This is not a perfect analogy, but indulge me. By now, you’ve probably seen the cellphone video of the guys in Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park who celebrated after shoving over a boulder that was part of an ancient rock formation. Their reasons are immaterial; with one push, they knocked out a part of a delicate natural structure that was 170 million years old. Then they celebrated.
You probably can guess where this is going. The despoilers in Congress and others in our political system are destroying the 226-year-old vision set forth by the designers of our Constitution. One of the framers was Benjamin Franklin, of course, who also helped draft that other precious document, our Declaration of Independence. At its signing, he famously declared, “Yes, we must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Forgive the elementary-school history lesson, but that spirit of hanging together, sharing a national purpose, has been the underlying principle that has guided the grand concept that is the United States of America. It has been a standard that has inspired leaders like former House Speaker Tom Foley, who we honor after he just died.
Foley’s commitment to civility and collaboration with his adversaries was his trademark. It stood in sharp contrast to the win-at-all-costs model of those who immediately followed him, particularly the man who succeeded him as House speaker, Newt Gingrich. It was Gingrich who engineered the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996 before finally negotiating with those he had demonized. I always called it “Crossfire Politics” after the program on CNN, my old employer, that emphasized shouted vitriol in place of reasoned debate. It’s bizarre that Newt is one of the hosts of the newly reincarnated “Crossfire,” but as we hear all the time, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Unfortunately, in the case of political destruction, things have gotten worse. Extremism has obliterated the middle ground; the kind of compromise exemplified by Tom Foley and his GOP opponents in his time has become lethal to those who would even suggest such approaches today. That has done severe damage to the country. The hard-liners on the right are willing to take that risk, to push the U.S. over the brink into financial humiliation simply because they have not gotten their way on Obamacare after losing in the congressional and judicial channels outlined by our founders.
They nearly succeeded in gravely harming the nation. It was only at the last moments that they were thwarted, crushed by a public that was shaken out of its doldrums to heap scorn on these ravagers. Even worse, in spite of the overwhelming disapproval of their fellow citizens, they’ve made it clear that they’re going to try to wreak their havoc again, in a few months, when time runs out on the timid agreements that just barely pulled us back from the precipice.
Their obsession with destroying Barack Obama’s presidency by gutting his signature health-care reform is foolish given the evidence that those trying to implement it are doing a pretty good job themselves. Now that we’re not distracted by the outrageous 2013 government shutdown and debt-ceiling brinksmanship, we are able to focus on the appalling way that the Affordable Care Act has gotten started. To put it bluntly, it is a huge mess. We’re not talking about the “glitches” the president said we could expect; we’re seeing a setup that is so overwhelmed, the program is near paralysis. It isn’t working, and the administration leaders who were supposed to oversee the beginnings should be ashamed of themselves.
Performance like that is just another contribution to the erosion of faith in our system. We’re precariously balanced, just like that rock formation in Utah. The last thing we need in either case is mindlessness, carelessness or vandalism.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist.