Pondering Political Brinksmanship and the Public Trust

            Two items concerning the current character of our national political conversation caught my attention this week. They caused me first to reflect on the issue of when hyper-partisanship can or should become an ethical concern. Secondly, I began to ponder the appropriate reach of our legislators’ oaths to serve the United States Constitution and not their particular party’s quest for power.

            The first item appeared in our local newspaper, The Roanoke Times, on May 20th under the arresting headline, “Top Democrats say Republicans are stalling the economic recovery to hurt President Barack Obama’s re-election chances.” The story was much more subtle than the headline and it concerned House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to raise the issue once more of using the nation’s debt ceiling as a cudgel to obtain deep cuts in social service spending when the current limit expires once again in coming months. Given how close to default the United States came in the last iteration of this so-called “debate” and the anxiety that protracted process created for corporations and the markets alike, it seemed substantively a very strange step for the Speaker to take.

            There was therefore, the Times reporter suggested, a certain reasonableness to Democratic claims that such purplish rhetoric was likely contributing to corporate wariness to invest and the result was surely a more sluggish economy than might otherwise have obtained. While it is unclear whether the Speaker, who effectively lost control of the House during the last debate on this topic, genuinely intends to place the nation in such jeopardy once again to attain otherwise to-date unacceptable GOP political claims, is unclear. But I learned in a second item on May 21st that he was perceived by the so-called “chattering class” (television and radio political program pundits and hosts) to have adroitly attained his “real” aim in any case: his proposed course (taken at his weekly press conference May 17) was, according to ABC and NPR political analyst Cokie Roberts, to change the talk shows’ focus from the President’s recent marks concerning Romney’s work as a financial executive and to the nation’s debt and deficit. Over the ensuing weekend, all of the news shows took up the topic of debt and deficit accordingly.

            Roberts argued Boehner had neatly attained his goal, serious or not, and as such, had well served his Party and the nascent Romney national campaign. Typically, Roberts’ measure was entirely process-focused and tactical in character. She is part of a now decades old establishment that includes media elites and campaign operatives. The pundits follow the tactics of the operatives, who seek partisan advantage for their employers (new and incumbent candidates) by creating appropriate media “buzz.” The only calculus campaign consultants follow ultimately is “what works” and they are hired (or not) in the next political season based largely on their perceived win-loss record. Much has been made of the willingness of these individuals, and the elected leaders and candidates they advise, to employ negative and misleading ads to their purposes. While these have gained academic and some media attention, they are surely not in short supply as I write. Nonetheless, as Roberts’ own reaction attests, they are not often the stuff that garners the attention of media pundits.

            Accordingly, I was struck by Roberts’ “Atta-boy” stance regarding the Speaker, and her argument that because Boehner had largely attained what she took to be his primary goal, his action should be considered “smart politics.” I had an opposite reaction and found myself wondering instead if we are now losing the capacity to focus on anything but tactical advantage in our politics, irrespective of partisanship. While Boehner’s comments reflected at least the Tea Party element of his House majority, if he did indeed use the specter of another protracted debate risking national default purely for perceived short-term campaign tactical advantage, I wonder about the ethical implications of his step for two reasons.

            First, Boehner surely knows the effect of such discussions on the nation’s markets and companies. American CEOs have not been shy in sharing how difficult they found the nation’s last brush with default to be. Whatever its appeal to the most extreme elements of his electoral coalition, Boehner’s brinksmanship rhetoric was surely not serving our nation’s collective interest in moving forward to a more robust recovery.

            Secondly, and more importantly, whether pressed by Democrats or Republicans, when does such potentially injurious partisan rhetoric cross over into unethical practice and violate our elected leaders’ pledge to serve the Constitution and nation? In short, I find myself pondering the question of whether Speaker Boehner was not in fact violating his oath of office to serve the nation as he once again raised the question of default as a means to secure purely partisan aims. To my knowledge, none of the many talk show hosts raised this concern, nor did Roberts, and yet, it appears central if we are not simply collectively to lose our way and to rationalize virtually any step on the basis of perceived partisan tactical advantage in the quest for power. When do we consider the ethical and national (as opposed to partisan and short-term) portent of such actions as those the Speaker undertook? Is it not in fact reasonable to ask if the Speaker of the House has not now violated his oath of office by vowing to bring the nation once more to the potential of default to further what he takes to be the tactical political advantage of his party?

            My growing fear is that the combination of the advent of the permanent campaign, a large electoral consulting industry and a deeply ideological politics that countenances any action to gain perceived advantage vis-á-vis the hated “other” has brought us to a style of politics that can and will rationalize any step in its name, even when that may result in injury to the nation’s collective interest. Such would be a sad day indeed.