Gridlock: can democracy work?


YOUR PEOPLE, sir, are a great beast!" That was Alexander Hamilton's supposed response to the idea of government by the people. It does sound just like him, even if historians have never been able to verify the comment. At this juncture in the history of the Republic that Colonel Hamilton helped shape, such a description would be all too accurate. Wrestling with the country's rapacious deficits, its few leaders finally patched together a compromise for Congress to rip apart. And beyond Washington, the writhing has just begun. This beast has a thousand heads, each with a hungry mouth, and each capable of the most piercing screams if denied a single morsel. Seldom has democracy appeared, alas, so democratic.

The easiest position to take on this plan to reduce the deficit was: Hell, no. In principle, all may be willing to sacrifice for the common good. In politics, each felt it was being singled out as a victim. That is how democracy is disrupted, the center shrinks, and the system stalls.

The professionals who minister to this great beast called Demos -- they are called politicians -- busied themselves running for cover. Newt Gingrich, a Georgia firebrand who is now supposed to be a Republican leader, fairly sprinted. Dale Bumpers, the Arkansas statesman and orator, though not necessarily in that order, slipped into his populist mode. This budget deal, he said, "looks like it's calculated to devastate a state like Arkansas." Now there's a good, sound, responsible term: Devastate.

The secret of the successful demagogue is not just to echo the fears of the beast but magnify them. To defend this compromise would have required a measure of courage, reality, even risk to one's political career. Naturally a majority of the House of Representatives voted against it.

The really cagey pol will still hope for the best of both worlds: that others will pass some sort of compromise to keep the government going while he opposes any such deal to great popular acclaim. But there are so many cagey pols in Washington that compromise didn't stand a chance first time out. What we have here is a profile in something other than courage.

The critics of this plan do have a point: Almost anybody could have drawn up a better deal -- if the object were to serve only one's own interests. Or satisfy only one's own judgment. For my part, slicing the defense budget just when an armed confrontation looms abroad sounds reckless, if not ludicrous. I also have doubts about whether this Deficit Reduction Plan will reduce the defict any more than the previous ones approved with great fanfare during the Reagan Administration. But could anyone have drawn up a better deal if the object was to control the deficit and still promote the general welfare?

Was this compromise fair? Well, what is fair? Would it be better to give every interest its fair share of an ever failing economy? Then all could sit back as interest rates soared, confidence in the country waned, recession gave way to depression . . . and be assured that this creeping chaos was perfectly fair.

A cynical witticism holds that there is a time for a politician to rise above his principles. That now has become the definition of statesmanship, and George Bush has met it. So have a few Democratic leaders -- Speaker Tom Foley, Chairman Dan Rostenkowski of Ways and Means, and even Richard Gephardt, who is now a former populist. But only a few politicians may be capable of meeting such a standard. Ideologues on the right are outraged and in revolt. The ones on the left are no more pleased with the Democratic leadership. And when the ideologues are joined by the opportunists and careerists of both parties in Congress, the combination may prove unbeatable. That is how democracy deadlocks. That is how phrases like "the general welfare" and "the common weal" acquire a quaint, even negative, connotation in this age of me and mine.

Like many another argument over money, this one is about more than money. It is about whether the general welfare will come before parochial interests and prejudices. It is about whether the system can still work, whether leadership can still lead, whether the two parties can do anything more than check each other . . . and whither this Republic is tending. We will see. Very shortly. The clock is ticking. That may be the only thing moving in Washington.

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