At its birthing the Super Committee seemed to have it all – bi-partisan endorsement from both houses of Congress, senior and generally respected bi-partisan leaders, a sense of urgency and a hopeful nation, if not exactly hanging on its every move, at least positioned to accept its verdict.
As was probably all too predictable, it came to ashes. No one – Democrat or Republican – was willing to risk the wrath of the most unreasonable in their party. The entire idea of a Super Committee was badly flawed, possibly even unconstitutional, but what to expect from a Congress that can only think as far ahead as the next CNN debate or next week’s Sunday talking head shows?
It hasn’t always been so. In the spring of 1964 it seemed to many observers utterly impossible that the United States Senate, still dominated by southern conservatives who held key committee positions, could possibly join the House of Representatives and pass a civil rights bill. But, in 1964, the U.S. Senate had real leaders: Mike Mansfield of Montana for the Democrats and Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois for the Republicans. Utilizing his mastery of Senate rules, Mansfield first prevented the civil rights bill, a legislative priority of President Lyndon Johnson, from being referred to the southern-dominated Judiciary Committee where the wily former copper mucker from Butte knew that it would die a quiet death.
With the bill on the Senate floor for consideration – and filibuster – Mansfield patiently puffed on his pipe, let the Senate work it’s will and effectively involved his Republican counterpart in every step of strategy. By the time the bill passed after a 54 day talkfest, Dirksen thought the whole thing had been his idea. Mansfield used quiet persuasion, senatorial courtesy, time and history to pass the bill with 73 “yes” votes.
Mansfield’s aides objected that their boss had let Dirksen have too much of the credit, even going so far as to – perish the thought in today’s Washington – walk to Dirksen’s office for meetings and press availabilities. Dirksen made the daily comments to the press. Dirksen was quoted. Dirksen was engineering the strategy. Or so it seemed. Mansfield even stood in the back when LBJ signed the landmark legislation in order to stay out of the celebratory photographs. The great Senate leader explained to his staff that he needed Dirksen more than he needed the publicity. That is how history used to be made, at least once in a while, in the United States Senate.
It has been the good fortune of the United States of America when faced with moments of great challenge, indeed even peril, to have emerge from our messy politics the right leader at the right time. Would independence have come in the first place without a Washington? Would the Union have survived without a Jackson and a Lincoln? Would a Great Depression and a world war been wiped without a Roosevelt? The times we face are hardly as tough as the Civil War or waging World War II, but the lack of real leadership – leadership in the broad public interest – has rarely seemed as lacking as it does today.
A real test of leadership – political or otherwise – is to have the courage to go against the dominate direction, especially the dominate direction of your friends. Some would argue that the folks on the Super Committee never had a chance since the Congress is such a toxic place and the influence of those with single and very special agendas so dominate our politics. Maybe. Then again, if you go back over the record of the last several months of effort to craft a budget and debt deal, you’ll find that neither side really tried to get a deal. The talking points were so predictable, so scripted, that this show might as well have followed the Kardashians on reality TV.
As Politico’s Mike Allen noted on Sunday, the last time the Supers met as a committee was on November 1st! Allen, who admits he was initially optimistic, as I was, that the group would find some common ground, now concludes the whole thing was a bit of a sham.
The deficit remains. The nation’s fiscal house is not only not in order, but remains in a seriously fragile state. All political eyes, meanwhile, are singlemindedly fixed on 2012 and how to carve the narrowest possible advantage from the politics of the moment. Yet a serious sense remains that the broad middle of the country is truly ready for serious leadership; leadership that takes risks, makes decisions, talks truth to the fringes of both parties and compromises with the other side.
Is that person – persons – out there? Let’s hope so. The nation yearns for the kind of leadership Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen once provided. We need it again.