They Laughed When I Sat Down At The Table
There is a classic bit of copywriting by John Caples, first published in 1926, “They Laughed When I Sat Down At The Piano—But When I Started to Play!”
Our hero (Jack) is at a gathering, and the host has just performed a classical selection. He gets up, does a little Paderewski, dusts off and spins the stool, and sits down to perform. His friends expect a comedy act, because everyone knows Jack can’t play a note. But then, he launches into Moonlight Sonata and the crowd listens, rapt, and stunned. When it is over, “I found myself surrounded by excited faces. How my friends carried on! Men shook my hand -- wildly congratulated me -- pounded me on the back in their enthusiasm!”
Jack’s chopsticks-to-concerto secret was a correspondence course from the U.S. School of Music. Even more remarkably, both he and the school assured readers that no special talent was needed.
Caples was touching on something much bigger than a keyboard: the transformational myth. Women can go from duck to swan with new haircut and a few dabs of makeup. Men can unleash the beast with any number of items that populate my email spam box. A new life awaits those with right tools and the energy to pursue their dreams.
Of course, there’s a political metaphor here (you knew there would be.) We have always had plenty of ugly ducklings in government, but we seem to be outdoing ourselves in the woefully inadequate and senselessly destructive. More and more people seem to believe that no special talent, or knowledge, is needed. There are three key trends. The first is the rise of a Sarah Palin-type “common sense” populism, which is dismissive of hard data and relies on nostrums and slogans. The second is the ubiquity of opinion masquerading as fact. The third is a sort Gresham’s Law of politics, where the bad currency of the willfully ignorant and mindlessly aggressive pushes out the good of serious lawmakers. Public service just isn’t very attractive.
Which brings us to where we are right now, shut down and about to default, or to quote Woody Allen in a different context, between the horrible and the miserable. And not many people to fix it, because government is overrun by people who just aren’t up to the job, and don’t know it. They took the U.S. School of Music’s class on how to play the electoral cymbals, their neighbors tell them they sound really good, and they think they are ready to go solo (as a violinist) at Carnegie Hall.
But, deliberate, good lawmaking needs a variety of talents. The first is actual knowledge of the subject matter beyond slogans. A second is knowledge of self--you have to know your skillset. You can be a terrific administrator but a dull speechmaker. A great policy wonk but a little low on charisma. Or simply, a very smart and dedicated legislator, but a lousy negotiator.
And that is perfectly fine. Different tools for different jobs, so long as the institution of government contains all the necessary ingredients and they are properly deployed. Ultimately, the question becomes whether the leadership has the emotional intelligence to know when to delegate. It starts at the very top. Clinton was a political polymath—he could pretty much do it all, but Reagan, rather famously, knew his limits and when to send in his team. Both were successful.
Mr. Obama, I’m afraid, hasn’t quite grasped this. I think he still believes that the oratorical skills that took him the White House should carry the day at the negotiating table. What he misses is that the times are different, the opposition simply hates his guts (there is no point in mincing words) and he’s just not good at the give and take. The President is not a retail politician in any way. He needs to step aside, just a bit, and let others take the lead. Using other people’s talents is not a sign of weakness.
John Boehner, for different reasons, is even more of a disaster. Boehner, either through weakness or fatal misjudgment, has allowed himself to become the tool of the obstreperous and uninformed. He knows it, the majority of Republicans, both in and out of government also know it, but he doesn’t know how to deal with it. The simple fact is, when you let the omnivorous egomaniac Ted Cruz become de facto Speaker of the House, you have failed completely.
Fortunately, there are some glimpses of light. Five people have stepped forward. The first is Paul Ryan, who has managed, in an editorial published in the Wall Street Journal, to appear moderate in tone (his substance is another matter.) The other four are two pairs of Senators, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, currently planning to huddle together, and Susan Collins (Maine) and Patty Murray (Washington State) who have just had what amounted to a well-bred shouting match.
These four Senators are perfect for their jobs. McConnell and Reid are the same people; partisan, coldblooded gutter-fighters who know every inch of the chamber they rule over and the details people are (really) fighting over. Murray sits on the Appropriations Committee and is the 4th ranking Democrat in the Senate. Collins also serves on Appropriations, and is considered a “moderate” bridge.
There are two critical items that must be resolved.
The first is simply process. Can you let a minority hold hostage the operation of the government and the very creditworthiness of the nation to achieve political ends? The answer absolutely has to be in the negative. McConnell, who plans on being Senate Majority leader in 2015 and beyond, knows that. His desire to restore regular order is the key to resolving the process issue.
The second is policy. Obamacare is just one of countless policy items that were on the hit list of the GOP’s extortionist wing. Here is where Collins comes in, and why she and Murray were so much at odds. Collins tried very hard to broker a compromise, but the “compromise” was designed to satisfy conservatives in the Senate, mainly some fig- leafs with regard to Obamacare, and, more importantly, the retention of the sequester levels of spending for another six months in return for a short extension of the debt ceiling until January 31, 2014. Collins’ compromise breaches three key firewalls for the Democrats; it locks in sequestration levels that the Democrats only agreed to as a short-term measure in 2011, it confirms the effectiveness of extortion as a tactic on Obamacare and other items, and it sets the stage for a reprise in January, when the GOP can pull the same stunt again. Murray is upset because she knows that Collins used her “moderate” credibility to interest a handful of conservative Democrats (including Joe Manchin of West Virginia) in what is essentially partial win for the Tea Party and a big win for the GOP in general. Collins gets a lot for the GOP and gives almost nothing.
That’s why Murray called her out, and why Reid immediately rejected the plan, while, at the same time, praising Collins. If you had any doubts as to how good it is for the GOP, McConnell expressly embraced it on Sunday. So, it is dead, for now, but what Collins has actually accomplished is resetting the argument. It is up to McConnell and Reid to now hash out the details, but a ritual spanking of the Tea Party, less sequestration, more time on the debt ceiling, and maybe you have the outlines of a deal.
Tony Blair, on the occasion of his last speech as Prime Minster, said; “Some may belittle politics but we who are engaged in it know that it is where people stand tall. Although I know that it has many harsh contentions, it is still the arena that sets the heart beating a little faster. If it is, on occasions, the place of low skullduggery, it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes.”
Blair, like so many truly successful politicians, was an optimist. But the “pursuit of noble causes” begins with people sitting down at the piano to do the nation’s business. Let’s see if they can play. Jack’s story notwithstanding, talent would help a lot