Twenty-five years ago, Doctor Emmett Brown built a time-traveling DeLorean, enabling Marty McFly to save his parents' courtship and, derivatively, his own existence. Movie audiences cheered as Marty battled and defeated Libyan bad-guys and high school bullies.
In 2010, political audiences witnessed Republican Scott Brown’s decisive and unexpected victory in a special election for Democrat Ted Kennedy's senate seat, a seat that was held by the Kennedy family since 1952 (starting with John). Republicans cheered, believing they had succeeded in regaining “control” of the United States Senate -- by a margin of 41-59.
The anomalous arithmetic can be explained by the American political climate, which became bitterly divisive in the quarter century between the 1985 movie and the 2010 special election. Partisan politics have produced interminable legislative gridlock, making it nearly impossible to pass any meaningful laws unless you have a super-majority of 60 senators necessary to avoid a filibuster.
Go Dutch, get nowhere
"Filibuster" originates in the Dutch word for “pirate.” In the senate, it means that any senator can object to a bill for an unlimited amount of time -- until the proposing party withdraws or modifies it. By long-standing convention, this can be prevented if 60 votes are secured to bar a filibuster and bring a proposal to an immediate vote.
Once Scott Brown was elected, the Democrats lost their 60th voice in the senate. As a result, many unilateral initiatives, particularly universal health care, now seem doomed by the specter of filibustering Republicans. Many Democrats are scared that their grand, transformational agenda is in peril. More importantly, they now fear for their political careers. The voters’ message is beginning to sink in -- like a three ton anchor.
However, while President Obama once again demonstrated exceptional oratorical skills in his first state-of-the-union speech last month, he offered nothing new. He reiterated his mission to ascend and conquer the mountains of health care, education and the environment. He didn’t mention the mountains of debt that are piling up in the process. Obama called on the faithful to march on and fulfill their destiny. Yet, in one of the longest speeches ever by a president, there was disappointingly little introspection and absolutely no contrition. His lone attempt at self-recrimination was in lamenting that the health care objectives could have been articulated more clearly.
But this was his 29th speech on that topic alone. Apparently, the issue is not one of clarity. Rather, it is one of substance. The problem is not that Americans don’t get it but rather that Americans don’t want it. Three months ago, the Democrats lost major elections for governor in Virginia and New Jersey, two states that voted overwhelmingly for Obama just a year earlier. But states don’t pass federal legislation. That happens at the congressional level, both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. Therefore, despite the Virginia and New Jersey setbacks, the master plan itself, for a while, seemed secure.
Unlike in Israel and other parliamentary democracies, where governments can be dismissed “at will,” a US president receives a four-year contract, renewable for one additional term. When Obama was elected, along with comfortable Democratic majorities in both the Senate and the House, it looked like he would be able to push through all sorts of reforms. But while the checks and balances are different from those in a parliamentary system, they still exist. Whenever any president pretends that he can force-feed programs that are anathema to nearly half the country, especially when he has to bribe members of his own party to play along, the people will find a way to rebel.
Americans are simply becoming sick of grotesque pork-barrel projects concealed in obscure language that have nothing to do with the bills in which they are hidden. Vast sums are being paid to a few states as enticements for their representatives to support certain policies. This is particularly appalling when the US government is simultaneously trying to print its way out of the recession. The deficit keeps shattering records --- the last law passed before Scott Brown took his senate seat enabled the government to issue an additional trillion dollars in debt. If Obama hopes to emulate Winston Churchill, I suggest he aim for something more responsible than “Never was so much owed to so many”.
Members of Congress are seemingly always running for re-election, and campaigns have become extremely expensive. The recent Supreme Court decision striking down restrictions on corporate campaign spending will inevitably pour more booze into the campaign punchbowl and apply even greater pressure on candidates to solicit contributions. Special interest groups and lobbyists continue to infest and infect Washington DC, and their creativity in finding ways to direct dollars into congressional coffers would embarrass even the most imaginative Talmudic scholar. This lamentable state of affairs has made the American public long for the days when politics were merely mostly about money.
Doc Brown to the rescue?
Shortly after arriving in the year 1955, poor Marty McFly realized that he was gradually disappearing from his own family photo. His intervention in history was becoming more disruptive than productive. However, following Doc Brown’s advice, he was quickly able to make amends, and the McFly family’s fortunes became better than ever. Similarly, Scott Brown’s victory has had some positive impact. Last week, the President announced that he will convene a bi-partisan discussion on health care. This is a welcome overture, even if motivated by necessity rather than genuine inclusive tendencies.
The Republican Party must also begin to stand for something tangible. One would hope that Sarah Palin’s incessant media exposure and the fledgling Tea Party initiative are temporary side-shows. Republicans shouldn’t place their political fortunes in the palm of Sarah’s hand. Likewise, sensational grand-standing and rancorous mud-slinging won’t replace substantive policy alternatives. Americans displeased by the current leadership deserve a clear and compelling competing agenda that they can evaluate on the merits.
America cannot and will not give up on itself. If, metaphorically, its leaders have to go back in time to study how effectively the country once paced global development economically, militarily, culturally and ideologically, I believe they will find a way. They have to. As Senator Evan Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana commented, “If Scott Brown’s victory wasn’t a wake-up call (for our party) then we may never wake up.” Worse, if petty politics continue to freeze America’s ability to innovate, attract capital, recruit scientists and other necessary human resources, its leaders will wake up to discover that much of the rest of the world has passed them by. But that’s another movie, Baby!
Lyon (Lenny) Roth is a senior executive at an international wealth management firm and a member of Ben Gurion University's Board of Governors.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on February 11, 2010
© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2010