Round Pegs in Square Holes

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Round Pegs in Square Holes.

They don’t work, or so we should have discovered first hand in kindergarten. It’s a very primary lesson BUT not much help in politics. I could have started this mumbling with a more dramatic flair: my husband commented the other day, “Republican presidents seem to get more done.” But didn’t want to prejudice readers of the other stripe right off the bat, because I too tend to vote for the Democrats. Yet, in polarized times like these, when even what I’d call smart Democrats and smart Republicans are getting sucked further into antagonism, I wake up in the wee hours trying to turn those round and square, triangular and hexagonal pegs for further inspection.

Let’s examine the “debt ceiling” for all its worth. In simple terms, raising the debt ceiling meant that the federal government had congressional authorization to borrow enough to keep paying its debts. Since we’re in a recession, with more drain on the federal coffers than they can long sustain, such a move looked at first glance like the wrong peg for the hole. Yet it was not. We’d just witnessed abroad what happens when governments fail to pay their debts. Internal and external chaos ensues. The debt ceiling had to be raised, but with compensating adjustments to some of the other huge expenditures like social security which are becoming financially insecure.

Why did the Republicans and some Democrats in Congress resist raising the debt ceiling? Because they had become so blinded by “round peg in round hole” thinking that they couldn’t step toward a more complicated version of what fits where. Now comes the fun part: I’m going to tell you my night thoughts about this radicalization.

First, the Republicans who hate federal government interference so profoundly that they’re ready to shuck the whole mess and disband the union. I suspect them of white-washing more personal prejudices. It is profoundly not politically correct these days to protest African-Americans or other people of color in politics. We have elected an African-American president (though my husband the extreme liberal corrects me: “He’s half white and half Kenyan.” Forget that, I say, in the eyes of most Americans President Obama looks African-American.) White privilege is alive and well in the United States, especially the further one gets from the city center. Statistics suggest that the largest growing population in the U.S. is Hispanic. Someday we may become a dual-language country.

Then there are the two enormously sensitive personal issues that tap into religious feelings: abortion and same-sex marriage. Along some highways leading from the Twin Cities into the Minnesota hinterlands, billboards announce that babies in the womb are alive, fully human. They feel pain. We will be practicing homicide if we practice abortion. I don’t question the weight of belief and emotion that helped erect these messages. And that weight bears down in favor of hometown round pegs which desperately want to fit into round holes. It refuses to consider what another child born to a family already strapped economically could mean homelessness or worse. Or what an unwanted pregnancy could do to a high school student whose family is rigidly Christian and will ostracize her or worse. It refuses to look at individual cases and consider how they deviate from a norm.

Now let’s take a look in the other direction. Most Democrats like to think of themselves as the party of rationality. We are not hobbled by round peg-square hole problems. Wrong, I say. Here are some recent personal and more public examples: my own congressional rep, Democrat Betty McCollum has recently taken three extreme positions on what I consider crucial issues:
* the new bridge over the St. Croix from Stillwater into Wisconsin. She resists any bridge at all.
* raising the debt ceiling. She voted against doing so.
* presenting to Congress and passing new trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Columbia. She opposes these trade agreements.

A few days ago we drove to Stillwater. The downtown was clogged with cars. Have you noticed, despite the growing evidence of global warming, Americans are driving larger and larger vehicles. Or is it only Minnesotans? The once sleepy small town of Stillwater, with its narrow main street running parallel to the river, had a traffic jam to rival the log jams that used to clog the river. A new bridge over the river is crucial to the health of this town. New approaches will divert traffic from the downtown, hopefully returning it to manageable proportions. Yes, the river is part of the Scenic Rivers designation, protected from development, but a variance has been allowed to build a new bridge. Betty McCollum is taking a rigid position on this–she’s being a steward of the river, but not looking at the traffic problems within the town itself.

Raising the debt ceiling was, in my opinion, one of the most difficult but crucial votes in the Congress for years. When at the last instant there was a compromise, McCollum along with Al Franken voted against it. What’s with these extreme Dems? I hear my husband’s voice: “Republican presidents get more done.” He would add that the Democrats usually go along with a Republican president; whereas with Dem presidents, Republicans don’t follow that pattern. I’d counter, “Look at this! Clearly in a issue of national importance, two of our own Minnesota Dems opted out.” This is resistance at the other extreme.

Ditto on these proposed trade agreements that will erase protective tariffs against American goods in three trading partners. Here my very liberal husband has a knee-jerk reaction, hates the World Trade Agreement passed during the Clinton administration so much–which allowed American corporations to export jobs overseas yet still claim all the advantages of being listed as American corporations, that he thinks this is the same thing. “No, ” I insist. “This is a different kind of trade agreement. It will open countries to American goods. It will make American goods less expensive in these countries. Canada and the European Union have already signed agreements with these three countries. Get with it!” Am I not surprised that Betty McCollum has also come out against the agreements?

In such antagonistic times, it’s harder to assess any issue on its own merit. Time to hold these various shapes in our hands and think deeper night thoughts.

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