A new chapter for Profiles in Courage: The debt ceiling debate

Like much of the nation, I’m frustrated and angry that our politicians have let the U.S. come so close to default on its debts – and that the issue still isn’t resolved. But as I packed my bags to move closer (geographically at least!) to the heart of this mess, I came across John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. I remember reading this book in high school and I think it’s wisdom speaks to what we need right now in politics: a little more courage from everyone involved. However, it’s not just one group that needs to display this moral courage – each of the stakeholders share the blame for the mess and need to find the courage to make the remedy.

News media: As a communication scholar, I want to start with the news media. For most of the mainstream media, the effort to maintain “neutrality” and “balance” guides much of their coverage. Yet the search for balance can lead to inaccuracies even more debilitating than admitting that one side may be more “in the right.” As Paul Krugman points out in this brilliant editorial, the media have been attempting to be too even-handed in this debate. If one side is less willing to compromise, that needs to be pointed out. A journalist’s main duty, or “bias” if you will, is to the truth, not to artificial balance, and our nation’s media needs the courage to discard false balance for honest reporting of what’s happening. It’s the only way for the public to understand the debate – and to exercise their rights.

Congressional Republicans: To criticize Republicans will immediately lay me open to claims of bias, so I’ll let a conservative do the talking for me. David Brooks put it best: the Republican party, by not seizing on the huge compromise in spending cuts that Democrats were willing to make, has proven that “the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.” Mind you, this criticism is coming from a conservative! Further, Republicans are staking out a position that few in the public hold: 68% of the public wants compromise, including 53% of Republicans. It is only among the Tea Party that a slight majority don’t favor compromise. Republicans need the courage to put the good of the country first and explain to those constituents who do not favor compromise that it is, in fact, the only way government happens and that to default on our national debts is unacceptable and costly – a fact which even conservative economists agree on.

President Obama and Congressional Democrats: Although Republicans are making compromise difficult, Obama and Democrats need to be doing more. But their biggest failure in courage was in extending the Bush tax cuts in 2010 for everyone, going against public opinion to do so. In December of 2010, one poll showed that only 26% overall – and only 46% of Republicans – wanted to extend the Bush tax to those making over $250,000/year. If President Obama had stood firm on the Bush tax cuts, he would be in a better position for the deficit debate and could have used that vote – which Republicans opposed – to demonstrate his seriousness about the deficit, especially given the huge contribution these taxes make to our deficit. Obama and Democrats need the courage to apologize for extending the tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans and promise to make both tax increases and spending cuts part of a bill to reduce the deficit – after the debt ceiling is raised.

The public: Perhaps most importantly, the public is partly to blame for this mess. The public needs to make their anger at the situation clear – beyond uncivil Twitter hashes. The public needs to continue their pressure on Washington to get a bill passed immediately by calling, writing, and emailing their congresspeople. But even more importantly, the voters need to remember their anger and punish those lawmakers they disagree with at the polls. The public has the hardest job: Americans need to find the courage to push beyond partisan rhetoric to truly figure out who they think is at fault and to put the good of the country above their predispositions. It’s hard to do – we’re all more willing to believe the other side is at fault with the failure thus-far to raise the debt ceiling. And both parties truly are to blame for getting us in the mess of debt we have in the first place. But as we can’t change the past, the public needs to look to the future – and most importantly, remember that regardless of party, we are all Americans.

Kennedy’s book remains an inspiration to me. However, he only describes politicians who find the courage to stand up to their party and their constituents to do what is right. This current mess requires courage from all of us, most especially the public.

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