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Volkskrant, The Netherlands

American Politicians Can No Longer
Flatter, Charm or Take a Step Back

By Paul Brill

A cold war rages in America between the Democrats and the Republicans, writes Volkskrant-columnist Paul Brill: "Such conflict is difficult to unite with the unique responsibility that both parties attribute to their country."

Translated By Nikki Rosenberg

5 January 2013

Edited by Kath­leen Weinberger


The Netherlands - Volkskrant - Original Article (Dutch)

Everyone can say a curse word, but giving a subtle insult is something entirely different – especially in politics. Someone who excelled in this art was Clare Booth Luce, one of the most colorful figures on the American political stage of the previous century. Booth Luce, a member of the House of Representatives for the Republican Party and American ambassador in Rome for President Eisenhower in the ‘40s, had much going for her: beauty, an artistic background, wealth (she was married to media tycoon Henry Luce) and a sharp mind. She produced frequent, memorable one-liners. When a Republican colleague, who was not very appreciated by her, transferred to the Democratic Party, her comment was: “Fine. Now the intelligence level for both parties will rise. *”

Compare this to the collision that John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House, had with Harry Reid, leader of the Democratic faction in the Senate, a week ago. I am focusing on the reconstructions that The Washington Post and web magazine Politico made of the last, feverish negotiations that took place regarding the agreement, which prevented a catastrophic fall over the fiscal cliff. The two men were invited to a common consultation in the White House and met in the lobby. Boehner, still provoked by the harsh words Reid spoke a few days earlier in the Senate concerning his performance, snarled at him: “Go fuck yourself.” When the bewildered Reid said something along the lines of “Excuse me?”, Boehner snarled again: “Go fuck yourself.”

This is not what you call an example of superior irony. What makes this even more hurtful is that in conversations with faction associates, the Speaker stated earlier how proud he was to have put Reid in his place.


Of course, I do not want to say that the past manners of the leading politicians in Washington were more refined than now. The American political game was never a pastime for gentle souls. As foreman for the Democrats in the Senate, Lyndon Johnson demonstrated this as well, as his acclaimed biographer Robert Caro tastefully describes. The difference was that he could — at the same time flatter, charm and, above all, take a step back in order to do business with the Republican inhabitant of the White House (Eisenhower).

It seems the contemporary generation of leading politicians has lost this capacity. The Republican faction in the House is held hostage by the ideological quibblers on the right side, for whom the word compromise is a synonym for defeat. Meanwhile, Boehner lacks the authority and the courage to put an end to this. In turn, President Obama has gone to great lengths to keep to his electoral promise that tax benefits for the wealthiest Americans come to an end. He has largely succeeded and clearly had a political victory. However, it is not one similar to a Pyrrhic victory, as the limited agreement only provides a pause for breath and does not solve the problem of the continuously increasing American debt.


That problem will only become more apparent when the statutory debt ceiling comes into sight, probably within the two months. And to think that it is mostly thanks to the two veterans —Vice President Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell, the Republican faction leader in the Senate — that the United States have not already slipped into a dangerous abysm. Yet they could not have prevented the fact that the political climate in Washington has now become even bleaker than it ever was before.

With a bit of malicious pleasure, The Economist characterizes the almost fatal dance along the side of the fiscal cliff as “America’s European moment.” Americans speak disapprovingly about the European inability to take on the Euro crisis; they are now, as it were, in the same situation. Politicians seem impotent to target problems at their root. The response is therefore limited.

A parallel between the American and the European economic discomfort is artfully conceived, but it does not get you far. The pile of debt that the U.S. faces is made of something completely different than the European — not to mention the differences in institutional context! The bandwidth for stout decision-making is in fact a lot smaller in Brussels than in Washington; Angela Merkel’s cautious leadership will not change that soon. Those who pretend that we can easily take a different approach will only bring further problems for the European project.

Whereas Europe needs to find a balance between the national and the communal domain, the U.S. needs a revival of moderate means. Currently, there almost rages a cold war between the Democrats and Republicans. Such conflict is difficult to unite with the unique responsibility that both parties attribute to their country —and is not an unnecessarily luxury in the contemporary international constellation.

*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quote could not be verified.



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