our political culture will return as the major functioning processes of our political system.  It is critical to our international leadership and the very strength of our country!

Loyalty to a political party is fine, but that loyalty must not come first. All of our elected leaders must take seriously their oath of office.  The higher good of the country must come first.

Harold Sare is a regents service professor, emeritus, political science, at Oklahoma State University.