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Phil-osophically Speaking: December 7, 2012

Will Opposites Attract?

Elections are supposed to determine, among other things, how revenue raised from taxes is spent. Should people who earn more money pay even more than they do to the government via taxes? The answer seems to be yes. If they pay more taxes are they entitled to more government services and entitlements? The answer is clearly no. Will people who pay no income tax get less than they do now? The answer is that they will certainly get more.

Equality before the law is the bedrock of our Constitution; economic equality is an entirely different species governed by asymmetrical and counter-intuitive bureaucratic rules and guidelines. Economics is colored by politics and the winning of constituencies. To the victor belongs the spoils and the Democrats enjoyed an impressive victory in November. But elections are not a putsch and American democracy is not a diktat. The minority party has rights and let’s not forget that the Republicans retained a majority in the House of Representatives.

This bears remembering as our economy goes hurtling toward the so-called fiscal cliff, which, unfortunately, is not a mirage but real as life. Right now America can be described as two currents in the same channel going in opposite directions, though both influences claim they are seeking many of the same objectives: prosperity, jobs and security. The two currents, of course, are the Democrats and Republicans which Thomas Nast symbolically and presciently depicted as two different animals, the jackass and the elephant, two species with very little in common.

But America persevered and indeed prospered despite these fundamental and historical differences because in our republic the machinery of lawmaking is a mechanism dependent on compromise, which Ambrose Bierce defined as such an adjustment of conflicting interests as gives each adversary the satisfaction of thinking he has got what he ought not to have. Sarcasm aside, compromise is the sauce that flavors the meat even when it’s over or undercooked. Leaders should practice its art —- it’s called statesmanship. President Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill’s politics were as different as an iceberg from a sand dune. But after hours the two Irishmen would sit down and good humoredly trade war stories and jokes like this:

A cop rings the doorbell at the home of Mrs. O’Malley’s home who shouts she has a migraine and to come back later.

But Mrs. O’Malley, says to the cop, “I have terrible news. Your husband was run over by a steamroller.”

“Oh,” says Mrs. O’Malley, “just slip him under the door.”

Stiffened with a couple of drinks, this repartee would send the two howling throughout the night, softening differences and paving the way for bi-partisanship. It’s hard to visualize President Obama and House Leader John Boehner cultivating such bon homie and productive geniality. It’s much needed: Congress is polarized, the economy continues to stagnate and spiraling spending threatens to bankrupt the country. It’s clear that deficits must be curbed, tax laws revamped and savings culled from popular entitlement. Absent cooperation from both parties, the middle ground will remain a no-man’s land.

Republicans have to face the music that they lost even if they don’t like the melody. Although I’ll refrain from championing it as an economic elixir, I’m disappointed that not enough people believed that lower taxes combined with spending cuts would nonetheless reduce the debt and propel much- needed investment. Nor were voters, or at least the majority of them, impressed by the data that whenever tax rates dropped in recent decades the share of income taxes paid by higher income Americans went up and so did tax revenues. So be it. Conservatism is the politics of reality so it’s time for them to get over the election and work with the president.

Meanwhile the president must stop perfuming his vanity and lead. The Chief Executive is treating the election as a coronation though his plurality was barely over 51 percent. There is nothing glamorous about negotiating; it’s tedious work but necessary to signal the direction the country is going. Whatever one’s ideological bearings one thing is for certain, the economy hates uncertainty. A good start is for Obama to revisit the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Commission he appointed but then unaccountably ignored.

Can Democrats and Republicans bridge their differences and make a deal? Perhaps there is no reason to despair at what might seem at first an unlikely prospect, grave differences in the ruling class is as old as the Republic. Thomas Jefferson as the leader of America’s first political party believed in a society of agricultural pursuits and a commonwealth without cities, major industries, big banks and barely a coast guard as a military defense. Alexander Hamilton, his brilliant counterpart and leader of the Federalist Party was the polar opposite. During the divisive 1800 campaign, Jefferson excoriated the Hamiltonian philosophy and dismissed its leader as someone that history would not stoop to notice. Four years later Hamilton’s remains reposed in the graveyard of Trinity Church in downtown New York, but his ideas were not only very much alive they were emphatically endorsed by none other than President Jefferson.

I don’t expect Obama to magically morph into a Romney or a Reagan but reality, if you give it enough time will assert itself with vindictive persistence. Transcending the budget impasse is a priority and it’s not improbable that the elements to cut a deal will materialize. Whether concessions on both sides will be enough to get the economy moving again or whether we’re in for four more years of the same remains to be seen. The beat goes on and, for better or worse, so will the Republic.