This being the Christmas season, I’m going to give the nation’s political leaders a little gift, an excuse for bringing America to the edge of a so-called fiscal cliff: They’re only human.
It’s easy to look back at other moments in our history when members of Congress should have been able to see the right path that is so obvious to us now. Back in 1865, when the House of Representatives was debating the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, how could any congressman not understand that owning another human being as property was utterly wrong? In the 1940s, how did so many leaders fail to recognize that confiscating the property of American citizens of Japanese descent and packing them off to internment camps was an injustice?
And today, on an issue that is far less weighty but not inconsequential, why can’t the people in charge in Washington get their act together and come up with a budget compromise before the deadline arrives for automatic, drastic program cuts and tax hikes that would blunt the economic recovery and make life more miserable for millions of people? Why can they not follow the Nike motto and “Just do it”?
Well, why are you boycotting a holiday dinner because some friend or relative was a jerk last year and you cannot forgive him? Why do you shun that co-worker whose politics are 180 degrees different than your own? Why do you hate the New York Yankees or think men are all pigs or insist that gays can be straightened out with a little therapy and prayer? It is because we are all human and human beings have shown an unending capacity to hold grudges, subscribe to idiotic ideologies, cling to tribal identities and go down fighting for foolish causes.
Politicians are no better than we are. They do not like to lose or give ground easily. They think they are right and the other side is not just wrong, but stupidly, mendaciously, even treasonously wrong. And perhaps more than Congresses of the not-too-distant past, our current Congress is filled with men and women who value dubious “principles” more than useful pragmatism and consider compromise an unusually long four-letter word.
We get the politicians we deserve. Legislators do mirror the electorate rather well. Given that about a fourth of voters have indicated in numerous polls that they believe crazy things – Saddam Hussein was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks; President Obama is a Muslim who wants to sell out America to terrorists; the Earth is 6,000 years old – it is no surprise that quite a few seats in the House and Senate chambers are filled by oddballs who believe crazy things too. And if conservatives in rural areas look at city folk as godless pagans and urban liberals look at people in the countryside as religious fanatics and gun-toting hicks, it is not surprising that liberals and conservatives in Congress have a tough time crossing the aisle and doing business together.
Our finest leaders have been people who are better than we are. Consider our best Republican presidents. They have been men who were bigger than their party – Abraham Lincoln, who rose beyond the pervasive racism of his time and enlarged his view of humanity; Theodore Roosevelt, who recognized a value in America’s natural splendors far beyond their commercial exploitation; Ronald Reagan, who set aside his reflexive anti-communism and seized the opportunity to help end the Cold War.
If, in the coming weeks, a grand bargain is struck that puts the country on a more sound fiscal path, it will be because a few key leaders have found it in themselves to be a little smarter, a little more empathetic and a little more forward-thinking than the average member of the human race. Conversely, if we all careen over the fiscal cliff with no brakes on, it will mean our so-called leaders are just being all too human.