Opinion
Join The Times' book club. This month's selection: "Cadillac Desert"
Opinion Top of the Ticket

To avoid 'fiscal cliff,' our leaders need to be better than we are

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.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • John Boehner's biggest struggle may be with his own right-wingers

    John Boehner's biggest struggle may be with his own right-wingers

    Before he gets to the fiscal cliff, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) will have to traverse the conservative chasm.

  • Lincoln and FDR movies are a reminder politics is seldom pretty

    Lincoln and FDR movies are a reminder politics is seldom pretty

    Two new movies, “Lincoln” and “Hyde Park on the Hudson,” are intimate portraits of the two most consequential presidents of the United States. They are timely reminders that politics has never been pretty and our leaders have never been perfect human beings, but that, without Abraham Lincoln and...

  • Memorial Day 1919: 'What shall be for memory?'

    Memorial Day 1919: 'What shall be for memory?'

    As a history buff, I like browsing through old newspapers (not to mention archives) seeking links to the present, which led me to dust off the Times' editorial from Memorial Day 1919 - the first commemoration following the end of World War One.

  • Opposing the TPP makes no sense in California

    Opposing the TPP makes no sense in California

    The two leading contenders in next year's campaign to represent California in the U.S. Senate have been staunch supporters of President Obama. But both Democratic candidates, state Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, have spoken out against one of Obama's top remaining priorities:...

  • The unknown helicopter

    The unknown helicopter

    Jeff Houlihan first noticed the helicopter in 1977, perched on top of a 40-foot steel tower at Rialto Municipal Airport. He could tell it was a Huey, used in Vietnam, but no one could explain how it got to the top of the tower. He could tell it had received enemy gunfire — it was spattered with...

  • Trying to house L.A.'s homeless veterans is a complex, lengthy process

    Trying to house L.A.'s homeless veterans is a complex, lengthy process

    As we honor the dead on this Memorial Day, it's worth remembering as well the living veterans of military service who have no homes except sidewalk encampments or the occasional shelter bed, whose lives are so wracked by mental illness, addictions or physical disabilities that they are essentially...

Comments
Loading