Thursday, July 21, 2011

Wanted: A Decider

What do Rupert Murdoch, Barack Obama and Mike Barbour have in common? They each were in the news this week regarding their ability to take responsibility on major issues. Mike Barbour oversaw “Carmagedden” which never materialized and actually opened the 405 Freeway nearly 18 hours early. Rupert and James Murdoch went to a Parlimentary Hearing to disavow knowledge and responsibility for the hacking scandal in England that has resulted (so far) in 1 death, multiple arrests, payoffs, resignations and the demise of a 168-year old newspaper. President Obama has yet to get a solution to the debt ceiling and Republicans and Democrats seem no further along in preventing default.

A key characteristic of leadership is the idea that decisiveness equates to results. Mike Barbour managed hundreds of personnel, interfaced with dozens of government agencies, neighbors, politicians and the media. His leadership is hailed thanks to preparation and cooperation...it wasn't a solo effort.

The Murdoch’s appeared to be out-of-touch and laid responsibility at those whom "they trusted." News Corp. is a multi-billion enterprise with 53,000 employees. Holding the CEO responsible for every decision of a subordinate is a stretch. True leadership would have been the Murdoch’s taking accountability for the culture they fostered that permitted the alleged activity while not being personally responsible for a particular act.

President Obama has been trying to get the debt limit increased for months. Republicans blame him for not entering the fray earlier. Democrats fume that when he arrived at the negotiating table he had already shown his cards. With divided government the President is expected to get a solution. Names have been called, fingers pointed and whatever resolution the country winds up with will have been done in a most irresponsible manner.  The solution will be a default resolution…not necessarily in financial terms, but ceding to the bare minimum of acceptability by all involved.

Political decision making isn’t as neat. It’s not supposed to be. The founders worked from 1774 to 1789 to finally establish the Untied States. It took 2 Continental Congresses, the Revolutionary War and a myriad of conflicts over 15 years before the Constitution was fully ratified and the first Presidential election held. Today we wax poetic about the founders, often forgetting the substantial and almost insurmountable conflicts that existed.

Simon Schama, a noted historian, said  recently on CNN's In the Arena: “The miracle is that Hamilton and Jefferson ever collaborated enough to craft the Federalist Papers. Both of them - and it's a lesson for us - were prepared to sink their fundamental differences about what American government was to get the Constitution ratified. The issue that is the hot button issue for us now is actually in the best tradition of American politics. It is whether or not to take a relatively expansive view of what government should do. Is government only entitled to do those things, which were enumerated in the late 18th century?”

The differences between Hamilton and Jefferson foreshadowed the establishment of the political parties and the differing views of the role of government that rule today’s political discourse.

The founders differed philosophically and each side was as passionate about which way they felt that the United States should go as each side is today...maybe even more so. One point of view didn’t prevail. Instead they painstakingly crafted a mechanism that permitted dissenting opinions while still allowing for the country to be governed. There was no Decider.

Today’s politicians stand in the shadow of those who built this country – literally and figuratively. When campaigning for the position (whether it be a legislator, a governor, a congressperson, a senator or a president) each candidate promises that they’ll accomplish X,Y and Z. It makes for good entertainment, effective politics and bad policy because it ignores the reality that they’ll face upon election.

The victor will arrive at their chosen position and discover that they aren’t in control, that the mechanisms for establishing law and enforcing it is cumbersome and difficult. It's supposed to be.  Consensus is required.

The rise of the Imperial Presidency is one response to the frustration of being unable to unilaterally implement a particular agenda. It’s destined to fail because the Executive Branch was never intended to allow for more control than the Legislative or Judicial Branches. The idea (floated most recently by President Clinton) that the Executive Branch can simply go around Congress and raise the debt ceiling on its own is the most glaring example of Washington disfunction and Constitutional ignorance.



Americans want a Decider. The last President even titled his autobiography “Decision Points.” There is comfort in knowing that one person stands up and takes responsibility. It is iconic American folklore:  taming the West and man conquering the elements.  It built the nation. The reality is much less sexy. Consensus is required – it’s the only way the country came into existence. I’ve decided: it’s the only way the country will thrive.


















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