Washington – Failure of political leadership knows no party. The past few days have offered an unfortunate demonstration of this sad maxim: House Speaker John Boehner ducking his appropriate role in countering the belief that President Obama is a Muslim, and the president himself, once again ducking a leadership role in dealing with the nation's fiscal crisis.
Boehner first. On NBC's “Meet the Press,” David Gregory pressed the Ohio Republican about a recent focus group of Iowa Republicans in which 11 of 26 indicated that they think Obama is Muslim.
“As the speaker of the House, as a leader, do you not think it's your responsibility to stand up to that kind of ignorance?” Gregory asked. Good question.
“David, it's not my job to tell the American people what to think,” Boehner replied. “Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people.” Bad answer — and Gregory didn't let up. He made seven more attempts — an eternity in television time — to get Boehner to acknowledge some responsibility to lead his misguided troops.
Gregory: “I mean, you are the leader in Congress and you're not standing up to obvious facts and saying, 'These are facts. If you don't believe that, it's nonsense.'”
Boehner: “I just outlined the facts as I understand them. I believe that the president is a citizen. I believe the president is a Christian. I'll take him at his word.”
Gregory: “But that kind of ignorance about whether he's a Muslim doesn't concern you?”
Boehner: “Listen, the American people have the right to think what they want to think. I can't — it's not my job to tell them.”
But of course it is, and Boehner tells them all the time. Spending should be cut. The health care law is a job-killer. Obama shouldn't be re-elected. And unlike the proper level of taxation or the preferable political party, Obama's citizenship and religion are matters of fact, not opinion. The new speaker simply finds it inconvenient to tell people who just put him in that office that they are flat-out wrong. Indeed, Boehner and colleagues are the grateful beneficiaries of mass delusions about Obama's citizenship and religion. Birthers vote — and not for Democrats.
This may help explain why the official Republican acknowledgment of Obama's religion feels so churlish. “The president says he's a Christian. I accept him at his word,” Boehner said, echoing the grudging formulation used by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?” Benjamin Disraeli is reputed to have said. Imagine what the British prime minister could have done with the benefit of focus groups and poll-tested messaging.
Obama's leadership-ducking budget can be understood in two ways, neither especially flattering. The more charitable interpretation of the president's decision not to tackle entitlement spending or the tax code is that the administration decided that leadership, in this case, was not good strategy.
Administration officials argue that spelling out any specifics on say, Social Security, would diminish, not increase, any chance of bipartisan agreement. House Republicans in particular, this argument goes, need to work through their own internal divisions and calm their new tea party wing before they are ready to talk reality-based compromise.
The bully pulpit has little value, though, if you are not prepared to stand up and preach. It's hard to get much accomplished in Washington without the public education and popular pressure that can only be generated by presidential involvement. And Obama himself has acknowledged that his hands-off approach to laying out specifics in the health care debate allowed the process to founder.
There's a cynical interpretation of Obama's diffidence — the president and his advisers concluded that, given the long odds against forging a grand bargain with Republicans on taxes and entitlements, it made little sense for Obama to take big risks. Proposing unpopular cuts in Social Security would alienate the president's already restive base. Daring to suggest what the debt commission concluded — that even with spending cuts the country needs to generate more tax revenue than the current code will provide — would open the president to Republican accusations of being a rabid tax-raiser.
The message of the budget boils down to: We'll talk in 2013, assuming I'm still around.
Which brings me to another apt quote attributed to Disraeli. “Courage,” he said, “is the rarest of all qualities to be found in public life.” But even the canny 19th-century prime minister might have been appalled by the cowardly state of politics in 21st-century America.