By Harlan Ullman
The only downside to writing a Wednesday column reoccurs every fourth November and the day after America’s presidential elections. Few sensible columnists who go to press early on that Wednesday wants to risk wrongly predicting the results. The lesson of 1948 when a major Chicago newspaper headline trumpeted “Dewey Wins” over President Harry Truman will not be readily forgotten. And fifty-two years later, when it took weeks for the Supreme Court to declare George W. Bush president reinforces the need for certain editorial modesty.
Despite avoiding these predictive pitfalls (although my hunch is that Barack Obama eaks out a narrow Electoral College victory), no matter who wins or loses, the next president must confront persistent and even intractable challenges and dangers to the United States. Unfortunately, mention of the largest collective danger to the well-being of this and many other nations has been missing in action throughout this seemingly unending and tawdry political campaign.
Jobs, the economy and its repair remain the highest priorities for the next president. The Arab Spring, radical Islam, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Afghanistan and Iraq have been raised in the largely understated foreign policy debate although Mitt Romney’s intent to declare Russia “our number one geopolitical foe” and brand China as a currency manipulator could liven up this otherwise diminished focus on national security if he is elected. And those who see global warming as the canary in the mine and the single most pressing issue for mankind remain disappointed.
These and other subjects are very important. But none ultimately will prove to be the decisive issue on which success or failure will rest. That issue is the failure of governments to govern. Unless or until broken government can be fixed, solutions to other pressing problems will not work.
This extent of governmental failure ranges from Afghanistan to Zambia with almost everyone else in between. In Europe, failure of broken government has been exacerbated by the European Union’s impingement on national sovereignty further impelled by the Euro crisis and the financial travail of the southern tier of states. China is putting in place a new leadership as corruption of the elite, sluggish economic growth and the pressure of sustaining an underclass that may number close to half a billion souls would test any government. And within the greater Middle East and South Asia, governments have not been up to the task of meeting the needs of their publics.
Yes, both Obama and Romney have promised to change the atmosphere in Washington, seeking consensus and, dare we say, even compromise. However, neither has explained how he would govern and in specific terms how he would repair a government that is badly broken. Recognition of what has caused government to break is a crucial and yet missing component of any solution. And, even with full recognition, a political system based on divided government through checks and balances among the three branches may not be sustainable when both political parties have been captured by the more extreme elements making bipartisanship or compromise virtually impossible to obtain. Unless or until this failure of government is taken head on, the next president may be wasting his and our time.
Amending the Constitution is not a short or even a longer-term solution as the process was designed to allow thoughtful and thus lengthy consideration. Neutralizing the toxic environment and animosity that infects both sides of the aisle in Congress and between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will not occur quickly if at all barring a crisis of incredible proportion that somehow unites America. Hence, relying on slogans and promises “to make things better” is equivalent to curing cancer with aspirin.
What then could the next president do? First, he must face up to the overarching need to repair a broken government. The inaugural address is the opportunity for candor and honesty and for the promise to make repair of government his number one priority.
Second, a bipartisan cabinet with individuals of unique experience and achievement must be selected.
Third and most courageously, on taking the oath of office, the president must cut his party ties and step down as party leader no matter how much criticism and approbation he will attract.
Fourth, other steps such as making the Congressional leadership part of National Security Council deliberations and employing the vice president as president of the Senate to rally bipartisanship in Congress are essential. Of course, given the understandable cynicism over failure to honor past political agreements, all of this will fail unless the third rail of controlling budgets and reducing debt can be guaranteed and enforced through a balanced and fair measure of tax increases and spending cuts.
Will this work? The answer is probably not. But the alternative is a failing America. Can we risk that?
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at Washington DC’s Atlantic Council.