In the deep freeze of Washington politics, two small new stratagems were launched this week. The White House initiated yet another communications strategy change that included press secretary Robert Gibbs taking to Twitter. Conservatives, by contrast, went into the past, holding a “signing ceremony” for a set of principles that affirmed the power of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Both moves were novel yet thoroughly familiar. They were the latest tactics in a long partisan struggle. They were also the latest demonstration that at this moment of stalemate, Washington’s tolerance for risk and appetite for failure has reached a new low.
The new communications plan and move to Twitter wasn’t the most important or interesting thing that happened at the White House this week, but it was the newest thing. Alas, the move only simply shrank an old battlefield. The White House can now respond even faster to the latest charge or debate. What was already a block-by-block war is now being fought room-by-room. (Look out—John Boehner grabbed a lamp!)
The problem with the conservatives’ Mount Vernon Statement is that while it reached for scope (you can’t get much bigger than the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence), it was thoroughly anodyne. It was so unspecific even its signatories like Richard Viguerie said it was “pabulum” and “embarrassing.” It was an attempt to take a stand while in full repose.
“This is something new.” In Washington politics, the phrase is not often heard. Business, art, and science require risk-taking. Our military strategy in two countries is based on risk-taking. In Washington, there is little of it. Sen. Evan Bayh announced his retirement this week, citing the town’s partisanship, but then didn’t take a stand and name the specific offenders. (Maybe that would have been too partisan of him.) The president announced a bipartisan commission to tackle the budget deficit, which is Washington’s way of tricking itself into taking a risk that politicians won’t take themselves. Members of Congress—including seven Republicans who had proposed the idea—were even too chicken to vote for a bipartisan commission. This is the political equivalent of being too timid to take a nap.
By risk-taking, I don’t mean loudly advocating some piece of ideology that will only glorify you with your political base. I mean taking a risk with your political standing. Sen. Judd Gregg did this a little when he momentarily signed up with the Obama administration. Obama did this recently when he suggested he could give up his pledge not to tax people who made less than $250,000 as a part of larger deficit reduction. (When John McCain picked Sarah Palin, that was more a gamble than a risk.)
The reason politicians are even more risk-averse is that lots of them are reeling from the big chance the president took on passing health care legislation. This was a risk and an act of leadership, the kinds of things pundits are always calling for from presidents. Yet when a risk-taking move winds up being unpredictable, creates problems, and tempts failure—all of which risk-taking moves tend to do—the reaction from pundits and the political class is explosive.
Risk requires tolerating uncertainty, but Washington doesn’t allow it. Sure, some people observe that big risks are sometimes messy. But more likely there will be a hunting party convened to identify the fundamental flaws or incompetent officials behind the policy or initiative. Someone may even issue a call to fire the entire senior staff of the White House.
Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, wrote recently in the Washington Post about the need for innovation and risk-taking in business. But the message applies to Washington, too: “Encouraging risk-taking means tolerating failure—provided we learn from it. If we want to be a leader in new industries such as green energy, we have to accept that some of our investments won’t pan out. Show me a program with a 100 percent success rate, and I’ll show you one with 0 percent innovation.”
Politically it would be foolish for Obama to panic with a staff firing unless he wants to complete the Jimmy Carter analogies. (On July 17, 1979, Carter asked his entire Cabinet to resign.) Why fire the staff for mistakes he made or because the Senate filibuster has become perverted? A firing would also trade away his one central characteristic: his equanimity. If Obama gets rattled enough to throw over his staff, then we should all worry about his ability to make it through the next tough spot. (And if you’re a remaining staff member, you should worry if you’ll be next under the bus.)
There are, of course, limits to risk-taking. We want governments to be risk-averse and not go dashing off to wars that are not in our strategic interest (or at least to think through what we do after we take the dictator’s statue down). Right now we should be very happy that government is trying to take some of the risk out of the financial system, because banks and insurance companies thought they had come up with a way of getting around risk—and it crippled the economy.
But an act of actual risk-taking by some politician might suggest a simple truth: that someone voted into office to represent the people did something that was not in his or her self interest. And unless someone in Congress or the White House takes a risk pretty soon, we’re going to spend the rest of the year feeling about our politics the way we did in Washington after last week’s blizzard—shut-in and cranky.