October 15, 2013

Endangered handshake, sick nation

As Americans clamored to buy affordable health insurance early this month, the need was underscored by a sickening shutdown of the federal government. The 800,000 furloughed federal workers included about half of the Health and Human Services staff. As a result, the National Institutes of Health has delayed potentially life-saving clinical trials.

The absence of food-borne illness experts at the Centers for Disease Control likely exacerbated the salmonella outbreak that infected 250 people in 18 states, according to The New York Times. The shutdown reportedly is complicating the CDC’s flu vaccine program. Belated or fewer inspections by the Food and Drug Administration increase the risk of consuming tainted imported foods. The Hill reports that the EPA has suspended enforcement of air and water safeguards.

The shutdown heightened anxiety among beneficiaries of federal aid and otherwise taxed the national psyche. “One thing that does affect happiness significantly and over a long period of time is what you think about your government,” former Harvard University President Derek Bok told Charlie Rose during a PBS interview in June 2011. “The more you respect your government, the more you think it’s free of corruption and reasonably efficient, the happier you are,” Bok said while promoting his book, “The Politics of Happiness.” “Most people are upset with government because they don’t like the way it runs.”

It’s running on empty because the Republican-controlled House refused to fund the government without defunding President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. After the mostly Democratic Senate restored Obamacare’s lifeline, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, denied Democrats’ pleas to vote on the clean measure. With no resolution in sight, the conflict escalated. Obama said a minority of elected extremists had hijacked the GOP, and succumbing to their extortion would be a bad precedent. Members of Congress were likened to children — kids engrossed in a food fight, opined Gov. Steve Beshear. Less genteel metaphors referenced hostages, ransom and arson. Even before polls confirmed a plunge of confidence in the GOP, strategists strained to envision how Republicans would spin any outcome as a win.

Boehner, at the apex of frustration, snarled, “This isn’t some damn game.” But he knew better. It was political gamesmanship at its worst. Fearful of pissing off the Raucous Caucus and risking his position, he bought into the delusion they could hogtie the government, bully the president and gut his legacy — landmark legislation enacted by Congress, signed by the president and validated by his re-election as well as the Supreme Court. While Obamacare survives, Boehner’s brand is damaged — perhaps enough to lose control of the House. James Fallows of The Atlantic offers a path to redemption for Boehner: “The way he could earn a place in history — admiring chapters in ‘Profiles in Courage’-type books, and even a long swing on the university-lecture circuit — would be to defy his extremist minority. And eventually maybe he will.”

If fear hadn’t blurred foresight, Boehner might have shown the leadership needed to rescue the mainstream from the wing nuts who like to play chicken on manufactured fiscal cliffs. He might have been prescient enough to say, “Obamacare is the law of the land, and we need to get over it. This obsessive, futile conspiracy to kill it depletes our credibility and good will. Let’s accept it, take the high road and personify loyal opposition, for the sake of civility. Otherwise, we’re going to become the infamous party of hissy fits, sore losers and sour grapes.”

My own message is less diplomatic: Stop sickening America. Facilitate life, liberty and pursuit of happiness by cooperating. Avert unnecessary crises and risks. Every time you play chicken, you take us with you. The looming threat of defaulting on our debts and triggering a global recession makes my head explode. Some costs are predictable, many are hidden. Amid arrogance and recklessness, accidents happen. And there’s always incalculable collateral damage.

No one is comfortable with the notion of a nation in decline. Disturbingly, we seem resigned to deepening partisanship, indifference and alienation. Bless last week’s backlash against the Kentucky High School Athletic Association’s ban on post-game handshakes. Coaches need to be held accountable as mentors and role models of good sportsmanship. And win or lose, athletes can’t master grace, humility and good will if they’re not compelled to interact. Beware the rising costs of falling expectations.