Monday, November 09, 2009

New Ideas Now Under Old Management

When it comes down to brass tacks, people in positions of authority seem often to be indebted to one of two sorts of leadership styles. Some are devotees of the process school, whereby one embraces wholly a highly regimented and specific system, and in so doing does not deviate from it for any reason. Process managers doggedly cling to a prefabricated strategy until resolutions and goals are finally reached. Other people are of the idea/visionary school, and for them the big picture and a more creative means to an end are far more important. While process people are frequently exasperating to idea people and vice versa, what is often forgotten is that there is a need for both of them in the big tent. However, when the organizational structure of a political party is overwhelmingly dominated by process politicians, the discrepancy between the two is not only jarring and highly visible, it is also demoralizing and insipid.

Many of us would prefer a more dynamic leader in charge of both the House and the Senate. I am among the many who appreciate a scrappy fighter who loves hand-to-hand combat and will not be bullied or cajoled into submission by anyone. Within the Democratic party a few names fit that profile, but their overall limitations in leadership capacities keep them from reaching a wide audience. For whatever reason, both Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid---perhaps Reid more than his House colleague---are beholden to process and the minutia of their jobs more than inspirational speeches, long range planning, or dramatic legislative success. In contrast with President Obama, who is the consummate big idea politician, they both look tepid and dull by contrast. When the base clamors for red meat, they are instead provided with bloodless Democratic leadership. Thus, it is any wonder that approval ratings for Congress and for both the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader are exceptionally low? Nor is it any wonder that Harry Reid is facing the fight of his life in 2010 and that Nancy Pelosi has proved a huge disappointment to those who, like me, welcomed the arrival of the first female Speaker?

Having read the news today, I did note that with the passage of the House's version of Health Care Reform Pelosi was forced to twist some arms and hurt some feelings, one notices this is hardly a role she relishes and one she performs only when absolutely necessary. She and Reid both seem to prefer behind-closed-doors private negotiation and shrink from direct confrontation. If I believed in that sort of methodology or in its inerrant ability to achieve results, I would be less skeptical, but I know that a balance between recklessly throwing forearms and elbows and sweet talk is what usually translates to legislative success and does not create enemies in the process. Forgive me for believing that political people-pleasers might consider alternate careers as well as those who try to be everything to everyone. Compromise ought to be empowering, not debasing.

What we might want to ask ourselves is why so many process legislators exist in the Democratic party in the first place. One explanation is that they were forced to take the path of least resistance while out of power for twelve years and in so doing concede ideological territory to the Republican majority. Post-1994, the party was at its weakest point in decades and hardly fired up and ready to go. Back then, Barack Obama was an obscure law professor who had yet to run for a single elected office. Though certainly no one at that point would have ever speculated in print or in conversation as to whether or not the Democratic party was dead, to many of us, it did certainly feel that way. Democrats shifted to a prevent defense kind of strategy, whereby they sought to stem the bleeding and in so doing, ensure that the liberal stalwarts and left-leaning centrists did not get voted out. What this did, however, is concede the middle to the Republicans, who continued to make steady, solid gains with moderates and independents. Years of failure and failed policy cannot be easily overcome by two successful election cycles. To be sure, ideology and party identification calcifies slowly but once set, it is difficult to melt away.

Although this is now 2009, you'd scarcely notice it if you examined the conventional wisdom of the, need I state the obvious here, majority party. It's one thing to play like one is behind, but it's quite another thing to not act like one deserves to be number one. At the moment, the Republican party may be in tatters, but one cannot deny that there is a certain defiant spirit to the right-wing base at the moment that I never saw in the aftermath of 1994, nor even in 2002. That it took a charismatic, genius public speaker with an inspirational message combined with highly incompetent incumbent President to bring that perfect storm to Category 5 status reveals some very key limitations within our goals and expectations. Electing a President promising transformational reform is not sufficient. We must also elect stronger, better, more effective Representatives and Senators, too. We know, now more than ever, that a President can propose anything, but he or she cannot vote and cannot through force of will break up logjams or counter the inertia of committee and counter-productive partisan posturing.

Process is beholden to policy wonkery and, rest assured, I do not deny the importance of knowing the existing framework, also. The best Senators, for example, are masters of that chamber's rules and in so doing utilize their encyclopedia knowledge of said fact to push legislation in the direction they feel is best. However, process can also result in stubborn inflexibility and a wanton disregard towards changing course when what is being tried clearly is not working. Process individuals often feel utterly rudderless and lost when their carefully formulated theories prove insufficient or ill-equipped in a changing environment. Complacency in any form is anathema to any movement or any organization. What some fail to understand is that reform is a constant process with no end because those who oppose reform constantly redraw the battle lines to suit their own desires. My own hope is that we may have recognized finally that letting things get this bad for so long provides us with challenges so large and so looming that even getting the minimum passed and enacted provides a supreme challenge. Had we not buried our head in the sand all these years, our plates and portions would be of much more manageable size. Above all, we cannot and must not ever assume for an instant that victory is owed to us based on moral high ground or that any battle can be won so conclusively that we have nothing else to do but swap combat stories and reminisce about the good old days.

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