This is not the Congress where I worked in the '70s and '80s. This is not the same caliber of leader, especially on the Republican side, that our country has been accustomed to over decades. In the past, people like Eric Cantor and Michele Bachmann were marginalized. They were not respected by their own party, let alone rewarded; they were relegated to the back bench.
It would have been a joke if someone predicted that a cable queen like Bachmann could raise $14 million for a House race or that South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson could raise over $2 million in a matter of weeks as an obscure member, after screaming at the president, “You lie!” at a State of the Union address. The notion that someone such as Bachmann would be so popular in polls and be in a position to win Iowa would have been unthinkable a few short years ago.
But more important than these personalities and their extreme positions is what they have done to the Republican party.
We have a unique opportunity to truly turn this nation around. President Obama, and it appears Speaker of the House John Boehner, were ready to truly change the direction of the country. In the past, I believe we could have made it work—with a Reagan, an O'Neill, a Mansfield, a Baker, a Dirksen. It is a long list.
But, sadly, the absolutism of no revenues—every tax cut, even temporary—is now permanent. Taxes can only go down... sort of like housing prices can only go up! Pledges to Grover Norquist are absurd, shortsighted, and counterproductive.
I truly wonder whether the extreme wing of the Republican Party wants to solve our problem or just play politics with it; is this just beat Obama and the democrats at all costs, the country be damned? Or is it an adherence to an ideology that is inflexible, a fear of breaking some "pledge?"
Regardless, the over $4 trillion budget fix is achievable—not popular—but achievable. It takes both parties to accept political responsibility. I wonder, though, if you asked a Tea Party member or a liberal democrat, "Would you sacrifice your seat in Congress to achieve real fiscal responsibility, to turn the nation around?" would they say "yes?" After all, why did they run for office in the first place? To be serious, to accomplish big things, I would hope.
A number of years ago a group of us were with Sen. Paul Sarbanes. He was retiring after a long and distinguished career in the House and Senate. One person asked him what was the biggest change he had seen in his 40 years. Sarbanes said that people come into office now with their minds made up; they are afraid to change or to listen to the other side. He pointed out that when he first came to the Senate, there used to be real debate on the issues of our time and that minds would be changed. There was a different spirit of cooperation and compromise and true listening. Relationships across the aisle were forged. There was give and take. There was an opportunity to come to an agreement without a total win-lose mentality.
If there ever was a time in our nation's history to return to that spirit, it is now.