Adult Leadership Required to Clean Up the Mess in Washington

National Journal

Funny what our leaders could learn by sweeping the stairs. This thought occurred to me the other day while I was morosely mulling the state of politics in Washington, and found an analogy in my living room.

Actually, my wife found it -- clumps of dirt on the steps, tracked inside by her husband and son. I wanted to whine and dissemble and divert. I wanted to blame my kid "“ or at least debate who was most at fault. I wanted to fold my arms and stomp my feet until somebody else cleaned up the mess.

That's when it dawned on me:

@ron_fournier: "Wife says son and I tracked mud in house. I blamed son, saying he did it first and most. Look at me! I'm presidential. #sequestration."

As you might guess, that tweet inspired a spirited conversation about the difficulty of taking responsibility, both in life and in government. Participants included Jon Favreau, the Obama speechwriter who recently departed the White House. Like all analogies, this one has its limits. (For starters, I could have written just as appropriately, "Look at me! I'm the House Speaker!")

But the case of the muddy steps sheds light on how disconnected from reality the debate in Washington has become. It helps explain why President Obama, as head of the national "household," will ultimately be judged harshly by voters if the economy suffers -- even if he is less at fault on the merits. For Republicans, the analogy explains why the GOP is condemned to irrelevancy if tea-party conservatives continue to willfully muddy the national discourse.

In this analogy, my wife is the typical voter. By "typical," I don't mean blindly partisan conservatives and liberals who reflexively demonize their rivals and lionize their guy. The typical American is one who has lost faith in the federal government and both major parties.

The roles of Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are played by me and my son. We are interchangeable: If you're a liberal, cast Obama as the father. If you're a conservative, slip Boehner into that role.

@theolecompte: "Your son won't let you get the mop out of the closet?"

This reader seemed to be asking how a capable leader (let's say, Obama) deals with an obstinate kid (call him Boehner). @ron_fournier: "Once I stopped whining/blaming, I found the mop."

@jonfavs: "Was the mop $800 billion in congressionally authorized tax reform? Or was [it just] "˜leadership."

I think Favreau was chiding me for boiling Washington's problems down to a lack of leadership. Hoping to steer the conversation away from sequestration talking points, I played coy: @ron_fournier: "Sometimes a muddy floor is just a muddy floor. Wife not interested in whiny excuses. [She] wanted the damn floor clean."

@marc_haber: "Is there a co-equal authority in your house with veto power over you mopping?"

Liberals hate it when any responsibility is pinned on Obama. They remind critics that there are three branches of government, and no dictator. Sticking with the analogy, I suggest that there are no excuses in parenthood: @ron_fournier: I'm just talking about life its own self "“ solving problems, leading a household. Not politics."

@jonfavs: "Then you should go clean up that floor because the rest of us are trying to figure out #sequester."

@ron_fournier: "I did get the bright idea to demand that a reporter tell me how to mop the floor. Wife unimpressed by Jedi tricks." I admit it was somewhat of a cheap shot to refer to Obama's news conference Friday, when he claimed to be powerless to overcome the GOP. To make his point (and to embarrass a reporter holding him accountable), Obama asked a journalist to tell him how she would bargain with Republicans. This seems to be a shockingly poor argument for any leader to make: Help me, I can't do it.

As happens on Twitter, there was a separate and simultaneous conversation underway with somebody named @jeffreybillman and a few others.

@jeffreybillman: "That analogy fits if you intentionally push your son in the mud first."

Jeff must believe that somebody in Washington is a bully who started the fight. You hear this at White House about Republicans, and from the GOP-controlled House about Democrats. The "he-did-it-first" chorus is a Washington crutch that doesn't fly in real life. As I wrote recently in reference to the White House position, "You may be right, Mr. President, but this is crazy. My reply to Jeffrey was, @ron_fournier: "Ok. [I] would still have to clean it up."

@deltalitprof: "Analogy would only work if son actually did do it and then admitted to it (as Cantor and Ryan have done)"

This is where it gets tricky for Obama's allies -- when you stipulate for the sake of argument that Cantor, Ryan, and Boehner are the troublemakers. Now what? Does the president get a free pass? Or is he, like a parent, unfairly and completely accountable for leading the family out of trouble? @ron_fournier: "Oh, he did admit it. He even created most of the mess. But I took responsibility for my part. And cleaned up the damn mess."

@jeffreybillman: "This overlooks the fact that, if you give the bad behavior a pass, you encourage more of it in the future."

This attitude is why Obama abandoned his pledge to change the culture in Washington. His strategy is to bury Republicans beneath an onslaught of public pressure -- punish them -- rather than attempt the hard work of finding common ground. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. @ron_fournier: "Oh, no. Mom is holding his butt accountable. But guess what? The mess is cleaned up."

@omarabhari: "Did your son ever have a stated objective of denying you a second term as a dad?"

I loved this question, a fair one because the GOP leadership did indeed make defeating Obama the party's primary cause of his first term. Seizing control of the House in 2014 is now the president's guiding second-term objective. The father in our analogy dismissed his son's no-compromise pledge and found a way to work together. @ron_fournier: "No. But he did vow not to help me mop. I did not believe him. Damn if he didn't help me mop after wife gave us no choice."

Yes, Obama may need to play hardball so the GOP has "no choice." And, yes, there are all sorts of other reasons why the analogy might not apply "“ and why Obama and Boehner may be incapable of striking a deal.  But the least they can do is start acting like adults. @ron_fournier: None of this excuses the misbehaving teen. He should be ashamed. Still, somebody has to be grown up."

@jeffreybillman: "Assigning an equal amount of blame to each party does not equal accountability for wrongdoing."

Partisans rightly criticize reporters who blindly assign equal blame. But the "false equivalency" charge is often leveled at any reporter who dares to challenge the president in any way.  @ron_fournier: "You missed the part about my son being much more at fault. Wife still wants the floor cleaned. We got it done. So can DC."

Obama and Boehner are both parents. So why do they act like petulant kids? What we need in Washington are more grownups, leaders who worry less about parsing blame and more about cleaning up the mess.

@jefferybillman: "OK, but say your son refuses to clean "¦ and [he] says you have to do it. You can't force people to behave responsibly."

@ron_fournier: "If you're a parent, you do. Every day."