Watching your government at work can be an appalling spectacle. Politicians posture and bicker, and not much gets done. It's gotten so bad—or at least seems so bad—that pundits are beginning to wonder if the system is broken in some fundamental way and to cast about for a big fix. Some little fixes might help—reforming the Senate filibuster would be a start. But the nation is not about to have a constitutional convention, and we don't need one. The Founders got it right, more or less, some 220 years ago, when they created a system of checks and balances that permits the exercise of power while protecting the rights of individuals and political minorities.
The problem is not the system. It's us—our "got mine" culture of entitlement. Politicians, never known for their bravery, precisely represent the people. Our leaders are paralyzed by the very thought of asking their constituents to make short-term sacrifices for long-term rewards. They cannot bring themselves to raise taxes on the middle class or cut Social Security and medical benefits for the elderly. They'd get clobbered at the polls. So any day of reckoning gets put off, and put off again, and the debts pile up.
In the last 30 or so years, Americans have lived as if there is no tomorrow. They have racked up personal debt, spending more than they save and borrowing heavily. Americans have become fatter: between 1960 and 2002, the average adult male in the United States put on 25 pounds, and the average woman gained 24; between 1998 and 2006, the percentage of obese Americans in-creased by 37 percent. Some attribute these gains to factors beyond individual control, but who can deny that self-restraint and self-denial are antiquated values? (In the college hookup culture, the ethos is to have sex first and only then, maybe, get to know the other person.) It's not just in Lake Wobegon, where all children are above average. Grade inflation is so out of control in the nation's high schools that 43 percent of college-bound seniors taking the SATs have A averages—even though SAT scores have remained flat or drifted slowly downward for years.
It is hard to know exactly how or when we got this self-indulgent. The '60s are partly to blame. The triumph of individual and civil rights, a wondrous fulfillment of the true meaning of the Constitution, was too often perverted into an "I got my rights" sense of victimhood. The noble push of the New Deal and the Great Society to fight poverty and illness, particularly among the very old and very young, hardened into the nonsensical defiance some tea partiers show when they shout, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare!" The casting off of conformity and explosion of free expression contributed to the sour and selfish "Me Decade" of the 1970s. The spurt of economic activity in the 1980s and '90s spawned a generation of Gordon Gekkos on Wall Street and profligate spenders in the shopping malls of America (financed and enabled in part by more frugal Chinese buying American debt).
Politicians have never been very good at asking for sacrifice from their constituents. (And the ones who have tried have generally lost reelection.) Outside of wartime, there was never any golden age when political leaders successfully called on their people to give up what they perceived as their economic entitlements for the greater good. The last presidential candidate to call for tax increases on the middle class was Walter Mondale of Minnesota, in 1984, and he was defeated in every state but his own and the District of Columbia.
But lately, politicians seem to have lost the most essential element of the art of governing—meaningful compromise. In its pure form, compromise means mutual sacrifice. On Capitol Hill, there is only getting: politicians will vote for a bill if they get something, like a tax cut for an interest group or a pork-barrel project for their district. But they are not willing to give up anything. This is especially true where the other party is concerned. Partisanship has never been worse. It was not always this way. Read Robert Caro's Master of the Senate, about the way Lyndon Johnson, Senate majority leader in the late 1950s, bullied and horse-traded to craft majorities for civil rights out of both parties and all sections of the country.
Leadership requires a willingness to make the hard and sometimes un-pleasant choice. Last week an article in The New York Times depicted some U.S. Marines watching in dismay as an Afghan Army officer demanded to have an enlisted man's drink—and then drained it with a laugh. In the U.S. Marine Corps and Army, the commanding officer always eats last, after his or her troops have been fed and cared for. The reason is simple, honorable—and practical. A leader will have a better chance of getting followers to make sacrifices if he or she shows a willingness to suffer greater hardships. (In the military, it is no accident that second lieutenants—platoon commanders—have the highest casualty rates.)
Politicians are not military commanders and shouldn't be expected to behave that way. Still, to get something you have to give up something. That is the true test of compromise. In a poignant op-ed piece in the Times, Sen. Evan Bayh explained why he is not seeking reelection. While acknowledging that it would be a mistake to romanticize "the Senate of yore" inhabited by his father, former senator Birch Bayh, he recalled the more human and humane world of his father, when senators from different parties would socialize together—and offer to help with each other's campaigns, even if that meant jeopardizing their party's majority. "This is unimaginable today," wrote Bayh.
It's unfair to put the onus solely on President Obama to compromise. He has made some attempts, only to be stonewalled by the Republicans. But is there anything more he could do—anything immediate and concrete—to cut through the Gordian knot tying up health care?
Actually, there is. Obama is well in-formed enough to know that sky-high malpractice-insurance rates and defensive medicine drive up health costs. There is debate over how much, but any doctor will attest to the costly fear of a lawsuit. Almost all objective medical experts agree that something should be done to cut back the vast jury verdicts won by clever trial lawyers in medical-malpractice cases. But the Democrats have declined to even try. Why? Because trial lawyers are among the biggest campaign contributors to the Democratic Party.
If Obama were to come out squarely for medical-malpractice reform—in a real way—he would be making an important political statement: that as president he is willing to risk the political fortunes of his own party for the greater good. It would give him the moral standing, and the leverage, to call on the Republicans to match him by sacrificing their own political interests—by, for instance, supporting tax increases to help pay down the debt. At last week's summit, Obama said Republicans were overstating the costs of medical malpractice, but suggested that some remedies might be pursued at the state level. He'll have to do more than that to break through the partisan paralysis. But, as young Marines and soldiers understand, real leadership requires risks.