05 September 2009

Why Is The "C" Word So Offensive?

It shouldn't bother anyone, but it does. We don't like to acknowledge it even exists, and when it becomes impossible to ignore, we're quick to dismiss it as vulgar. Well, I'm here to tell you that compromise isn't evil.

You might recall the Republican primary election campaigns and debates of last year, and if so you might have noticed that many of the would-be candidates tried to associate themselves with the legacy of President Ronald Reagan. For many, President Reagan's legacy is either one of being tough on foreign policy and favorable for the anti-tax crowd; for others, he was a hapless puppet whose domestic policies made life even harder for the downtrodden.

Strangely, and nearly ironically, the president himself would likely have wanted a different legacy than either of the prevailing interpretations. Ronald Reagan, above all else, championed collaboration and working together to improve things. You can debate how successful he was, and just whose circumstances really benefitted from his work all you want, but he sincerely believed that his agenda would better not only our society, but through the political equivalent of the chaos theory, the world itself. To achieve this, the Great Communicator did two things better than nearly anyone else.

First, President Reagan excelled at rallying his own supporters. Sure, you think; it's easy for a Republican president to get and keep the support of Republicans in Congress. Granted, Republicans have had an easier go of maintaining solidarity in the last few decades than the Democrats, but it's hardly a lock. To be successful in this, a president has to have an agenda that speaks to the wants and needs of enough people that they feel included, while avoiding the sort of watered-down concepts that can be dismissed as pandering to the lowest common denominator. Because these men and women then have to go back home and find a way of convincing the citizenry at home--who holds the power over their employment--that what the president is trying to accomplish is worthwhile.

President George W. Bush likened himself often to President Reagan, and in the sense of being the leader of his own party he was largely correct. It wasn't until his second term of office that Mr. Bush vetoed any legislation, and while his fall from popularity by the end of his second term was so dramatic he was largely excluded from the 2008 GOP Convention, he was still plenty capable of shepherding through some items on his to-do list.

Where things have gone awry, though, is the second--and possibly more important--part of Mr. Reagan's skills. Rather than running roughshod over his political adversaries, Mr. Reagan emphasized clever maneuvering and was open to compromise. Eighty percent of something was far more valuable to him than one hundred percent of nothing, he would tell his cabinet and party members. Each time he set out to address an issue, he knew what his ultimate goal was while acknowledging that it was unrealistic to expect. So, he shrewdly set about pushing society toward his goal. He couldn't force the Soviets to surrender overnight, so he chipped away at them. He was vocal in his condemnation of their unacceptable behavior, while keeping open a diplomatic door. Other presidents might have smelled the scent of collapse and taken a more aggressive line, to accelerate the inevitable. That may well have pushed the Kremlin into a more reckless approach, believing it better to go down fighting and take someone with them, than to accept that their social model had failed.

Somewhere along the line, though, our political arena has characterized compromise as an admission of weakness to be avoided at all costs. Each socio-political issue expands the gulf between the two parties, moving us farther into a world where he who shouts loudest destroys everyone else. Politics has long been a dirty word in our society, but it used to be with a sense of wry humor. Now, there's an earnest animosity behind that resentment.

What am I suggesting, then, you ask? Simple. I say we go back to the Gipper. His approach to every issue was the same: Ask where things stood, and then ask what options existed to improve them. That can still help us, but there's something important we need to do to pave the way for our elected officials to re-engage in that style of politicking. We need to quit watching cable news talk shows.

Wait, what? You're telling me the way to make politics better is to ignore them? Isn't that dangerous? I mean, isn't that like saying your approach to fighting crime is to ignore criminals? Not at all. But see, cable news talk shows are as much a slave to the ratings game as sitcoms. Believe me, the moment Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly drop too far in viewership, they'll be replaced. Trust me, they're aware of that fact: that's why they work very hard at keeping their viewership. To do it, they have carved out a very prominent and fierce spot on the political sidelines, working a role that is part cheerleader, part referee and part commentator.

Here's the problem, though. In the 1980s, when President Reagan had to deal with press scrutiny, they were just referees and commentators. They weren't cheerleaders. Every journalist had the same information to work with, and the competition was to be the first to deliver it. TV drastically reduced the madness, because it's much easier to get immediate news reports on the airwaves than into print. Now, thanks to advances in technology, that race is effectively over. If you're not the first to report something, it's okay because your report goes up within a few moments of the competition's.

So, if being first isn't as important as it once was, what is? Well, being the one to "tell it like it is" has become the thing. The late Walter Cronkite reported the facts; his journalistic descendants cannot merely tell us things. They must interpret those facts for us, because that's what makes their shows stand out from the network news. And, in the talk show arena, all bets are off; people are regularly derided in arguments so lacking in civilized decorum that few parents would approve of their young offspring seeing or hearing such behavior for fear it would shatter their disciplinary efforts to mold polite, cooperative children.

Simply put, we don't need someone to "tell it like it is." What we need is someone to tell us where things stand, and what options are being considered to change things. Tell us what we believe the likely outcomes of those options are, and let us discuss them. Instead, the Olbermanns and O'Reillys are not just cheerleaders, they're on the field of play! Their interpretations and drawn conclusions are taken as facts--rather than as interpretations and drawn conclusions of facts--by many of their viewers.

Don't believe me? How about the fact that studies have shown that 75% of FOX News viewers believe the "death panel myth" about President Obama's health care reform efforts? In President Reagan's era, such a myth would only have been given any consideration by someone in the government itself; only the tabloids would have entertained the notion of publishing such accusations. Today's world, however, invites and even rewards such wanton presentation under the premise of "telling it like it is."

Until we stop listening to interpretations of facts and return to listening to facts and forming our own interpretations, things will only continue to deteriorate. President Obama has proclaimed a desire to cooperate with the Republicans in Congress, and I believe him. I'm sure the Republicans would like to cooperate with him, and find a way to address these issues that have gotten entirely out of hand. We need to get the cable news talk show hosts off the field of play and back onto the sidelines where they belong, and then win one for the Gipper.

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