Of politics and principles

"If we know a nation is capable of enduring continuous discussion, we know that it is capable of practicing with equanimity continuous tolerance." — Walter Bagehot, "Physics and Politics" (1872)

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner last week delivered President Barack Obama’s budget package to House Speaker John Boehner and the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill.

Shortly thereafter, the speaker called a press conference to say the administration’s proposal wasn’t “serious.”

The “national media,” once described by Eugene McCarthy as being like blackbirds on a telephone line — “when one flies away, they all fly away” — predictably responded by saying the administration’s proposal and the speaker’s reaction were nothing more than politics as usual.


The administration’s proposal was a serious proposal. And Boehner’s dismissal of it as otherwise and the media’s subsequent misrepresentation is why agreement is so difficult to achieve in Washington, if not impossible.

If both sides of an issue dismiss the other’s proposal as lacking substance or as driven solely by political considerations, then there’s little chance anything of substance will be accomplished. Serious issues deserve serious deliberations, and invoking political cant does not advance the public interest.

George Orwell, writing in a slightly different context on “The Prevention of Literature,” warned of the futility on achieving common ground when one side disallows the intelligence and honesty of the party opposite.

That said, the “fiscal cliff” impasse in Washington is but the latest in a long series of deficits, taxes and budget “impasses” characterizing Obama and Boehner’s relationship.

The president’s past efforts to reach compromise with recalcitrant Republicans on Capitol Hill came at considerable cost to Obama’s own moderate/liberal political base, which deemed his efforts signs of weakness, not strength. It's a judgment shared by those same recalcitrant Republicans, even though the two groups seldom agree on anything.

Had I been asked to counsel Boehner in his response to the administration, I would have suggested the following, “I am grateful to have the president’s proposal and appreciate the spirit in which it is offered. It’s a serious document, but it is not one we can accept.”

As I consider the speaker’s “not serious” response dismissive and insulting, so too would a similar response by the administration be equally dismissive and insulting. You cannot engage in serious and substantive discussions if you doubt, to Orwell’s point, the “intelligence and honesty” of those who adhere to a belief system simply because it conflicts with your own.

It is wrong to ask of others to concede core values and beliefs, beliefs that are both intellectually and morally fixed in their minds, when you would not concede casting aside your own core values and beliefs. If you want respect for your own philosophy of governance, you must respect the right of others to disagree without insulting their intelligence or impugning their integrity.

To expect otherwise is to practice the politics of folly and delusion and leads precisely to where we are in our national debate over deficits, taxes and the future. It's the idea that it’s all about politics and not principles — a divide compounded in no small way by superficial media reporting.

If principals won’t yield on principles, how do we proceed? By rediscovering democracy’s genius — majority rule.

The president has a mandate to implement his tax policies and reduce the deficit, a mandate empowered by winning the Electoral College and popular vote. True, Republicans kept their majority in the House of Representatives, but nationally the president received 12 million more votes than Boehner and his colleagues.

For the president to yield on core values or beliefs would be to endanger his authority and undermine his powers of governance these next four years, as surely as it did the last four.

I began by quoting Bagehot, whose powers as editor of The Economist in 19th century England were derived from the power of his intellect and who thought the United States “capable of practicing with equanimity continuous tolerance.” But he failed to allow that “equanimity and tolerance” are absent when your opponent’s intelligence and honesty are denied.

Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader.

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