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Will our leaders be able to lead?

After the acrimony of the debt ceiling fight, solving serious national problems will take heroic efforts

By Andrew L. Yarrow

3:25 PM EDT, August 2, 2011

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It's hard to imagine the morning after.

What happens now that the debt-ceiling crisis has ended with the whimper of a finger-in-the-dike "solution" that staves off imminent disaster but does little to solve our long-term debt problems and may even damage our economy? Despite some muttering about 11th-hour bipartisanship, how in the world, after this knock-down, drag-out fight, can Democrats and Republicans, Congress and the president turn the other cheek and get about doing the nation's business?

A sputtering economy, a few foreign wars, climate change and dependence on foreign energy sources, education problems galore, tattered transportation, an absurd tax code, health care that still costs far too much: There's no shortage of things that our country needs to address and on which our leaders need to lead.

Can government move forward to face such issues, or are the wounds from this fight too severe to get the parties and branches of government to work productively together anytime soon to lead our nation?

This spring and summer, Congress, President Barack Obama, the news media, and, increasingly, the American people have been transfixed by the drama of paralysis and invective that has been the "debate" over raising the nation's debt ceiling. One could say that an insane tempest has been created over what, historically, has been legislative "administrivia" — or that an important symbolic stand has been made over ballooning national debt.

Both are true, in their way, but once you've bloodied each other so much, how do you go forward? No other workplace could function or business could survive if groups of principals or employees simply said, day after day, week after week: "I'm not going to do it your way, I'm not going to compromise, I think you're idiots, and I can't work with you." The whole lot of them would be fired.

The capital and the commentariat have been obsessed with the details of each new debt-reduction proposal, the political implications of this battle, and the apocalyptic talk of a broken political system.

The first of these is the substantive story. Many thoughtful people across the political spectrum, who want a sustainable and prosperous future for the United States, have worked very hard to devise ways to stem the tide of rising federal debt that is threatening the country's economic health and the government's ability to meet basic national needs.

To politicians, pundits, and the politically engaged, the second topic has been the 2012 election and beyond: Will the tea party destroy the Republicans, will Barack Obama be a one-term president, and what other seismic shifts will rock America's electoral landscape?

On the third subject, a growing chorus of wise and Washington-weary prognosticators has diagnosed the debt ceiling debacle as the ultimate example of the nation's political dysfunction. Ronald Reagan was right that "government is the problem," but in a much more radical sense than he intended: It is not just leaders and programs that are flawed but our sacrosanct system of democratic self-government that is kaput — or so these commentators say.

None of these subjects is unimportant, but there will soon come a day when Congress will return to the Capitol and the president will be in the Oval Office and they will have to do the many things that they have been elected and paid to do.

Can our leaders reform and reauthorize the No Child Left Behind law? How do they get the economy moving, while helping the jobless, the hungry, those whose homes have been foreclosed, and the growing numbers of the poor and struggling? Can they unite to hasten the end of civil wars and brutal dictatorships in Libya and Syria? Can Congress renew the nation's roads and transportation legislation, which expires next month, or end the Federal Aviation Administration shutdown? Can the protagonists of the debt ceiling brawl lay down their gloves and accomplish anything of importance? The Senate and White House offer more glimmers of hope than the House.

For all the talk about yet another debt commission, maybe we need a commission on comity or long-term congressional training with Miss Manners. Many have highlighted the need for members of the two sparring parties to get to know each other as (mostly) decent people, not cartoon combatants.

Efforts to build more civil, even friendly, relationships among leaders and members of both parties are essential. It may sound naïve to suggest the equivalent of college mixers, Hill happy hours, or a summer camp where everyone has to play together, but any of these would be a better use of congressional time than the months of "bizarro" screaming and fighting, as Sen. John McCain recently said. Maybe the American people should insist that their leaders spend the remaining weeks of the summer stranded on a desert island learning to get along so that they can work together.

If not, a legacy of the debt-ceiling drama will be such ill feelings and such an aversion to compromise that none of America's other pressing business will get attended to. Either we forge avenues for reconciliation after this fight (and the increasingly bitter partisan skirmishes that preceded it), or we reconcile ourselves to a government that simply cannot get anything significant done.

Andrew L. Yarrow is a Washington public policy professional whose most recent books are "Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late 20th Century" and "Forgive Us Our Debts: The Intergenerational Dangers of Fiscal Irresponsibility." His email is andrewyarrowcolumns@gmail.com.