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Have they gone nuts in Washington?

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
updated 10:49 AM EST, Mon November 21, 2011
The deficit super committee was asked to find more than a trillion dollars in debt reduction.
The deficit super committee was asked to find more than a trillion dollars in debt reduction.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Gergen: Congress' failure to reach debt deal is reckless
  • He says leaders in Washington, including president, have failed the people
  • At a time of economic crisis, compromise on budget would be a prudent step, he says
  • Gergen: Congress and White House are punting on other economic issues

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. He is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter: @David_Gergen.

Cambridge, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Have they gone nuts in Washington?

Last summer, as the debt ceiling debacle ended, our political leaders held out high hope that a "super committee" would meet for 10 weeks this fall and forge a bipartisan agreement that would do far more to bring down the nation's deficits.

Everyone knew that members of the committee had deep differences.

David Gergen
David Gergen

Republicans complain that federal spending under President Obama has gone up dramatically and cuts should come there before any new taxes.

Democrats say that the rich have increased their wealth much more rapidly than the other 99% of Americans, while their taxes have gone down, so that the first order of business is to raise taxes on them. Both sides have valid points, worthy of debate.

But such contentious disagreements have characterized our politics since the dawn of the republic, and in almost all crises of the past, political leaders have worked out compromises. As Thomas Jefferson put it in 1790, "In general I think it necessary to give as well as take in a government like ours." George Washington agreed and pushed continually for what he called "a spirit of accommodation."

Our "leaders" of today, however, have tossed aside the wisdom of the Founders. The super committee is now hours away from abject failure on what should have been relatively easy work. Some tell us not to worry: A breakdown will automatically trigger "sequestration" -- automatic cuts in defense and domestic programs starting in January 2013. But there are already efforts within Congress to void the sequestration process.

A related concern is how financial markets will react. Some economists tell us not to worry about that, either: They say the markets have long assumed failure and have baked that into their investment decisions. But who knows for sure? Who can tell how a volatile mixture of political failure in Europe and in the U.S. will play out in coming weeks? The truth is nobody knows for sure.

If super committee fails, what's next?
Explain it to me: The 'Super Committee'

That's why this failure of the super committee represents a reckless, irresponsible gamble by our "leaders" in Washington. It's difficult to remember a Congress that has put the nation so much at risk in the service of ideology and to hold onto office. Partisans on both sides are grievously failing the country.

An honest assessment would lay blame on the White House doorstep, too. Yes, the president finally put up a plan a few weeks back and made a few phone calls. But he has been exercising the most passive leadership imaginable. Nor have the Republican candidates for president been any more engaged. Why are their campaigns so focused only on 2013 and so detached from a crisis that continues to deepen in D.C. right now?

It is not as if Congress and the White House are working productively together to solve other problems. They have done almost nothing in recent months to create more jobs and to shore up most homeowners. Hope is not a strategy, as we know, but it seems to be ours right now.

Even as the president promises a larger military presence in the Pacific (how are we going to afford it?), some businessmen are coming home from Shanghai and privately saying China has already won the economic rivalry.

Meanwhile, the White House has played politics with a proposed oil pipeline from Canada. And few raised a peep a few days ago when the chief economist of the International Energy Agency warned, based upon a serious study, that the world would face "irreversible climate change in five years" unless we change course on new energy infrastructure.

Sorry, our noble leaders tell us, we have to focus now on election 2012. What was it that Louis XV used to say? "Après moi, le déluge"?

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.

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