Divided We Fall: The Dangerous State of Partisan Politics

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” – Abe Lincoln

At a time of great uncertainty there is comfort in ceremony. Election night put a merciful end to the presidential campaign supercycle, and many Americans will be glad to return to prime time TV and ads about how chairs are like Facebook. But ominous headwinds remain, and neither candidate seemed willing or able to create the blueprints for sustainable, responsible, inclusive growth, regardless of who was picked as Chief Executive on November 6th.

To be clear, wonderful promises and hopeful rhetoric about America’s potential certainly emerged throughout the campaign. But two clear facts remain: constitutionally speaking the President can only do so much, and neither candidate rallied the country behind a shared vision of a prosperous future. Perhaps that’s because the problems the country currently faces are some of the most complex and intractable in nearly a century.

President Obama’s first term was essentially a massive triage, as the White House attempted to stabilize a hemorrhaging economy. Less skilled middle class workers bore the brunt of the fallout, with the number of unemployed and the duration of their unemployment dwarfing all previous post-war contractions. Optimism about the future plunged to dangerous lows. Debt levels continued to accelerate, growth was virtually non-existent, housing remained in a secular rut, and personal income actually contracted for the first time since the late 1950s.

Regardless of the candidate or the party in charge of the recovery, it will likely take the next 2-3 presidential mandates to craft and execute a coordinated plan for economic and social rehabilitation. It will involve fixing bad habits (leverage, over-consumption, government waste, corporate tax avoidance), supporting healthy growth (prudential regulation and targeted stimulus), and retooling the economy to compete in the 21st century (simplified taxation, infrastructure building, and a focus on quality education from K through PhD). But above all it will require the type of unity and shared purpose the country hasn’t experienced since the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Sadly, neither candidate was ready to provide that type of longer-term leadership. Nor are the parties likely to combine the best elements of each of their respective platforms into a coordinated, bipartisan program the whole country can rally behind for decades to come. Contrast America’s fractured, high-frequency politics with modern China’s unified and deliberate central planning. Though not without its own set of serious political and social issues, it’s difficult to completely dismiss thirty years of meteoric growth and the elevation of 600 million people out of poverty.

To be fair, modern America has never really set its political agenda based on a long-term plan or bi-partisan philosophy. Its global success, much like those of its wealthiest citizens, was equal parts skill, opportunity, persistence and luck. In many ways, Romney’s leadership style is quintessentially American, honed during his time at Bain Capital in a series of 3-5 year investments. His trademark interventions were swift and surgical. Occassionally they were even successful. But the current challenges faced by the U.S. were much longer in the making, and require a more patient and deliberate resolution.

Romney’s private equity toolkit — buy, fix, flip, repeat — isn’t designed to simultaneously handle the hangover from three straight decades of debt-fueled growth, evolving competitive forces in Asia and Latin America, a legitimate risk of systemic collapse in Europe, and growing demographic, social and financial challenges at home. Right now the country needs something more substantial and enduring than a nebulous five-point plan to create 12 million new jobs. Americans need a clear and compelling longer-term vision of what the country might realistically achieve in 20 years, and Candidate Romney simply didn’t provide it.

Was Incumbent Obama any more successful than his challenger? Only modestly. In 2008, the junior Senator launched his presidential candidacy with a resounding message of hope. During his four years in office, he struggled to deliver on that vision — either through lack of will or because of the intractable nature of the US political system. As a result, voters were understandably more skeptical this time around. What they previously embraced as scripture this time they dismissed as political rhetoric.

Where Obama truly seemed to shine was in his embrace of the 99% — not simply in soliciting voter turnout, but also in a philosophy of public empathy and support. Yes, entitlement programs have seen their share of abuse and are in dire need of reform. Yes, jobless Americans were provided with some generous emergency benefits. But the country just endured the mother of all recessions, and a “roll up your sleeves and work harder” message out of the Republican camp seemed disconnected from the reality on the ground — a structural mismatch in the labor force between the skills of today and the jobs of tomorrow and a housing market still painfully slow to recover.

But despite their populist appeal, these initiatives are short-term in scope and partisan in spirit, Worse still, neither candidate seemed capable of more. Romney’s concession speech insisted that “the principles upon which this nation was founded are the only sure guide to a resurgent economy and to renewed greatness,” but he never articulated what precisely those principles are. Obama provided a set of values in his speech — “a generous America…a compassionate America…a tolerant America” — but it is unlikely these are shared by the entirety of the American people, and unclear what they would mean in terms of durable policy initiatives.

So what if the U.S. remains on its present course and we get four more years of political gridlock? The likely consequences of this $6 billion exercise in rigid bipartisanship include increasing polarization at all levels of society, crippling economic hardship, and lost international competitiveness. Perhaps most ominously, it may force the US to begin achieving militarily (with guns and boots) what for half a century it has achieved economically (with investment and trade). Nowhere is this more clear than the Pentagon’s recent “pivot” to Asia.

For the sake of the country, and the broader global community, let’s hope that Obama does in his second term what was virtually impossible in his first: rise above partisan politics to define a shared vision for long-term prosperity that all Americans can respect and embrace, and then pursue it with all the charisma, intensity and wisdom he displayed during his acceptance speech. As he reminded us on Tuesday night: “That common bond is where we must begin.”