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America’s Leadership Deficit

It’s finally over.

After weeks of drama, late nights on Capitol Hill and an oversized helping of unproductive finger-pointing, our federal government achieved about as much as we should have expected: nothing. Add it to the list of policy debates our leaders in Washington have bickered over and eventually punted on: the failed Super Committee of 2011, immigration reform, the 2013 farm bill, and—related to the recent budget debate—tax and entitlement reform.

It’s true, Congress managed to avert fiscal crisis; but nothing was actually accomplished. Now that the dust has settled, we find ourselves right back where we were before.

But, we shouldn’t allow the debacle to be completely for naught. We did learn something (or at least verify it) amidst the mess of the past few weeks, which is: Bold and wise leadership is what America desperately needs to right our path, but it is also what is most lacking in our nation’s capital. Truthfully, the only thing worse than America’s budget deficit, is our leadership deficit.

And there’s plenty of blame to go around.

U.S. Capitol

During the government shutdown, many voices accused Republicans of unreasonably “taking hostages” to gain concessions from President Obama and Democrats in the Senate—most notably demanding that ObamaCare be either defunded or delayed. The hard-nosed strategy that Republicans used was short-sighted and unrealistic, more a political show than an actual attempt to change policy for the better. But you can’t blame conservatives for trying to do something about an unpopular and failing health care law and a federal budget that is burgeoning and unsustainable. I only wish voices that are both principled and pragmatic, like that of Congressman Paul Ryan, could more publicly rise to the top.

Yet, on the other side, Democrats acted with an equal lack of reason. Throughout the 16-day standoff, President Obama and the Senate majority refused to budge an inch—claiming they would settle for nothing less than a clean Continuing Resolution and debt ceiling increase. Unfortunately for them, American government is a lot like marriage—in a disagreement, you never just get your way, plain and simple. Which proves that Democrats were more concerned about securing a political victory than doing something good for the country. In fact, based on their unfaltering stubbornness, Democrats were more willing to go over the edge and risk default than the “hostage takers” themselves.

Clearly, both sides are at fault. But at the end of the day, as citizens, we are mistaken if we lay all of the blame at the feet of our elected officials.

Because ultimately, representatives listen to their constituents—they do want to be re-elected after all. Some of the fault can be placed on gerrymandering, which has increased partisanship and greatly decreased the number of moderates in Congress. Yet more consequential, are the mixed signals that voters are sending to Washington.

[pullquote]     The only thing worse than America’s budget deficit, is our leadership deficit.[/pullquote]

Approval of Congress as a whole is at an awe-inspiring 10 percent, with some people worrying about the psychological health of that small minority. However, constituent approval of their home district’s representative is as high as 62 percent. Most people like their own representative who stands up for their interests and “brings home the bacon,” but are fed up with the dysfunction of Congress as a whole. In other words, we are generally glad to “demand” compromise in Washington, so long as the issues we want protected aren’t compromised.

The public is also sending mixed messages about the budget. A recent United Technologies/ National Journal Congressional Connection Poll found that Americans do care about reducing the deficit, but are overwhelmingly against cuts to the entitlement programs that are its primary drivers. Thus, we find ourselves at an impasse: our leaders aren’t motivated to call us to make the sacrifices our country needs, precisely because we don’t want them to.

Dylan Pahman at the Acton Institute describes the consequences of this leadership deficit:

[W]hen it comes to the federal budget, the self-discipline we put off today is tomorrow’s hardship. Decreased investment, increased taxes, greater economic vulnerability, and an increased risk of fiscal crisis are what we have to look forward to in the next 25 years on our current course. The result would be increased unemployment and poverty and decreased upward mobility, as well as all the societal ills that go with them.

Our leaders can only kick the can down the road for so long.

To do something about the budget deficit, we must first fix our leadership deficit. Extraordinary leaders may occasionally arise, but the public must also play a role. If a broader plurality of voices is willing to call for sacrificial and moral change, reform may yet come. Given the uncertainties my generation is facing, let’s hope it happens soon.