Pragmatic leadership has long been the foundation of American democracy and the source of our political stability. After a year of unseemly partisan wrangling – with the extremes of both parties holding hostage issues ranging from entitlement and tax reform to judicial nominees to health care to immigration – the last weeks of 2013 offered a rare and welcome glimpse of bipartisan competence.
The apparent reason: leaders in both parties got a serious wakeup call from the public blowback over October’s 16-day government shutdown and the Obamacare implementation debacle. Americans are making it unmistakably clear that they are tired of the mud-wrestling, destructive rigidity and petty posturing that have passed for politics over the last calendar year. With broad based anxiety about changing healthcare plans, entrenched unemployment and under employment, incomes plummeting, college grads moving back in to their parents’ basements, and safety nets fraying, voters are demanding solutions-oriented leadership.
The first signs of a new pragmatism came with the statewide elections in Virginia and New Jersey. Against a Virginia Republican ticket considered the most extreme ever, the Democrats ran the table on the Commonwealth’s top offices for the first time since the 1960s – an accomplishment made more noteworthy in light of the green car and green card controversies weighing down now Governor McAuliffe. There’s little doubt that the shutdown played a key role in thwarting Republican Ken Cuccinelli’s gubernatorial aspirations. Similarly, voters in Alabama heeded a business driven call for sanity and elected a relative moderate over a Tea Party backed candidate who advertised ideological rigidity.
Meanwhile, GOP incumbent Chris Christie cruised to a landslide reelection in New Jersey, one of the bluest of blue states, thanks to his success in reaching across the aisle and winning over female and Hispanic voters that have eluded Republicans of late. While it may not play with the Tea Party, Governor Christie’s work-with-anyone-to-get-it-done strategy has clear appeal to the voters in New Jersey.
Still, for a brief moment, things looked like they were going to continue to head downhill in Washington. A toxic brew of recriminations over the shutdown and democratic “nuking” of the filibuster seemed poised to end the year budgetless and bereft of much hope for 2014. Then legislative lightning struck – core conservative, Paul Ryan and passionate progressive Patty Murray – announced a budget agreement consisting of small, trust-building steps that incrementally advance both sides’ agendas while laying early groundwork for future progress on entitlements and tax reform.
The Murray-Ryan agreement passed both Houses of Congress with large bipartisan majorities. Along the way, Speaker John Boehner – his leadership strengthened as fringe elements lost credibility during the shutdown – hit back hard against opposition from conservative interest groups.
Criticizing the groups for “using (Republican) members and … using the American people for their own goals,” the Speaker promisingly insisted that his job was to “find enough common ground to move the ball down the field on behalf of the American people who sent us here to do their work” – not the kind of language that delights the rigid amongst us.
From his fortified position, Boehner appears ready to pick up the ball and call some plays. In the same briefing, he praised the work of the House in achieving bipartisan compromise on a farm bill and defense reauthorization legislation. And the Speaker recently announced the appointment to his staff of a high-profile immigration expert – from the Bipartisan Policy Center, no less – as his spokesman underscored the hope that “(w)e can enact step-by-step, common-sense immigration reforms.” Taking his cue, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) promised that the issue would be a “top priority in 2014.”
Voters have been let down many times of late and incredulity is warranted. Still, vocal support for continued legislative competence does matter. Ryan and Murray clearly enjoyed their shared accomplishment. Our best hope for 2014 is a virtuous cycle in which solving problems becomes infectious. Strange as it might sound, many members of Congress have never had the experience. The flourishes of courage and confidence demonstrated during the waning days of 2013 are an ember of hope. We should all resolve to fan these flames as we greet the New Year.