This year I broke a personal tenet that ruined an otherwise perfect Thanksgiving Day gathering: I engaged the family curmudgeon in a post-meal debate about politics.
It was stupid and I know better. My wife’s ornery, opinionated cousin is a recent retiree with far too much time to soak in the drone of talking heads on TV and radio. I don’t have the time, interest or stomach for any of that stale, empty theatrics.
But Roger loves to instigate. So he corners me in the living room, ignores the fact that I’m watching the Dolphins-Cowboys football game with a dozen other sensible folks and annoyingly stirs the pot.
The news earlier that week that the bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction – the so-called super committee – could not agree on how to lop $1.2 trillion from federal deficits over the next decade greased some early haymakers about who’s to blame for this historic mess that divides our nation.
“So, what do you make of these clowns in Washington that want to bankrupt the nation,” he lobs out to me in his favorite sarcastic tone.
I should have changed the subject with a comment about the Dallas head coach being a Cleveland native. I should have gotten up and poured another drink. I regret doing neither. Instead I took the bait.
I qualified my political bent as a long-standing registered independent because I have little use for either side of the aisle.
I explained that it had nothing to do with partisan ideologies; 35 years of watching both sides sacrifice the best interest of our nation in favor of political traction has simply crushed all trust and hope I ever had in functional political leadership.
I told him that I blame most of my cynicism on a two-party system that breeds spineless, self-serving scavengers. Nobody can get the job without party backing, and once they have it there is no wiggle room under the thumb of its overwhelming influence.
I said it frosts me that elected officials on both sides have calculated that the price of compromise is too high. Each is convinced that there is political gain in sticking firmly to their core principles – Republicans refuse to raise taxes, and Democrats refuse to make big cuts to entitlement programs like Medicare.
Besides, I noted, Republicans know they can always blame Democrats – and vice versa – as a way to stave off criticism from the electorate that trusted them to produce solutions. And so, amid historically low approval ratings of Congress, inertia reigns in the nation’s capital.
The wine had fully kicked in by then. The volume and pace of the discussion picked up and drew stares of curiosity and concern from those not in the line of fire. Someone turned up the TV volume.
I argued that the unproductive, line-in-the-sand attitude toward two dramatically competing visions of the role government should play in a free society is a dangerous gamble. I believe there is sufficient middle ground on the proper purpose and design of the social safety net and the fundamentals of job creation and economic growth.
And I’m convinced that when both sides see unbending stubbornness as a winning political strategy, we all lose.
Our half-hour, animated debate didn’t win me a single point with Roger. In hindsight, I guess I didn’t really expect it to – precisely why I have a rule of thumb to avoid political discussions.
In our prayer before the meal, I specifically gave thanks for the grace of living in what is still the greatest nation on Earth. I still believe that – our dire economic and federal budget woes notwithstanding.
Like the tasty hors d’oeuvres of sausage made fresh at the corner butcher and served before our Thanksgiving dinner, I know the end result outweighs the ugly process of legislatively steering our country.
But that’s little comfort from the persistent indigestion and heartburn the heartland is getting from Washington these troubled days.