Mara Liasson, the National Political Correspondent for National Public Radio and often a co-panelist with Charles Krauthammer on Fox News, called him a “gift to the world” and characterized his death as “a huge loss for conservatives.” Liasson and Krauthammer didn’t always agree, yet were friends who respected each other’s opinion. Friends, how quaint that seems in the pit bull politics of today.
Charles Krauthammer’s evolution from liberal (he was a speechwriter for Walter Mondale) to conservative was expressed in terms first defined by Irving Kristol: “a liberal mugged by reality”.
In the last few months I have been sent links to a purported column written by Krauthammer expressing support for Donald Trump. In the parlance of today: “fake news”; Krauthammer’s intellect and reputation were not on offer. We live in a swirl of pretenders and their pretensions. We just lost an important voice for clarity, objectivity and respect.
Instead we have a President, now a lame duck one, who continues to choose outrage over leadership. Attacking ones adversaries is not the first stage of a successful negotiation. And we have a Congress incapable of performing its constitutional duties.
President Trump’s remaining strength over domestic issues goes with the Office. But, as Barack Obama learned, governing by executive orders means the next person in line can undo the orders.
In a few months we elect a new Congress. But, regardless of which Party prevails, it is highly unlikely that either Party will have a large enough caucus of Members to govern without some level of bi-partisanship. The power of partisanship is often hollow.
Power is often misunderstood. Trump is certainly in charge of depthless power. His image and words are omnipresent. Since media coverage tends to confer importance, Trump is very important. And in Washington importance, as conferred by rank or media attention, is often thought to be power and held onto tightly.
Real power is set out in the United States Constitution and most especially in Article 1, Section 8. Simply stated, this section gives Congress the power to make laws, tax and spend. In just over three months real power will be conferred again. Will the winners be just another contingent who elevate self or Party over nation?
In many ways the most important question to be asked of each candidate is what they will do to make the most important branch of government work. It only works when there is some level of bi-partisanship. The existing power vacuum has elevated executive orders and attack politics. Present day realities have nullified the Congress.
But lest I understate the magnetism of President Trump to his followers, let me return to his power.
The one thing most can agree on is that Trump rather brilliantly used “Make America Great Again” to brand his candidacy and presidency. Many, of course, would quickly reject “Again” believing that America’s health is just fine. I am not in that number. On the other hand, retreating to the past to find greatness inevitably leads to this question: if America was so great, in say the 1950s, why was racial discrimination so ubiquitous? Certainly our views and laws about equality have improved dramatically.
At news conferences, interviews, town hall meetings and the like I would like to see each candidate be given the opportunity to compare and contrast. What, the question might be, would you propose we do to Make America Great? In short, require candidates to think beyond slogans.
Candidates should be asked what they think about our country’s financial health. If they believe it weakens the country, extract a pledge of action. One of the more successful political pledges was the “no tax” pledge. Fiscal hawks should craft a pledge to fix our nation’s balance sheet. And younger voters should insist that candidates tell them how the entitlement programs, which are actuarially bankrupt, will fulfill the promises made.
What about roads, bridges, airports, mass transit, waste treatment facilities, public water supplies? If the central government should play a role, what should it be? The recent Supreme Court decision requiring on-line sellers to collect State sales tax is likely to raise State tax revenues significantly. This might be a particularly fertile moment for the central government, with a modest contribution (it cannot afford more), to stimulate needed infrastructure work.
One final question: ask each candidate whether they pledge to return home after they no longer serve. Retirement from Congress often results in lucrative lobbying jobs aimed at protecting government conferred advantage.
When the Congress is failing, democracy is failing. And when the Congress allows a power vacuum to exist the occupant of the White House is empowered, well beyond constitutional intentions.
I want to leave the last thought for Charles Krauthammer who in a C-Span interview said he grew up attuned to the “tragic element in history”. “It tempers your optimism and your idealism. And it gives you a vision of the world which I think is more restrained, conservative, if you like. You don’t expect that much out of human nature. And you are prepared for the worst.” We are not going to change human nature, but voters have the power to change Congress.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.