Vail Daily column: Building bridges with bargaining
October 19, 2013
Loud-mouth 1970s TV anchorman Ron Burgundy — aka comedian Will Ferrell — sells the Dodge Durango. He's assertive, opinioned and a know-it-all. "He's very much like Dodge," asserts Olivier Francois, who heads Chrysler's marketing. "He is unapologetic. He is irreverent. He has a great deal of attitude."
What's effective in getting costumers to buy the Durango hasn't worked for right-wing Republicans. They adopted a similar hauteur to defund the Affordable Care Act, partially shuddering the federal government, freezing the debt ceiling and pushing Uncle Sam into possible bankruptcy.
Such Ron Burgundy bluster, personified in Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, has sunk the GOP's popularity. Most Americans feel jerked on a plunging rollercoaster. National monuments were closed. Government social services were disrupted. Citizens were ashamed because slain soldiers' military families were denied death benefits.
The Wall Street Journal's Editorial Board in its Oct. 16 "Review and Outlook" blamed Republicans for this countdown to economic catastrophe. "This is the quality of thinking — or lack thereof — that has afflicted many GOP conservatives from the beginning of this budget showdown. They picked a goal they couldn't achieve in defunding ObamaCare, and then they picked a means they couldn't politically sustain by pursuing a long government shutdown and threatening to blow through the debt limit."
This past week, I visited the Rayburn Congressional Office Building and a deserted Capitol, a scene caused by many furloughed government workers and canceled tourist tours. After Republican Speaker John Boehner opened a House session, he quickly left, as if backtracking from a partial government shutdown and a scary debt crisis.
The GOP might benefit from reviewing how former House Speaker Sam Rayburn struck bargains and built bridges over deep partisan divides. Serving in the House from 1913 to 1961, he established a record 17 years as House Speaker.
Democrat Rayburn adjusted to becoming minority leader from that of Speaker in 1952, after Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower's landslide presidential victory gave the GOP control of the House.
Then Representative Tip O'Neill, Massachusetts's colorful lawmaker, recounted his first Democratic caucus. Rayburn controlled the meeting. He got results, honing compromise rather than perfecting Sen. Cruz's politics of confrontation. "We're in the minority now," wily Rayburn admitted to the caucus. "But we're still going to be helpful and constructive. Remember, any jackass can kick over a barn door. It takes a carpenter to build one." Often salty and determined, Rayburn remembered the good book's strategy, to "put away anger, wrath, malice, slander and foul talk from your mouth" (Colossians 3:7).
Ironic that the donkey is the Democratic Party's mascot, but Republicans bray like a jackass as they kick government closed and stumble towards default on its debt load.
Besides touring the Capitol during the shutdown, I visited the Gettysburg battlefield to prepare for the 150th anniversary on Nov. 19 of Lincoln's address. Dean of the Gettysburg guides, who led tours for 43 years and whose great-grandfather farmed where the battle raged, rehearsed Pickett's Charge. He believes Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered the assault across open ground against withering blasts from Union cannon because, against great odds, he won previous battles. Lee took a risk and paid for it with defeat, causing the Civil War's turning-point.
Sen. Ted Cruz is smart like Lee but overreached, thinking his anti-Affordable Care Act crusade would triumph. Now he's limping in defeat, ostracized from GOP rank and file. He refers to the movie "Braveheart," commanding shocked colleagues who have been wounded by widespread public disapproval to "Hold! Hold! Hold!"
Mel Gibson's 13th century Scottish warrior William Wallace shouts this order as enemies attack. What Cruz fails to mention is how the English slaughtered the Scots. William Wallace was drawn and quartered, a gruesome death comparable to the Texas senator's gutted plan to dismantle ObamaCare.
Michael Medved, conservative radio talk-show host, warned of impending doom if Cruz and his gang of Tea Party crusaders prevailed. Writing with obvious disdain, Medved described how " … too many conservatives choose to embrace the role of sure losers. To use a military analogy, there is no glory in charging recklessly up a hill when you know your forces will be mowed down by enemy fire before reaching the top. Glory comes in making the enemy lose.
"The GOP shouldn't pursue noble defeat while standing on principle. You build momentum for a movement by achieving legislative victories, not by racking up high-profile losses" ("Countdown to GOP Self-Destruction," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 29).
Political opposition didn't place a noose around the GOP. Politicians lacking Sam Rayburn's savvy hung themselves using misguided policy. Cruz tripped the trap door.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive.