When In Doubt, Mumble—Dynamic Inaction May Be Our Best Hope

With Tea Party Republicans pining for an imagined American past, a do-nothing Congress may be the best we can hope for, writes Joe McLean.

Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty; Camerique/ClassicStock/Corbis,Scott J. Ferrell

The late James H. Boren, a mostly forgotten humorist, bureaucrat, and erstwhile philosopher (as well as the brother of former Oklahoma Senator David Boren) is credited with discovering the powerful doctrine of “dynamic inaction.” In 1976, with newly elected President Jimmy Carter coming to Washington wearing a cardigan and carrying his own luggage, Boren told Time, “Any president who sets foot in this town without a full briefing on dynamic inaction, decision-postponement patterns, and creative status quo cannot go very far.”

Boren was already semi-famous inside the Beltway for his profound little volume, When in Doubt, Mumble, A Bureaucrat’s Handbook. He defines Dynamic Inaction with one pithy aphorism: “When in doubt, mumble; when in trouble, delegate; when in charge, ponder.”

Nowadays we call it gridlock. And despite all the jeremiads coming from the talking heads and pundits in the commentariat lamenting political dysfunction and the imminent collapse of civilization, Dynamic Inaction might just be our salvation.

In today’s Washington, Boren’s advice might be, “When in doubt, bloviate; when in trouble, filibuster; when in charge, posture.”

Congress may be gridlocked, but the country is not. Our demography, religion, politics, morality, business, and economics are all in flux. We’re not the country of Ozzie and Harriet, and Roy Rogers. We’re not the country of Woodstock and Flower Power, or of Gangnam Style (that’s so last week). We’re not the country of the Junior Chamber, Rotary Club, cotillions, Bushwood Country Club, or Rush Limbaugh.

This year for the first time, Protestants no longer make up a majority of Americans. In less than 20 years, less than one in two Americans will be white. The post-industrial, global economy has upended careers and uprooted whole communities. Shifting mores on gay rights, legal marijuana, immigration, wars of convenience, abortion, contraception and many others, seriously discomfit many “family-values” traditionalists.

For middle-aged WASPs like me, the pace of change can be deeply unsettling. When you throw in the worst recession in living memory, people really panic. Many justifiably fear losing their homes, their retirement, and their kids’ future happiness. They pine for an elusive, halcyon vision of a bygone America, remembered through the golden lens of lost childhood—an America which of course, never really existed. But the nostalgia and the fear are quite real.

Historically, whenever the nation has experienced severe stress, an ugly undercurrent of angry, reactionary populism surfaces. This common vein reaches back to Shay’s Rebellion, through Jackson’s Augean Stables to William Jennings Bryan’s rants against science in the Scopes Monkey Trial. It includes Know-Nothings, Anti-Masons and Huey Long’s Every Man a King appeal. George Wallace stood in the Schoolhouse Door and Ross Perot contrived the ruin of George Bush the elder. Except for Andrew Jackson, they all ended badly.

Now we have the Tea Party with their small, vocal core of tin-foil-hat-wearing malcontents. Because they rule the GOP primary process, you still hear leading Republicans rambling on about “the will of the people.” What people?

A majority of Americans support gay marriage. Nearly 60 percent agree that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, and the Feb. 2013 NBC/WSJ poll found 61 percent of us want stricter gun laws. Even before the tragedy in Newtown, 69 percent of NRA members favored closing the gun-show loophole. Large majorities support immigration reform and a path to citizenship for the undocumented. A clear majority accepts the common-sense notion that a balanced approach, both raising revenue and cutting spending, is the right way to cure the deficit.

What this all means is that for the first time since the turn of the 21st century, the moderate left is driving the debate, and remarkably, most Americans are on board. This dramatic shift didn’t happen overnight. It’s been quietly building for years, but reality hasn’t dawned on Tea Party Republicans yet.

As the nation’s political center of gravity arcs back toward common sense over ideology, science over dogma, and social tolerance over invidious stereotyping, (see Young, Don) Dynamic Inaction means the wingnuts can stomp on the brakes but they can’t reach the steering wheel. Until Congress actually catches up to the rest of the country, Dynamic Inaction is our best hope.

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Somewhere, James Boren is smiling.