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Commentary: Can Mandela's legacy revive the GOP?

by on December 12, 2013 10:40 AM

Political elites of all persuasions shoveled monuments of praise upon the legacy of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. They lauded the lessons he taught the world about the power and virtue of leadership based on love and respect, not hate and vengeance.

Mandela’s goal of governance was always prosperity for his homeland and every person in it — never payback for enemies who treated him hatefully. Once a leftist revolutionary and always a master of symbolism, Mandela emerged from 27 years of imprisonment and invited his white Afrikaner jailers to be his guests at his Inauguration as South Africa’s first black president.

Now, we can only wonder: Can Mandela’s legendary eschewing of the politics of hate teach anything to Washington partisans who play politics with a vengeance? Can Mandela’s lesson properly shame Washington politicians who gleefully scheme to make their opponents fail — even when this willful failure delays America’s pursuit of prosperity? For years, we have witnessed Washington’s decent to its de facto status of Hate City — and yet we, as citizens, put up with it. We watch politicos peacock around in our living rooms, on our screens. Then we re-elect our own senators and representatives — and complain everyone else’s.

But frankly, blame for Hate City’s dysfunction must be shared by we who watch it from our way-too-cozy confines inside the Capitol Beltway. Journalists too often think the way to provide balance is through fulcrum journalism: balancing one distortion from the far right with a distortion from the far left. Which means voters never do hear the straight-ahead truth.

(This civic disservice is heightened by news organizations that concluded it is financially profitable be unbalanced. As in cable television’s unbalancing acts at MSNBC and Fox News, and the distortion artists of the blogosphere.) But a balanced pursuit of truth — when done most skillfully — will often not result in a balanced sharing of the blame. And this is the journalism that America most needs these days, yet often never gets. That’s why one of the greatest journalistic services in recent years was produced not by a traditional Washington news organization, but by two down-the-middle scholars at two esteemed, yet ideologically different think tanks.

Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (which is considered right-of-center) and Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution (which is considered center-left) teamed up years ago to produce serious studies on the increasing dysfunction of Congress.

Their excellent 2012 book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” remains today’s most valuable lens for seeing why Washington doesn’t work. After studying Congress’ debt-limit dodges, brinksmanship games threatening default and disastrously arbitrary sequester budget cut, they concluded we are no longer in an era of balanced blame. “The Republican Party,” Mann and Ornstein wrote, “has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; ... scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science. ... When one party moves this far from the center of American politics, it is extremely difficult to enact policies responsive to the country’s most pressing challenges.”

This autumn’s health care rollout debacle revealed how much President Barack Obama — and America — needed sincere Republican help to make the Affordable Care Act (which was built upon a conservative market-based foundation) succeed. But many Republicans mainly wanted to deny Obama a success and today they privately are high-fiving every Obamacare snafu.

Today, as health care, tax reform, entitlement reform, debt reduction and climate change demand urgent attention, Americans of all persuasions desperately need a rebirth of a strong, two-party Washington. And an end to the dysfunction that is Hate City.

That means America needs Republican leaders who will embrace the Mandela leadership credo the world celebrated this week — and put their country’s prosperity ahead of their own. That’s not socialism. It’s patriotism.

Martin Schram is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. His column is distributed by McClatchy-Tribune News Service. Email him at
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