Last month, President Donald Trump spoke in the Rose Garden, declaring that, after 35 days of nearly 1 million people out of work and not being paid, he temporarily was ending the government shutdown. His speech and the chosen setting — including cabinet members applauding his every word — seemed more like a victory lap than a resolution of a debilitating national crisis. Or, as CNN’s Jim Acosta put it, something “right out of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’”
What concerns me is that now is precisely the wrong time to gloat and celebrate political victors and losers. The focus must be exclusively on all the federal workers and their families who suffered economic and emotional hardship for over a month, not to mention the negative ripple effect this had on all Americans. More importantly, we should focus on how to avoid repeating this paralyzing predicament in the future.
Sadly, yet not surprisingly, the responses to Trump’s decision and speech were also predictable, echoing the narrative that public policy decisions are more about political gains and losses rather than what is in the best interest of the country.
For example, it was tactically inappropriate and rhetorically counterproductive to proclaim the president is “backing down,” “caving,” “got rolled” by Speaker Pelosi, “walled in,” “blinks,” replacing George H.W. Bush as the “biggest wimp,” descriptions used by a frog chorus of both conservative and liberal politicians, media outlets and political pundits.
As someone who has spent over forty years studying political communication and argumentation, I contend instead we must embrace the notion of compromise — something my students learn rests at the core of genuine democratic deliberation. One of the lessons of our nation’s history is that compromise requires both sides to find ways to help the opposition extricate themselves from blame and save face. Without that, stalemate is inevitable, especially in view of our current heated and divided political climate.
Yes, it is true that what transpired last month and the thirty five days prior cost Trump politically. His approval ratings, public support for the wall, and who Americans assign blame for the shutdown document this convincingly. And, yes, it can be argued persuasively that the president’s decision to reopen the government merely resolved a crisis he created and one that could have been avoided weeks prior.
However, these partisan claims — no matter how accurate — miss the point and signal more crises to come.
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The question is — and always has been: How does our country move forward in a productive manner allowing an escape hatch from the all or nothing attitude perpetuating political polarization and stalemate? The obvious answer is that our political officials must engage in genuine compromise. That, in turn, can occur only when Democrats and Republicans eschew a zero sum rhetorical mind-set and employ discourse giving both sides of the political aisle an exit strategy permitting them to save face and to assure their constituents something was gained from the deliberation. After all, compromise is a give and take process.
But as long as politicians and the media continue to seek capitulation, declaring winners and losers, the present impasse will remain. What this will mean is at the end of the twenty one day temporary opening of government we again will be plunged into a crisis — and all Americans will suffer.
Having said that, I remain optimistic. As a scholar of political history and rhetoric, I believe there is good reason for hope. Despite their undeniable partisan motivations, I contend that most politicians are extremely unhappy with the current state of affairs, share with government officials who served before them a desire to do what is best for the nation, and therefore will find a way to transcend gamesmanship. Passing comprehensive immigration reform and border security legislation that Trump will sign is just one way this might happen.
I hope my optimism is not overstated.
• Richardt Cherwitz is a professor in the Moody College of Communication and founder of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin. He grew up in Davenport and is a graduate of the University of Iowa.