Suddenly, Washington Works
There are plenty of reasons to be discouraged. On my list are the failure to find common ground to give the children of people who have come to the United States illegally an earned pathway to citizenship, the failure to reach agreement on an omnibus budget, and the continued unwillingness to face the facts of a warming planet.
All these factors—plus the intolerance of the extremes of both of our major political parties have shown toward compromise, the generalized fear that Americans are no longer capable of sustained shared sacrifice, and the flood of tens of millions of dollars in new money into campaigns—are dispiriting truths. A close look at any of these can still drive an optimist to despair.
On the other hand, a close look at individual acts can be a cause for optimism. Consider the votes of Senators Coburn, Conrad, and Durbin in support of therecommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Debt Commission. Or the earlier vote of Senator Lindsay Graham in support of the confirmation of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. Or the vote Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina cast in support of the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell.
President Obama said that the lame-duck session of the 111th Congress proves that "we're not doomed to endless gridlock." He will be proven right only if we recognize what our leaders must do to serve the national interest. For the hardest lesson of all from the past six weeks is that we the people must temper our own demands if we expect our leaders to be successful.
The burden is on us to urge them to be as partisan as their hearts dictate they must—but be as practical as their heads tell them they should. If we do, we could see more of what we happened in the lame duck: More action and fewer words.
Bob Kerrey served three years in the United States Navy. His career in public service also includes being the governor and U.S. senator from Nebraska during the 1980s and 1990s. In 2002, Kerrey published a widely praised memoir, When I Was A Young Man. He has been president of The New School since 2001.