Blaming the American Civil War on the ineptitude of weak politicians, historian James G. Randall, writing in 1947, anticipated the post-election politics of the present lame duck season.
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Randall believed that the Civil War resulted from a failure of leadership and imagination. Downplaying slavery, states’ rights, industrialism and other probable causes of the irrepressible conflict, Randall skewered a generation of blundering politicians who were more interested in scoring points than averting war.
The Randall thesis is alive and well in the Obama-Boehner belief that the ship of state can be steadied through leadership and bipartisan compromise. “We’re ready to be led,” said John Boehner to Barack Obama even as the votes were still being counted. “We want you to lead — not as a liberal or a conservative, but as the president of the United States of America. We want you to succeed.”
The implication is that our problems are more rhetorical than substantive. The hope is that statesmanship, far-sighted and diplomatic, can do for American in 2012 what the blundering generation failed to do for the Union when the shelling hit Fort Sumter in 1861.
Too bad that Randall was wrong. No grand compromise preserved the Union because the problem at the root of the war ran deeper than politicians. Slavery—the most pervasive issue—was a chasm too profound to bridge with political speeches and legislative compromise.
Likewise, in the era of Obama-Boehner, the “fiscal cliff” has become media shorthand for a swirl of problems complex and profound. The rising costs of health care in an aging population. The decay of bridges and roads. The shrinking investment in public education. The decline of the middle class and its tax base. The waste of corporate welfare. The influence of money in politics. The obstructionism of the filibuster. These are the trend lines running deep in the fractured foundation of a house still badly divided.
Some conflicts are too fundamental for handshakes alone to resolve.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.