Of Politics & Principles

| January 1, 2013 | 0 Comments

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)

You will read this after that fact, when the dénouement of the “fiscal cliff” is known; whether the president or speaker prevailed; but deadlines are deadlines and this was written two weeks before its publication. So it goes in the world of monthly newspapers – even good ones like the Presidio Sentinel.

But before that fate becomes a chapter in the history of our time, whether it was indeed a “cliff” or something less dramatic, I sought to draw a different perspective, one that argues what we too often dismiss as “politics” is really about principles. But that we, in our hurried if not harried state of being, resort to reductio ad absurdum, calling it “politics” when it isn’t.
So what follows concerns treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, who in early December went to Capitol Hill to deliver President Obama’s tax and deficit plan to Speaker John Boehner and the Republican leadership.

Within hours 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 sitting 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 was politics as usual.


The administration’s proposal was a serious proposal. And Mr. Boehner’s dismissal of it as otherwise and the media’s subsequent misrepresentation is why agreement is so difficult to achieve in Washington.

If both sides of an issue dismiss the other’s proposal as lacking substance or is driven solely by political considerations, then there’s little chance anything 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” stalemate in Washington is but the latest in a long series of deficits, taxes, and budget impasses characterizing Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner’s relationship.

The president’s past efforts to reach compromise with recalcitrant Republicans on Capitol Hill came at considerable cost to Mr. Obama’s own moderate/liberal political base, which deemed his efforts signs of weakness not strength; a judgment shared by those same recalcitrant Republicans; the irony of which should not be lost on either side, since they seldom agree on anything.

Had my counsel been sought by Speaker Boehner on his proper response to the administration I would have suggested he say 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 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 yours.

It’s wrong to ask of others to concede core values and beliefs intellectually and morally fixed in their minds, when you would not cast aside your own core values and beliefs; if you want respect for your philosophy of governance you must respect the right of others to theirs – 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; the idea 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? We proceed by rediscovering the genius of our democracy – majority rule. If you have the votes you win, if not, you lose.

The president has a mandate to save middle class tax cuts and reduce the deficit by raising taxes on the wealthy; 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 12,000,000 more votes than Mr. Boehner and his colleagues.

To change the subject but not the issue, does the slaughter of the innocent in Newtown, Connecticut, alter the equation on holding to core values and principles? Meaning, could those who believe in gun control and those who worship the 2nd Amendment find common ground? No. However intense the feelings about the nation’s economy, they pale in comparison to the feelings over the divide between those who want stricter gun control laws and those who don’t.

Many Americans appear to believe the 2nd Amendment is sacred. They’re not giving up that belief because 20 school children and six adults were assassinated in a New England town. They will mourn their deaths but hold to their beliefs.

The principle of gun ownership may not be your belief and it certainly isn’t mine, and we may further believe had the Framers been wiser there never would have been a 2nd Amendment, but that’s not how it played out. (Yes, the Framers were “wise” but also mistaken about slavery, and denying women and non-property owners the right to vote.)

So, again, how is this divide overcome? By the means those same Framers provided, by securing more votes than the opposition. Is it that simple, really? Yes, but it requires long hours and hard work and organizing and door knocking and petition drives, at which point many legitimate and worthy causes falter and fail from fatigue – but that too is part of the equation.

But since neither you nor I can dissuade either side of its perceived “idiocy” on guns, and the 2nd Amendment, of taxes and deficits, this is how a democratic society resolves its differences. We govern, not by coup d’é·tat but ballot box.

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 many critics believe it did the last four.

I began by quoting Walter Bagehot, whose powers as editor of The Economist in 19th century England were derived from the power of his intellect, thought America “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.

George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader. He may be reached at, gmitro35@gmailo.com.

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