Politics Needs More Grown-Ups

Government has never lacked for callow windbags with straight teeth and crooked morals, but the junior varsity junta currently running things must be setting some sort of record for puerility. The maturity level of the flummery flingers holding federal office currently hovers somewhere between the terrible twos and that awkward stage of adolescence where everything is a spastic response to a hormone surge. There’s no doubt about it, we need more grown-ups in government.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. The most common grown-up response to the elementary school food fight that increasingly constitutes modern politics is not resistance but a migraine. The thought of taking on the chore of pulling Donald Trump off his mama’s tweet and telling Paul Ryan to stop squirting ideological milk out of his booger hole is enough to give anyone a headache. It’d be better if there was help from other partisan quarters. Mostly what’s over there, though, is the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They seem to be concentrating on showing the world they can expectorate moo juice further out their snoot shooters than Ryan can. Kids!

Believe it or not, we actually used to have people in government who had long outgrown the sort of playground slap fests that currently substitute for reasoned lawmaking. I was reminded of this the other week while reading the obituary of Robert Michel, who recently passed away at the ripe old age of 93. He spent nearly 40 years as a member of the House of Representatives, serving the last 14 as party leader. He was a conservative, he was a Republican, and he was a genuinely decent guy. Above all, though, he was a grown-up and his exit from politics offers some insight into the juvenilia his successors seem to be so enamored with. It also offers some sobering insights into why we’re not likely to see grown-ups come back to politics for some time.

Michel spent his entire congressional career in the minority—four stinking decades of second banana billing in the big house. These days being in opposition gives elected officials the fantods, prompting a good deal of foot stamping, thumb sucking, and a general lack of temper modulation. Actually, that also pretty much describes the majority party. While Michel certainly can’t have enjoyed being permanently outnumbered, temper tantrums weren’t his style. He fought his party’s corner hard, but he generally put good governance above scoring ideological points. He practiced politics as the art of the possible, angling to secure a gettable half-loaf rather than screaming for the entire bakery and having a conniption when he didn’t get it. He was GOP to his core, but this didn’t stop him from working with or respecting Democrats like Tip O’Neill, Tom Foley (both House speakers), and Dan Rostenkowski (long-time chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee). He even got on with Bill Clinton.

It was just these sorts of grown-up traits that cost him his political career. I spent an afternoon with him in his congressional office back in ’91 or ’92, and by then it was clear Republican back benchers were out for his blood, and he knew it. He told me in so many words that he was deeply worried about that crowd not because they were after his job—that was just business—but because they didn’t want to be grown-ups. What they wanted was power, they wanted it now, and they intended to use it to ram through a policy agenda with no lame-o Bob Michel compromises. That new generation was led by a rhetorical bomb thrower by the name of Newt Gingrich. Michel retired just before his own caucus could get their knives into him. Shortly after he left Democratic fortunes waned and the GOP finally got its majority.

And what did they do with that newfound power? Well they impeached Clinton for shagging interns, shut down the entire daggum gumint because if-we-can’t-have-it-no-one-can, pinkie-swore fealty to a mashup of moonbeams and hornswoggle called the Contract With America, and generally acted like teenagers who just found the keys to dad’s liquor cabinet. They didn’t want to work with Democrats and they didn’t respect them. Gingrich called them “traitors,” the party of “total bizarreness, total weirdness,” and, most famously, the “enemy of normal Americans.” Plus Dems had cooties, everyone knows that.

Newt didn’t last that long because his unwavering conservative principles coexisted with a set of moral standards that wavered like jelly on a jackhammer. While he was moralizing about Clinton’s horny-goat antics he was cheating on his wife. He got caught working dodgy financial side-deals that traded on his day job. He had the dubious distinction of being the first-ever Speaker to be reprimanded by the House for ethics violations. You might think that seeing Newt and his merry band of hucksters and hypocrites in action for a few years would leave people thinking, “is Bob Michel is still around? Think we could get him to run again?” If so, you’d be wrong. The main lesson learned was, “Hey, Newt won. Think if we called the Democrats booger heads we could win more elections?” The answer to that was, pretty much, yes. And that’s set the tone ever since. While primarily a phenomenon originating on the right, the left has enthusiastically joined in. The Democrats’ statesman-like response to being called booger heads was, in so many words, “oh yeah?  WELL YOU’RE ALL FART FACES.” Plus, they said it in all caps so you know they were serious.

With adult supervision somebody could have told both sides to stop poking each other with sticks before they put someone’s eye out. Increasingly, though, adults became thin on the ground in both political parties (especially in the House Republican caucus), and when they did show up the children ran them off or made their lives so miserable they were glad to get the hell out (see how happy Obama looks these days).

As you might imagine, putting the kids in charge doesn’t lend itself to rational decision making, or any decision making at all. House Republicans currently have what The New York Times politely calls a “wonk gap,” which is a nice way of saying that they have a caucus stuffed with way too many Newt Gingriches and not enough Bob Michels. They’ve got a lot of bumper sticker barnstormers who can get the base frothing at the mouth, but pitifully few of the compromise-oriented swotters and detail geeks that have the temperament and maturity to get things done. This makes it hard to enact policy even in the majority. Governing is hard. Who knew?

Well, we should have. Parents often get blamed for the behavior of naughty children, the general thinking being that kids who are irresponsible, obnoxious and generally incapable of playing nice with others must not be getting the right values and discipline at home. And in this case there’s a good deal of truth to that. The rascals in DC are not going change their behavior unless they get a good old fashioned ear bending—maybe even a butt spanking—from dear old mom and dad. And that’s us. As voters we collectively birthed that brat house and until they start acting like adults—which doesn’t seem likely any time soon—they’re our responsibility.  We used to be able to rely on the Bob Michels to herd the rotunda romper room toward governing responsibly. No more. There’s none of those guys left because as an electorate we pretty much abandoned them.

I say it’s high time we found some more Bob Michels. That first requires all of us to grow the heck up.